Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

June 2009

Breaking Theme

Neil Denari's design for Street


Architecture, Articles, Neil Denari

There are some unexpected pairings at Street, the restaurant recently opened in Los Angeles by the chef Susan Feniger. Take, for example, the menu, which draws on pushcart offerings from around the world: Korean mung-bean pancakes and Thai curries face off but don’t fuse. The least likely union, however, has to be between Feniger, famed as a co-owner of the Border Grill and a co-host of the 1990s Food Network show Too Hot Tamales, and Street’s architect, the coolly cerebral Neil Denari.

Located behind a dark, billboardlike facade on Highland Avenue, with the word Street scrawled in neon, the 1,800-square-foot eatery is Denari’s first restaurant design. Feniger, whose past ventures skewed more toward loungy Mexican than rigorous Modernism, chose Denari precisely for his contemporary point of view. “Susan didn’t hire us to make a theme restaurant,” Denari says. “The design is not about a vernacular or about any rough or collaged surfaces. We agreed that the food would do much of the work of Street.”

Denari’s interior is an abstract interplay of curved surfaces rendered in chocolate-stained poplar and Sriracha-sauce-red paint. While sketchy murals by the London artists Su Huntley and Donna Muir evoke graffiti—a nod to urban street culture—they are whimsically stylized to complement the architecture. “A restaurant needs to be seriously designed but can’t take itself too seriously,” Feniger says. She wanted the space to be warm and inviting, a request that pushed Denari to experiment with color and materials. “Everyone thinks of our work as all white or sea-foam green, but there is not a white surface in the space,” he points out.

With rich wood planks wrapping the walls and ceiling, the double-height dining room feels surprisingly cozy. In a signature Denari move, the surface folds to create the canopy over the bar. A vibrant splash of color (the stair’s orange-and-red handrail) defines the mezzanine. But there is a tension between the architect’s studied forms and the exuberant murals, which Feniger, who has worked with the artists on previous projects, thinks reflect the spirit of her food. Indoors, Denari keeps the art in check by containing it in voids under the mezzanine and above the bar.

Only in the courtyard are Huntley and Muir’s drawings given free reign. Here, diners sit under 70-foot-tall palms at tables surrounding a fire pit. The neglected backside of a billboard hovers over the patio. It’s a typical Los Angeles culture clash: a Michelin-worthy menu, a sophisticated global design, and some grit from the road.