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Taking Back Hotel Dining: Culina at Four Seasons Los Angeles

Recession? What recession? Some brave restaurateurs are defying the economic gloom and doom and opening new places. We’re taking a look at the design behind a select few. Next up, Culina, reinventing the hotel restaurant at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles.

Nothing serves up visions of powdered-egg buffets and stuffy, overpriced steaks faster than the phrase “hotel dining.” But in recent years, the Four Seasons has been breaking with tradition, creating spaces within their hotels that feel like independent culinary landmarks. “It used to be the rule that hotels needed to offer a three-meal restaurant and a fine dining venue, but that model has changed, particularly in urban food-savvy markets,” says Jennifer Johanson, president and CEO of San Rafael, California-based EDG Interior Architecture + Design, who has worked on Four Seasons properties on Vancouver, Austin, Texas, and now Los Angeles. With EDG’s help, Culina, located at the Four Seasons in L.A., has been able to consolidate all types of diners into a single space appropriate for everything from espresso to prosecco.

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The trick for the design was to create a space that worked as a casual gathering place, even within the luxury context of the hotel. For that, they turned to the enotecas of Italy: simple neighborhood wine bars that serve local, artisanal meals. “We balance simplicity with elegance,” says Johanson. “Rustic-modern wood tables signal informality, and the absence of tablecloths is a welcoming gesture; stylish table settings and rich fabrics let you know that the experience will be special.” In fact, the entire space is engineered for impromptu, lingering meals: Communal and counter seating, a small and shared-plate format, an accessible wine program, and a spacious garden for lounging.

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To make the space feel activated morning, noon and night, EDG drew the bar and lounge–normally separate entities–into the restaurant. Diners walk directly into the bustle of a crudo bar, an Italian raw-seafood station with its aromaticoils, herbs and salts creating ahigh-energy center of the room. Servers stay on the floor and interact with guests instead of hiding in the kitchen, and even food preparation itself is brought into the dining room, with tableside service and action-oriented beverage presentation.

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Even though casual was the mandate, EDG also had to address the needs of the Four Seasons’ regular clientele: celebrities. “While privacy is often at a premium in Los Angeles, so is the need to ‘see and be seen,'” says Johanson. A VIP lounge does both: It’s shielded with art glass that holds the bar’s wine, liquors and grappa, and a two-way mirror allows celebs to scope the scene for paparazzi before heading into the restaurant.

Rather than be a convenient option for which hotel guests would settle, Culina has become a destination: a place that foodies flock and locals meet. The result has been nothing less than transformative for the hotel. “We’ve seen jaws drop when customers who knew the old restaurant arrive,” says Johanson. “We’re looking forward to seeing the restaurant evolve with the neighborhood as it comes into its own.”

Location: Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, 300 South Doheny Drive

Date it opened: March 3, 2010

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Chef and cuisine: Victor Casanova serves an intersection of traditional and modern Italian cuisine featuring crudo, hand-crafted pizza, small plates and seasonal specialties.

Designer: EDG Interior Architecture + Design: Jennifer Johanson, Yoko Ishihara, Mark Wilson

Design brief: Create a contemporary destination restaurant with a welcoming neighborhood feel, a showcase for modern cuisine with an independent sensibility at the Four Seasons.

What went before: Gardens Restaurant and the Café, a traditional hotel restaurant with brocade drapery and double tablecloths which was divided into several rooms and foyers.

Design highlights: Communal tables made from 200-year-old wind-felled magnolia, a cascade of blown glass orbs that hang in the room like bubbles, a fire and water feature in the patio area.

Special features: Crudo served on salt blocks, etched long-hand script of Italian recipes on the wine room windows.

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato

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