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Remember last year, when we were all staring at pretty takeout? What a thrill to finally set foot in dining rooms again this year, as restaurants opened and reopened across the city in 2021 and we got to wine and dine in gorgeous interiors once more. Breaking from the neon sign and plant trend (not that there’s anything wrong with that), a few new restaurants set themselves apart as a visual feast for the eyes.
From an illustrious Chinese banquet hall to a mid-century glam steakhouse, a Belle Epoque grande dame to a retro-fabulous diner, step inside the most stunning restaurant designs of the year in San Francisco.
Empress by Boon
The historic Empress of China banquet hall in Chinatown was constructed in the 1960s, and the restaurant was long known for white tablecloths, emerald green, and ornate woodwork. But for the new Empress by Boon, Atelier LLYS design studio refurbished the space in oceanic blues, leather booths, and modern glass partitions. Fortunately, they did keep some original details, including the antique wooden pergola — a huge octagon with a skylight, imported from Taiwan.
Hilda and Jesse
Cool brunch pop-up Hilda and Jesse found a permanent restaurant home in North Beach just off Washington Square. Designer Noz Nozawa did not hold back on a wild, colorful, and loosely diner-inspired renovation, featuring pastel pink and aqua blue walls, black-and-white checkered floors, red vinyl swivel chairs, a couple of cheeky murals, grandma and grandpa portraits, and vintage finds from the flea.
Miller & Lux
Celebrity chef and television personality Tyler Florence opened a glam new steakhouse near Chase Center, and it’s no sports bar and grill. Miller & Lux is a generous 7,000 square feet, all done up in a golden glow from acclaimed designer Ken Fulk. It’s midcentury in style, but with luxurious touches, including big circular booths in channel-backed tan leather and brass railings and light fixtures.
San Francisco’s modern upscale Filipino restaurant certainly made an entrance inside the Kimpton Alton Hotel, where Abaca brings the party to the hotel lobby. A large rectangular skylight drenches the space with natural light, frilly ferns soften the sharp edges, and white walls, pale woods, and canary yellow banquettes keep it sunny, even in the fog of Fisherman’s Wharf.
San Ho Won
San Ho Won, the highly anticipated new Korean barbecue restaurant from Corey Lee, successfully transformed a former sake-bomb sushi spot into a bold and modern space. Architect Charles Hemminger (Trick Dog, Tartine, State Bird, Outerlands) oversaw a full renovation, grounding the room with generous booths, concrete floors, exposed brick, an ashwood bar, and charcoal gray paint. A large abstract mural evokes mountain ranges, and a smoking tiger character lounges on the menus and pops up on matchboxes.
This one’s not a new opening, but a beautiful reopening: Boulevard triumphantly returned this year with a glam refresh courtesy of designer Ken Fulk. The Belle Epoque dining room, with its winding tulip lamps and rich jewel tones, has regained its shine. Fulk didn’t hold back on patterns and textiles, with a peacock motif feathering throughout, including royal blue and dark green velvets, silk patterns with feathers backing chairs, black ostrich leather padding stools, and hand-drawn birds perched on the walls.
Chef Nelson German’s Afro-Latino cocktail lounge is electric. Plenty of bars are into neon and plants these days, but Sobre Mesa set the trend and arguably did it first and best, with a truly immersive look and feel: jungle-green walls, a black marble bar, and tan leather banquets under the glow of low lights.
Though perhaps not the flashiest restaurant opening this year, Mr. Digby’s established itself as Noe Valley’s favorite neighborhood bar, and it has a handsome design, courtesy of the ROY group (Riddler, Elda, Wildseed). The tavern dressed up outside with a crisp black-and-white exterior, and cozies up inside with plaid wallpaper, tufted leather barstools, a banquette in navy and saddle leather, and the odd canine portrait.
The colorful new tapas bar in North Beach takes advantage of its sharp corner location and spills out onto both sidewalks like a colorful European-inspired cafe. Nicholas Roberto of Auspice Design (Causwells, True Laurel) took inspiration from Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, and Red Window is bright with purple, orange, and pink hues, and detailed with Art Nouveau–style flowers, birds, masked figures, and lips.
At Ettan upscale California-Indian in Palo Alto, restaurateur Ayesha Thapar worked closely with designer Thomas Schoos to reimagine the space, an uplifting two stories illuminated by a central skylight. Schoos took it over the top with hanging plants and chandeliers; patterned wallpaper, textiles, and woodwork; and modern art and black-and-white portraits.