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High Stakes

Design

Understated but highly detailed, the interiors of Ruth’s Chris Steak House complement the cuisine without drawing too much attention away from it, Says Selina Denman.

Reviews of the recently-launched Ruth’s Chris Steak House barely mention its interiors.

The awkward sounding name is always commented upon; its impressive location within The Monarch Hotel, No.1 Sheikh Zayed Road, is often alluded to; and the lean, juicy steaks that are Ruth’s Chris’ specialty are eulogised at length. Its interiors, however, receive limited attention.

That, explained Gavin Mackenzie, senior design manager of Outcast, the Dubai-based firm responsible for the art deco-inspired interiors, was the point. The design is meant to act as an accompaniment to the food, rather than a distraction away from it.
 

“Reviews don’t mention the design, which means we have answered the brief,” Mackenzie said. “The aim was to create an ambience that brings people back – because it complements what the client is trying to achieve.

“Design with no purpose is just called art. As a designer you have to make something that works. The whole point of interior design in a restaurant is that you are part of a wider frame. And in this case, the whole thing works. The restaurant will be very successful not just because of the food or the design but because of the whole environment and atmosphere,” Mackenzie continued.

Protein and starch
Currently the largest fine-dining company in the US, Ruth’s Chris Steak House is already present in some 129 locations across the globe.

The slightly odd sounding name is explained thus: there was a Chris Steak House. Ruth took it over but then it burnt down. The original contract didn’t allow for the opening of another Chris Steak House on a different site, so Ruth’s Chris was born in New Orleans in 1965.

“The concept is old guard steak house – your protein and starch concept,” explained Daniel Clayton, general manager of the new Dubai restaurant.

Because it is not what the local market would traditionally term as ‘fine dining’, Ruth’s Chris Steak House has positioned itself as a ‘premium dining’ establishment, intent on carving a niche for itself at the high end of the market by offering quality cuisine and prices to match.

The restaurant’s UPS is the finest USDA prime steak, prepared in a very precise fashion – broiled at 1,800ºF on trademark Montague grills, and then served on plates that are warmed to 500ºF.

Perhaps surprisingly, dealing with an established brand with a strong existing identity impacted only slightly on the design of the Dubai branch, according to Justin Penketh, managing director of Outcast.

Even though the restaurant is part of a wider franchise, there were only a few ground rules that had to be followed. In keeping with the focus on good food, table sizes were pre-ordained and strict guidelines were set down for the design of the kitchen. “There was no flexibility with the kitchen – that’s where the franchise element came in,” noted Mackenzie.

“There were certain things that were set. For example, you are always met at a reception and shown to your table, so we had to incorporate that into the design too,” he added.

“We are a family of restaurants and each one is different,” Clayton pointed out. There was recognition at all levels that a formula that might have proven successful in the US might not translate comfortably in the UAE. “We had to Dubai-ise it; to bling it up,” he joked.

Bar none
Isolated incidents of ‘bling’ reoccur throughout the space, most notably in the bar area, where a sense of self-confident, old-school glamour presides.

One whole wall is adorned in black leather; marble coats the bar’s surface and upstands; red, crocodile leather bar stools and lounge seats inject a vibrant splash of colour; and wooden flooring reinforces the comfortable, all-encompassing nature of the space.

“One of my joys is designing bars,” Mackenzie admitted. “This is where the glitz and glamour come in, but in a small area. It is moody, cosy and secluded, like a dining room in Paris.”

The restaurant’s location in a shariah-compliant hotel dictated that the bar would act only as a holding area, rather than a fully-fledged attraction in its own right. This presented a design challenge that Outcast was able to overcome by creating an intimate pocket nestled inconspicuously into one corner.

“We created a space that was not immediately visible to people dining in the restaurant or even walking past. It is actually possible to have a meal in the restaurant and leave without even noticing the bar – which was quite a design challenge,” Penketh said.

Overtones of glamour are also inherent in the elaborate crystal chandeliers that tumble elegantly from the ceilings elsewhere in the restaurant. “Again, we wanted to bring in a bit of glitz and glamour, and the lighting and crystals are part of that. Everything else is pretty angular and straightforward,” commented Mackenzie.

The underlying inspiration for the restaurant was a classical dining room, with strong art deco influences from the 1920s and 30s. A simple yet striking colour scheme favours beige, black and red – but while the design is subtle and understated, it is also extremely rich, Penketh pointed out.

“We were careful not to overdesign, but every inch of the space contains some level of detail. It is a very rich design but we’ve created something that is comfortable and that you are not overwhelmed by,” he elaborated. “There is an incredible amount of work in the detailing and this grows on you as you sit in the restaurant.”

Sculpted ceilings
The depth of the design is intended to reveal itself only upon closer inspection. Ceilings, for example, have been carefully sculpted, with different layers, coffered effects and elaborate inlays acting as a sophisticated differentiator of spaces.
“Ceilings are an important element in restaurants at the high end of the market. You have to use them to define the space.

“We’ve also used the ceiling to create perspective and to give the impression of more space. Most people don’t look up when they go into a restaurant but part of our aim was to make sure that the longer you spend in there, the more you notice how much is going on,” Penketh explained.

The carefully considered nature of the design also reveals itself in the seating, which was all conceptualised from scratch and manufactured in Dubai.

Different types and heights of seating create choice for diners, as well as visual contrast across the space. Along one side of the restaurant, red banquet seating melds itself into curved booths cut into the wall to create secluded, semi-enclosed cocoons.

Elsewhere, statuesque, free-standing seats in black and beige leather stand almost throne-like. Sturdy, high-backed and all-enveloping, these seats promote comfort and accessibility, a central characteristic of the design.

“There’s a really exclusive feel to every table. You almost get the feel of private dining in every place that you sit,” Penketh said.

Client relations
Outcast was also responsible for the project management of Ruth’s Chris, which is why the relatively young firm is happy to present the restaurant as its signature project.

Intent on establishing itself as a company that does things a little differently, Outcast made a point of establishing open and clear channels of communication with the client, and ensuring that they were involved every step of the way.

This made sure that when the design impacted on the operational efficiency of the space, necessary changes could be made immediately, with minimum fuss. “Anyone can produce a fancy picture, but that’s not what it’s about. Our objective is to be friends with the clients after the project has been completed!

“Spatial constraints, time constraints, budgetary constraints and client interference are the four things working against you as a designer. It is our job to work within these constraints, and be answerable to the client,” Penketh maintained.

“If we can’t sit down with a client and explain our design clearly enough for them to understand it, what chance do we have with people walking into the restaurant?”

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June 2020
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