Food for Thought

Jan. 1, 2004
Diane Wintroub Calmenson

Theodore Adamstein and Olvia Demetriou design restaurants that not only feed the body, but also stimulate the mind with subtleties that hint at the essence of the space. In the process, this husband and wife team, partners in the Washington, DC-based arch

There once was a time when refined ladies and gentlemen gathered in the city square or strolled beautiful parks when they wanted to see and be seen. Alas, those days are gone.

Now we have restaurants.

No longer are restaurants simply places that serve food and satisfy hunger. Today, restaurants entertain, convey status (as in, "Well, we ate at such-n-such last night and you'll never guess who was at the next table!"), help to close business deals and provide neutral meeting grounds for blind dates. They help us celebrate our accomplishments, console our disappointments, alleviate boredom, escape the everyday—and, yes, restaurants feed us, too.

Restaurants today have a large order to serve—no pun intended. Because a restaurant plays so many roles, filling that order is largely dependent upon the physical surroundings and atmosphere. If a restaurant is going to succeed among the competition, then its cuisine and its ambiance must both stand out.

Now, stand out does not necessarily mean shout. To the contrary, subtlety can speak volumes. That is where Theodore Adamstein and Olvia Demetriou step in. This husband and wife are partners in the Washington DC-based architecture and design firm of Adamstein & Demetriou. Their work has literally changed the face of dining out in the nation's capitol. A power lunch does not always happen at a steakhouse anymore. There are other options where the food is superb and the design quietly captures the essence of a place, a cuisine and a time.

Adamstein & Demetriou create environments that are fresh and far from thematic. For them, architecture is the language that they use to describe a mood, but never in a literal sense.

" Good architecture isn't about imitating," Demetriou says. "Disney imitates, which is fine, but it's not for us. We actually designed some highly thematic places and then realized that kind of design was not what we wanted to do. We look for projects that have room for interpretation. While we design, we constantly look for ways to distill, edit and reduce a concept down to the essence."

Zaytinya is one such concept. The winner of a 2003 International Interior Design Association Award, this Penn Quarter eatery combines the flavors and flare of Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. Yet, there is not one Doric column, not one Oriental carpet nor one Grecian urn. Instead, Adamstein & Demetriou merely evoke a Mediterranean feel.

The architects' inspiration came from travels to Santorini, one of the Greek Islands. Here, the architecture is homogeneously white with accents in shades of blue. Beautiful restaurants set aglow with candles overlook the Aegean Sea. Zaytinya is the contemporary expression of dining on Santorini.

Whitewashed walls, saturated shades of blue, terraced eating levels and candlelight suggest Zaytinya's Mediterranean influence. Custom-designed tables and chairs are cosmopolitan versions of Santorini's tavern seating. The banquette is reminiscent of outdoor cushions on a seaside terrace. A white grid wall stretching to the edge of the 25-foot vaulted ceiling contains some 20 candles. Every night an employee climbs a ladder to light each candle. Other than simple pendants, all of the lighting in Zaytinya hides behind coves along the bar front and behind the bar. In areas where the ceiling is lower, the color scheme reverses from that of the main room. Thus, periwinkle blue niches are set in walls of deep navy and the accents are white. A large fireplace makes the atmosphere equally special as the rest of the space.

Zola, also a winner of a 2003 International Interior Design Association Award, is another example of Adamstein & Demetriou's mastery of the understated. Located in the International Spy Museum, Zola subliminally brings to mind the underworld of a secret agent. None of James Bond's gadgetry or the like is displayed here. Rather, the architects opted for visual images, written messages and design elements to suggest suspense and intrigue. For example, portholes cut through booths give fun-loving patrons the chance to spy on their dining neighbors. Code-like images give the illusion of secrecy, while in the bar, reproductions from the genre of film noir appear on glass panels.

Other well-known DC-area eating establishments that bear the subtle mark of Adamstein & Demetriou include Vidalia, Poste in Kimpton's Hotel Monaco, Yanyu, Raku, Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern, Bis at The Hotel George and Mendocino Grille to name a few. In addition, the firm is currently working on a number of large projects, not all of which are located in the Washington vicinity nor are all of them restaurants.

For The Hirshorn Museum of Contemporary Art, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, Adamstein & Demetriou is designing a 3,000-square-foot educational facility that will accommodate programming for children as well as adults, serve as a boardroom and provide party space. While the facility responds to the museum's existing space, it also has a distinguishing design statement.

In New York City, the firm is renovating the top three floors of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Encompassing 30,000 square feet on floors 47, 48 and 49, the space includes a revolving restaurant and bar.

" The Marquis is a very tall atrium building on top of which sits this revolving restaurant with the most spectacular views of the city," Demetriou explains. "The problem is the core of the space. Originally, all of the service areas like the kitchen, the bar and the restrooms were positioned at the core and the outer ring would revolve around that. It took about an hour to go around and the views were great, but looking inward was very dull. Our design opens the kitchen and the bar, plus we have added a wine room. So as you revolve around the core, there is a much more engaging experience going on. We created events on the inner ring rather than leave the space closed off."

Together, Adamstein and Demetriou have designed more than 40 restaurants, bars and hotels. Impressive, especially if you consider the fact that they came to restaurant design by accident.

