Bright Parrot. Luscious Green. Golden Flame. These are the paint colors draping the walls at Shuggie’s Trash Pie & Natural Wine in San Francisco, creating an eclectic, monochromatic experience made to go hand in hand with the food and the restaurant’s mission of sustainability. From top to bottom, the Shuggie’s rooms are swathed in color, from the shades of yellow in the front room that take over the walls, tables, chairs, and floor to the green room filled with marbleized viridescent tabletops to the glittering booths and patterned flooring that dominate the space. (Even the plates are fun, with dips served in mouth-shaped bowls.) Descriptive phrases from the press release announcing Shuggie’s veered from “trashy-glam” to “Hollywood Regency meets roller disco”; on a recent occasion, owners Kayla Abe and David Murphy called the decor — which the couple designed together — more “70s diner in the future.”
“We just didn’t want the same aesthetic that four or five design firms in San Francisco seem to be doing, which is really clean spaces with the white marble tops and bamboo floors and the whole Nordic thing that’s been around for the past 15 years,” Murphy says. “So it was really the idea of maximalism, and more is more.” Whatever one wants to call it, it’s just plain fun.
This sense of maximalism seems primed for the long march out of the pandemic — an anti-Marie Kondo approach to decor, if you will — that’s been expanding outside of homes and into the dining world. Rather than the measured, spa-like places that permeated much of hospitality prior to 2020, now restaurants and bars seem to be exploring more playful, joyful expressions in their spaces. Alison Cooke, principal at architectural design firm Core, ties this aesthetic to the pandemic, saying that some restaurants are now stretching their spaces into almost an experiential overload. “I’ve described this to a few clients recently in the past; it’s like you’re in The Wizard of Oz and there’s the black-and-white scenes, and then all of a sudden you’re in Oz and everything’s in this crazy Technicolor,” Cooke says. “And I think people are just here for it right now with dining out, like, ‘Take me and transport me’ even more than before.”
For Murphy and Abe, the restaurant scene has been taking itself too seriously for far too long, losing sight of the fact that when people go out, they want to have a good time. The couple wanted a wild, outlandish, and funky space. “I think the pandemic gave me the perspective of, what is the most important thing in a restaurant? What’s the most important thing about gathering?” Murphy says. “It’s like, let’s have some fucking fun again. We were cooped up in our houses for two years, let’s crank up the volume and have a party.”
Along these style lines is the camp aesthetic at Hi Felicia in Oakland. There, chef-owner Imana, who goes only by her first name, bucks restaurant decor trends, specifically the austere, stark-white linens of the fine dining world she once worked in, which she calls “bleak and not fun.” Given that in fine dining one might spend three to four hours in a space, Imana says she wants a place where diners feel “stimulated throughout,” whether through good music, a server’s cool outfit, or something visually pleasing within the space.
At Hi Felicia, Imana wanted to do “the opposite of what you’d expect when you go out to a fine dining restaurant,” instead designing her space with a high-energy, bright-green exterior, which gives way to an all-black interior decorated in what Imana calls camp: eccentric ceramic vases, attention-grabbing white bubble graffiti on the dark walls, thrifted clown paintings, dripping candles, you name it. “Camp is really fun and it also mirrors my personal style a lot,” Imana says. “I love peacocking, I love crazy patterns and things that all clash but somehow still go together — that is always really cool to me. I think I have a really good eye, so I feel really good that I executed it the way I wanted.”
That sense of autonomy is another contributor to the spread of in-your-face design, Cooke notes. Although restaurant owners were always interested in telling their personal stories through restaurant design, Cooke says that has “really intensified” since 2020, especially after dealing with the demands of keeping their businesses open. “Everybody during the pandemic was like, ‘What’s important to me foundationally? What are my values?’” Cooke says. “Restaurateurs are [now] saying, ‘I learned that I just need to do what I do well, and a customer needs to just accept that or not, I’m tired of trying to cater [to others].’ And so even with the restaurant design, they are putting forward, ‘Here’s who I am.’” While Cooke acknowledges a return to tranquil, spa-like places at some restaurants, she sees it alongside these wackier, more colorful spaces.
