No one has more influence on the way Twin Cities restaurants look and operate than David Shea. His 50-member architecture/design/marketing firm has designed more than 300 restaurants around the world. On the occasion of Shea Design’s 40th anniversary, its leader discussed early projects, restaurant design trends and his go-to dining room perch.
Q: Your firm designs banks, retail stores, offices and other commercial projects. How did you come to specialize in restaurants?
A: I’ve always been fascinated with things that touch the consumer: interior design, graphic design, marketing. It was all in the back of my head. I wasn’t into building big buildings, even though they change the skyline. I was interested in how people change when they’re affected by something close by. All people have to eat, and they have to go and see things, the socialization of it. That’s all stayed pretty close to me, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.
Q: What was your first restaurant client?
A: The first one at my own firm was Leeann Chin, in the Bonaventure shopping center in Minnetonka.
Q: That was a remarkable debut, because it was so groundbreaking, at least to me, in its serene, gallery-like environment. That was in 1980. How did it come about?
A: I’m fascinated with the idea of changing the paradigm of things. She [Chin] had a phenomenal gift for making simple food elegant, and so I figured that if she could do that with food, I could do that with the space. I thought, “What can you do to transform the space, to make the dining experience exciting, and interactive, and to establish a sense of community?” We built a buffet table, with chafing dishes. It sounds like a hotel, but it became a place where she could showcase all of her products. It was elegant and approachable. I didn’t get the chance to open up the kitchen, to make that part of the theater — that’s something we do 99 percent of the time now — but the buffet created an interaction between food and people. That’s how we engaged people.
At most of the Chinese restaurants at the time, there was stuff everywhere, and lots of red and black. But we went the other way and asked ourselves, “What is the essence of it? What is the beauty of it?” Our idea was to declutter, to make it simple, and to use muted tones, taupes and grays. We curated the experience from the beginning. I remember taking Leeann over to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. You take a cloisonné bowl — it probably cost $75 — but you put it in a glass case, and all of the sudden it’s fancy, it has a sense of presence. It was a destination, and it was an immediate success.
Q: Do you have a favorite kind of client? Besides one with an unlimited budget, of course.
A: Look at all the times over the years when I’ve said, “Look what I did with little or no money.” The people with no money, they’re often some of the better clients, because that situation forces you to be creative. We’re spending lots of money at Disney doing a major 22,000-square-foot restaurant for the Patina Restaurant Group, and it’s fantastic. We’ve done tons of chains, we just finished adding 150 seats to Fogo de Chão. But I also like the idea of working with Latitude 14. She’s a young woman who has a place up in Brooklyn Park, and she’s putting in a new one in Golden Valley, where we’re transforming an old Perkins, and we’re paying attention to every single dollar. Or look at Lovechild, down in La Crosse [Wis.]. Such wonderful people, with such a passion for what they do. They didn’t have any money, but we used creativity to make that happen.
Q: Of the hundreds of restaurants you’ve designed, are there any that you file into a personal Hall of Fame?
A: It’s the kind of thing where, when I leave someone off the list, it’ll come back and bite me. But yes, there are some that I feel really good about. There’s Gavin [Kaysen, of Spoon and Stable, which was a 2015 James Beard Award nominee for design, and Bellecour]. I didn’t know him from anybody until I looked him up. But he was coming back home to raise his family, and first off, that’s a great story. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he has a great talent. And it became a watershed thing.
Minneapolis has always had phenomenal homegrown talent, from Tim McKee, to Alex Roberts, to Isaac Becker. Gavin is homegrown, but he came back with a new level of enthusiasm, and I felt it was important for me to be able to work with him, and create something, and help change the neighborhood, the way that Eric Dayton did when he created the Bachelor Farmer. I felt a great partnership.
Q: Are there any Twin Cities restaurants — that you didn’t design — that you admire?
A: Oh, yes, I like a number of them. I think Martina is good. It’s simple. I like how they exposed the rawness of the space. And I like what Alex Roberts did with his cafe and hotel over at Alma. That’s a good combination of things. I like what he chose to do, and I love the way that parts of it were executed.
Q: You’re constantly traveling. Based on your observations, what’s missing in the local restaurant scene?
A: I loved it when we did the Midtown Global Market, because it started bringing other cultures in. When I’m traveling, I’m always looking for new things to bring back, whether it’s tandoor ovens or grills from Patagonia. I’m not shy when I have conversations with chefs and restaurateurs. I’ll say, “Have you seen this?” That’s a crucial thing that I’ve been advocating: Have a worldwide experience in what you do, and use them with the things that we know and love from here.
Q: How often do you dine out?
A: Every night. Except for the summertime, when we cook on the weekends at our house on the lake in the country. Travel is a big piece of it. When we travel, it’s maybe three or four restaurants a night. I’m not a food critic, but I need to learn, I need to see what other people are doing. You can look on the internet, but it’s not the same. That doesn’t get you sitting at a chef’s counter, right beside April Bloomfield and watching as she opens up her Hearth & Hound, which was what we were doing the other night in L.A. You have to see, and smell, and observe. The choreography of it all, I’m fascinated with that.
Q: When you dine out, where do you like to sit?
A: At the bar — or a kitchen counter — always. A high-top is like an observation post. And there’s a huge amount of interaction. I want to be close to the talent, to watch the chefs as they prepare things; I’ve got to be in the middle of it. And if there are cocktails or wine, inevitably we’re talking with the people around us. There’s socialization with the people beside you. Dining should be a social experience.
Q: What’s trendy right now?
A: There’s more honesty in design right now. It’s about reducing down the amount of flourish, and placing the focus on the food and the service. It’s about making the environment conducive to having a good social experience. What consumers see on the internet, and on TV food shows, they’re all drivers. People are looking for something unique. We just opened Surly Pizza Upstairs, and it’s a crazy, immediate success. Everyone loves pizza, sure. But Ben [Peine, the restaurant’s chef] was fascinated with New Haven-style pizzas. That’s the idea: finding things that appeal to a wide group of people, but with a twist to it, a change that makes it slightly different.
Q: Why are so many restaurants so loud?
A: There are places like Butcher & the Boar. We wanted it to be loud. It was meant to be that cacophony of sonics and sounds, and there’s a place for that kind of restaurant. Then if you’re out at Bellecour, we purposely created it so that there’s enough sound in it, so there’s energy in the space, but you need to tune it. We spend a lot of time thinking about it. It isn’t just hanging acoustical panels on the wall or in the ceiling. My phone has a decibel reader in it, and I was using it last weekend in L.A. Some of the places were, “Oh my god, it’s so loud in here,” and others were too quiet — there was nothing going on.
Q: Will you ever retire?
A: Never. Why would you? I’m having way too much fun. There are way too many things to learn. There are way too many places to go. As long as you have your health — and even if you don’t — you still need to move forward. That’s why we do cycling in South Africa or China, or wherever. You experience things — sights, sounds, smells — from the seat of a bicycle that you don’t get from a car, or a bus. You get a chance to absorb all that, plus you can work off all the eating and drinking if you’re bicycling.