Adamstein was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and came to the United States in 1978 as a transfer student to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. Demetriou was born in Athens and moved to Washington with her family when she was a girl. According to Demetriou, the couple met and fell in love over theses at the Cooper. From there, both got jobs in New York with different firms and then moved to DC in 1982.

Demetriou went to work with her father, architect Angelos Demetriou. Adamstein, who is an accomplished photographer, established Chrome, a professional photographic services firm. Chrome grew quickly, eventually getting business from National Geographic, The Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine.

In 1987, Adamstein & Demetriou was founded and the firm began doing residential and commercial work. Chrome was there to financially support the duo's desire to practice their own brand of architecture and gave them the luxury of turning down projects that did not match their direction. At one point, Adamstein sold Chrome, but he is once again the successful photo shop's happy owner.

The firm's first restaurant design came in 1989, after restaurateurs from Westport, CT, saw a story in Metropolitan Home on the couple's renovation of their Georgetown home.

"Up until then we had not designed a restaurant, but that didn't seem to bother them," Adamstein remembers. "They wanted us anyway."

The restaurant, Eastcoast, won many awards and more importantly, the attention of chefs and restaurant owners in Washington. While they still occasionally accept residential work—they are completing two homes now—they find that hospitality work, specifically restaurants, is their niche.

"We really have embraced hospitality," says Adamstein. "We love to cook, we love to entertain, travel, eat out. This is not just a job for us.

As young architects, when we went out to dinner our conversation would invariably turn to what we would do to improve the restaurant's environment. Sometimes we'd end up drawing sketches on the napkins."

The couple also takes satisfaction in knowing that many people enjoy the spaces they design. Furthermore, they find hospitality design interesting because of its many layers, from silverware to architecture. Adamstein and Demetriou like to control every detail of a project, but their primary concern is that a space be very strong architecturally. For them, there is no way to separate the architecture from the food.

At any one time, Adamstein & Demetriou will have 12 to 14 projects on the drawing table. The firm employs 13 architects and designers, and neither Adamstein nor Demetriou see the firm growing much larger.

Although there is a division of labor—Demetriou doing most of the designing and Adamstein taking care of the business and managerial end of the firm—they complement each other with similar design visions, yet different strengths. Thus, together they keep their design studio healthy.

"Theo may not be the one designing, but his voice comes through in our discussions and meetings," says Demetriou. "He has great ideas, plus a sense of business that is so important.

You cannot just be a good designer to have a successful design firm. There also must be someone who knows about scheduling, deadlines, costs and employment issues. Theo brings that to the firm."

As a married couple working together, they are frequently asked, "How do you do it?" Demetriou finds that sometimes their partnership helps their marriage, while other times the marriage supports the partnership. Adamstein has a more romantic explanation: they are soul mates in love and in architecture.

"There are times when I try to express something and Olvia will simply give my thoughts form," says Adamstein. "It's the other way around sometimes, too. We have a very symbiotic relationship. We mostly see eye-to-eye in matters of the heart or architecture."

Their current mutual love interest—aside from each other and their boys, Nicholas, 11, and Alexander, nine—is the 1923 Sears Roebuck catalog house they are renovating. The bungalow house sits on a hill west of Georgetown, overlooking Virginia. Adamstein says the house is in excellent condition, with their being only the third family to own the house in 80 years.

" We are keeping the original house, but removing two additions," Adamstein explains. "A new, modern bungalow will be entered through the old house, setting up an interesting dialogue between old and new."

As one would expect, their experience designing restaurants influenced some of their decisions on the house, especially the kitchen, of course. The prep and cooking area will be separate from functions such as dishwashing and storage. However, the entire kitchen will be part of the home's living space, because as Demetriou points out, that is where company tends to congregate anyway.

Their sons also had something to say about the design of their new home.

"They are strict modernists," Adamstein laughs. "We had to assure them that the finished house would not look too old. Fortunately, we strive for a sense of timelessness in all of our work, so I think they will be pleased with the house."

Likewise, there are no heavy-handed gestures in the renovation of the house. Its essence will subtly shine, which is yet another influence from Adamstein and Demetriou's restaurant design work. Of course, it is also how they like to live, and if the success of Adamstein & Demetriou's restaurant designs is any indication, it is how many contemporary ladies and gentlemen like to live, too.

Sponsored Recommendations

KOVA’s Dan Sullivan Talks Optimization for Adaptive Reuse

What makes a building a prime candidate? And what technology advances are streamlining the process? Sullivan answers all this and more. Read, then listen...

What's That Sound? Exploring the Vital Role of Acoustics in Commercial Interiors

In this episode, we take a deep dive into the acoustics conversation with our friends at Fräsch.

Take a Tour of New St. Mary's Medical Center by EwingCole

Get an inside look at Essentia Health's new flagship hospital in Duluth, MN that redefines the continuum of care for patients.

Studio Kaminski + Pew Carves Out an Unlikely Home for Developer Scout LTD

Studio Kaminski + Pew helps urban developer Scout LTD set up shop in the former mechanical room of a technical high school that they've both helped resurrect into a massive hub...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!