Monochrome style crops up again inside Thee Stork Club, the music venue and bar opening in Oakland in July, with one section of the space enveloped in a blood-red design and a green room that will be an actual green room. Already, ties have been made to all things camp, thanks to Stork Club co-owner Marc Ribak’s friendship with film director John Waters, who is known for his camp and trash sensibilities. Ribak runs the annual Mosswood Meltdown music festival Waters hosts, and Ribak says he and wife Amy Carver’s style for Thee Stork Club is partly inspired by how they run Mosswood. “I have a similar approach to the design of the club as we do the design at the concerts in the park: It is really whimsical and everything’s done over-the-top and outrageous,” Ribak says. “It’s just about having a wow factor. It’s almost like, why do people go to places like Egypt or New York or Las Vegas or Hearst Castle or Madonna Inn? People go to these places because they’re places of intrigue.”
Stork Club’s blood-red walls stretch from the floor to the ceiling, with red upholstered booths and heavy red velvet curtains onstage; it is partly an homage to Waters and camp, but more an expression of two areas of Ribak’s life. Both he and Carver are fans of 1960s and 1970s horror films and directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Kenneth Anger, but, for Ribak, the room is also inspired by a sense of nostalgia. His grandmother had a high sense of design — she was a lampshade designer at one point in her life, Ribak shares — and decorated her 1950s living room in a dramatic, all-red design. “Just completely outrageous,” he says. In fact, one of the items he rescued from her home was a high-backed chair he dubbed the Vampire Chair: Transported from Southern California, it’s used at each Mosswood Meltdown show, and will find a home in Thee Stork Club’s green room (despite the fact that these days, the much-loved chair is now upholstered in black patent leather).
Beyond the all-red room will be other fun design elements: gaudy gold oil-type lamps “in the Liberace style”; a dollhouse refurbished by artist friend Ali Rose, who decorated each room in horror film regalia with items like six-inch figurines of Elvira and John Waters; an infinity mirror installation; wood paneling; rock-like walls; a gold disco ball; and a back patio meant to look like “the Beverly Hills Hotel in the 1960s.” Stork co-owner Billy Agan described the club’s aesthetic recently in a Berkeleyside article as “part ‘proto fern bar,’ part ‘1970s dive bar,’ and part ‘the trashiness of Madonna Inn.’”
“It’s supposed to be ridiculous on purpose,” Ribak said over text, sharing early photos of the unfinished space. “It’s just more fun like that, but it has to be done with some class in mind. If not, it would just look whack.”
Another commonality of these spaces is an underlying DIY aesthetic. All are designed by the owners and have a personalized feel, whether it comes from painting every mural and wall like Abe did at Shuggie’s, Imana’s antiquing, or Ribak reaching into his own history. It doesn’t feel of a specific design firm or aesthetic; instead it’s uniquely each person’s style and taste. Abe says the Shuggie’s space comes from her and Murphy being so involved in every aspect of the restaurant. “I think each of us alone could not have come up with this space, but together we just built and built,” she says. “It’s always a ‘Yes, and’ situation where it just evolves and evolves — and it really does feel like this space is what we vomited out of our brains.”
Because of that DIY aspect, both Shuggie’s and Hi Felicia will continue to be a moving, changing, living art piece. When asked, Abe and Murphy acknowledged that they feel like the space is never done, there is always something to tweak or update or change, each naming some projects that remain on their to-do lists. Imana feels the same way, but she’s looking forward to updates as she (and her restaurant) continues to grow.
“This is the first form of Hi Felicia and I just want it to grow and evolve with me over time,” Imana says. “That’s the whole fun of it; it really is forever changing and there just is no box for me. I literally do whatever the fuck I want.”