FOOD : Morphosis Ascending : The Designers of 72 Market St. Bring Roadside Redux to Beverly Hills

<i> Sam Hall Kaplan, The Times' design critic, is the author of "L.A. Lost & Found: An Architectural History of Los Angeles" (Crown). </i>

“No more restaurant designs for us for a while. This is it,” architect Michael Rotondi says, standing in the middle of Kate Mantilini, a Beverly Hills diner that looks as if it has jumped in a single bound from the 1930s into the 21st Century. “I think we’ve gone about as far we could for now.”

If Rotondi’s statement on behalf of himself and his partner, Thom Mayne, and their firm, Morphosis, seemed a bit presumptuous, it was only reflecting their architecture. In becoming Los Angeles’ hottest restaurant designers, the firm has consciously rejected traditional or trendy themes and instead has sought to reflect in its creations no less than the complexities of construction and the contradictions of society itself. Presumptuous, yes. But also exciting, and the stuff that generates interest and attracts customers, not an unimportant aspect in the anxiety-ridden restaurant business. More and more restaurateurs are realizing that dining out is an experience that goes beyond the food, and having a visually engaging setting may in some cases be more important than the meal. The design of the recently opened Kate Mantilini provides an excellent illustration.

Glistening inside a former bank building at the corner of Doheny Drive and Wilshire Boulevard, Kate Mantilini is the fourth and the most ambitious restaurant undertaken in the last six years by Morphosis. “The owner (Marilyn Lewis of Hamburger Hamlet) wanted a 24-hour roadside steak house for the future, a ‘50s diner, updated, a place where cabdrivers hang out, a very accessible place,” Rotondi recalls. “And she wanted a clock.”

She got it, and then some.

The “old” building embraces the “new” building, which is expressed in a wall framing a row of intimate booths facing the street. More public is the dining room, which under a soaring ceiling lit like the sky forms a space not unlike a piazza. Lending more life to the proceedings is a sleek, busy counter, a giant mural of a fight scene and what looks like an exploded sundial. (Actually, it is an orrery, a mechanical contraption that is supposed to illustrate the relative movements and positions of objects in the solar system.)

While the orrery doesn’t move as it ought to, it does pierce through the 14-foot-diameter skylight, providing the restaurant with a dramatic focal point. It also is the DNA of the building, containing the genetic coding of the design, whisper the architects. (For more clues, check out the etching in the floor.)


As for the total design, “I like to call it an architectural happening, aspiring to authenticity,” Mayne says, sitting in one of the restaurant’s wood-detailed booths and looking out at the design with the concern of a parent watching a child walk for the first time. The comment could also serve as an apt description of the firm’s three earlier restaurant designs, each of which has been variously honored by the architectural profession and the press.

The first was L. A. Nicola, in Silver Lake, where in 1981, constrained by a low budget, the architects exposed ductwork and walls to create a raw, lean space, then set if off from the street with a foyer of corrugated sheet metal. “It was very difficult because we wanted to create a generic neighborhood place yet also explore some architectural ideas,” Rotondi explains. “It was a real learning experience for us, which we applied to our next job.”

That was 72 Market St., in Venice, where--thanks to a much more generous budget provided by owner Tony Bill and a host of show-biz investors--Rotondi and Mayne pushed restaurant design a little farther into space, literally blowing the roof off. “We wanted to make something new in something old; we needed more space, so we raised the ceiling from a height of 13 feet to its present 24 feet,” Rotondi says. The design also incorporated street materials in a gesture to the character and spirit of the restaurant’s location. The effect is busy, which while not pleasing to all is architecture with a capital A.

Also making a gesture to the street--but a street of a different character--is Morphosis’ Angeli Caffe, on Melrose. The facade of the restaurant is clad with oxidized steel, out of which juts a raw beam. The interior is a little more relaxed, with whimsical detailing in the placement of beams. In using raw materials, the architects say they wanted the design to be “authentic,” in contrast to the decoration and supergraphics of many of the other establishments along the trendy street.

Realists also, Rotondi and Mayne recognize that restaurateurs are not interested in architecture as much as they are interested in creating a singular establishment that generates attention. “People want us to do the same thing we did for 72 Market, or Angeli’s, and now Kate’s,” Rotondi says. “They want us to repeat ourselves, and that is what I worry about. I want to look for new challenges (among them is a cancer-care center at Cedars-Sinai). You can say our restaurant phase is over, for now.” As so many chefs in the restaurant business do, the architects are moving on. But their recipes that created a revolution of sorts in restaurant design will continue to be tested and served.