By Marsha Fottler – (Photos by – Rod Millington)
When we dine out we eat with our eyes. Chefs strive to turn out meals that look as good on the plate as they taste on the tongue and consumers are spoiled enough to take that for granted in high-end culinary palaces and at casual-dining restaurants too.
But we want even more for our dining-out dollars. We mandate that the menu accurately explain the food and we want the restaurant architecture to support the menu, plate presentation and the food. What we increasingly demand is cuisine theater – lights, mood, music, expert service and great design. That’s why savvy restaurateurs are routinely hiring famous architects, interior designers and lighting experts when they dream up an original concept for just one restaurant or a series of them.
A successful example of everything coming together for cuisine theater is a new, moderately-priced restaurant in a beach town in southwest Florida called Carmel Cafe. The food here is Modern Mediterranean with a lot of small-plate options and platters for sharing. And a solid wine list. Carmel Cafe exemplifies how people want to eat today.
The menu is so modern it’s available on iPADs for the young techy set (yes, there’s also a paper version for traditionalists). The menu wording is brief but it describes each dish so that you know you’re in a place that serves modern riffs on classic dishes from all the countries of the Mediterranean.
What makes Carmel Cafe’s whole greater than its parts, is the evocative interior of this restaurant. The owners hired award-winning architect, Albert Alfonso, who designed the imaginative Chilhuly Museum in Tampa and who has a great understanding of strong color and and how to effectively use space. He created a huge vibrant three-panel jazzy painting as the centerpiece for the restaurant along with a wine wall that defines a semiprivate dining area that the restaurant management converts into a tasting room for special occasions. (Wine walls are becoming quite trendy in home dining rooms).
There’s a soft seating area in one section with plush red sofas, club chairs and side tables. Order a glass of wine, some nibbles and unwind with friends. There’s also a community table, cozy booths and square tables for two or four. The color palette references Mediterranean countries and the original lighting is warm and sophisticated. The ambiance says comfort, urban, stylish and relaxed.
It also doesn’t hurt that one of the owners of Carmel Cafe is Chris Sullivan, one of the partners who started Outback Steakhouse, a fabulously successful chain that has merged concept, food, menu, architecture and interior design to form a total casual dining experience that is unique.
Sullivan understands culinary synergy. And, he’s on the verge of another big success with Carmel Cafe. Other casual dining restaurants that get the whole concept of integrating food, menu, and ambiance? How about P.F. Chang China Bistro, Seasons 52, Parc Bistro, Olive Garden, or Carrabba’s. Bet you can add to the list.