When a team of New Yorkers came down to Philly to open an all-day cafe at 2929 Walnut Street, on the border between Center City and University City, they faced a few challenges that went beyond the unusual location. Walnut Street Cafe’s managing director Branden McRill, together with Parts and Labor Design, had to figure out a way to turn a glass box on the ground floor of the new FMC tower into an appealing destination for everything from a quick cup of coffee to a fine-dining dinner. And they pulled it off, earning raves for the restaurant’s aesthetics and winning the 2017 Eater Award for Design of the Year. Here’s how Walnut Street Cafe came together.
How did you initially approach this project?
Danu Kennedy, Parts and Labor design director: It needed to be a place that works from morning to night. Our challenge was to have a space that could be just as attractive as a breakfast spot and as a sexy bar. On the fine-dining side, it had to be approachable for a sit-down lunch, as well as for a really nice, intimate dining experience in the evening.
How did Walnut Street Cafe’s location in the FMC tower play into the design?
Kennedy: The existing building is essentially a glass box — very modern architecture. It’s beautiful, but we needed to work a little bit harder to create a sense of privacy from the exterior. We drew from the light, airy nature of the existing space and the tall ceilings. In the cafe/bar, we left the ceiling height as is, to create a dramatic entry point and accentuate the daylight. When you move through to the main dining side, we created custom privacy partitions and curved banquets that give you a barricade from the exterior, from the pavement outside, so that when you’re dining you don’t feel like people are walking past looking at you. And in the evening it allows the space to become more moody and intimate.
Do the two distinct spaces — the cafe, which turns into the bar, and the dining room — work together?
Kennedy: It was about having two distinct areas that have different functions but with an idea of the whole, of one space. So when you’re having a drink at the bar, you still feel connected to the hustle and bustle of the open kitchen, and when you’re in the main dining space, you feel connected to the liveliness of the bar.
What are some of the specific design elements that really stand out?
Jeremy Levitt, Parts and Labor co-founder: The decorative lighting, which we designed and custom built in our shop, is one thing that’s a standout throughout the space. In the main dining room, there’s a centerpiece, a very organic hand-blown piece. It’s got a high-end feel to it at first glance, but when you look more closely you realize it’s got some really nice handmade touches to it. There’s a lot of fun classic-looking designs and modern pieces all mixed together and falling in line with the palette of the space. It’s a feminine palette, but has some masculine moments.
There’s the tile work in the bar area juxtaposed with the bleached walnut floor in the main dining room. The beautiful green tones that go with the blues and with the pink barstool seats — pink is trendy, but we minimized the amount that we used; it’s not an overbearing detail. And beyond all that, there’s the use of monolithic forms, like the threshold that connects the dining room with the bar area — that shape creates an organic nature and softness in the space.
How did the menu tie into what you wanted the restaurant to look like?
Levitt: We always consider every component of the spaces we design. The materials we choose, the color of the dishes, the glasses — it should all be cohesive. One thing that was important to us, and to Branden and his team, was to have a showcase for the food. Melissa [Weller]’s pastries are so amazing, and we thought about not just how they taste, but how they look on the stone table in the cafe.
Branden McRill, managing director at Walnut Street Cafe: The project was very collaborative. We were working hand-in-hand, which led to things really playing well together. We were cognitive of all the decisions [Parts and Labor] were making, and we kept them in the loop on the decisions we were making, so everything would align. Like with the plateware: Some of it is traditional classic white but it has an interesting print on it, and we all looked together at which print to pick. It was circular. What we originally intended informed the design, and the design informed our content — it kept going around and people kept getting inspired, leading to more creativity.
Do diners comment on the space when they come in?
McRill: The comment we get most often is how versatile the space is. You walk in through the vestibule and you’re facing the host stand, and you’re put to a decision: Turn to the left and go into this extremely high-ceilinged, light, bright, open area where you can sit at the bar or cafe tables or the counter. Or turn right and you’re in a room where the ceiling is lower, the chairs are plusher, the banquets are larger, the tables are bigger. Or you could get your coffee and croissant and take it up into the mezzanine and hang out there. You can come in for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and everything is available everywhere.
And that ties back to the initial idea of Walnut Street as an all-day cafe.
McRill: We wanted to make a space where people felt comfortable, where they would have access to a lot of different styles of content at different price points. Where they could choose the environment regardless of how much money they were spending. Because sometimes when people make a fancy space, or a higher-end space or elevated space or any of the words people use to describe the elements of the restaurant, that goes with high prices. And that was something we were totally against. We wanted the restaurant to be approachable and welcoming.
Walnut Street Cafe received the 2017 Eater Award for Design of the Year. Read the interview with Joey Baldino of Restaurant of the Year winner Palizzi Social Club here. The feature on Chef of the Year Michael Solomonov is here.