Cost and Found: Trendy Restaurants Fight for the Best Junk
Those metal shade light fixtures above the bar? They’re jet engine noses, Jeff Black points out on a tour of his new Takoma Park restaurant Republic.
Reclaimed Victorian sofas were refurbished in red velvet and connected to create a long banquette, while doors salvaged from Buenos Aires and found in New Jersey partition off the private dining room. In the women’s restroom, nearly 50 antique hand mirrors—one made with sterling silver, another with Marie Osmond’s face—are arranged like flower petals. “I’m ashamed to say how much I spent on some of these,” Black admits. “But I fall in love with them and I’m like, ‘I’ve gotta have it, gotta have it, gotta have it.’” Even the neon sign of the space’s longtime previous tenant, Video Americain, was recycled to light up the outdoor patio.
In the months leading up to its December opening, Black, along with partner/chef Danny Wells and designer Molly Allen of Atreus Works, traveled along the East Coast—Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey—in search of items to outfit Republic.
“We’ve been to see—I am not exaggerating—over 100,000 reclaimed items. We’ve been everywhere,” Black says. But his usual destinations for recycled or vintage items aren’t what they used to be. “They’re getting picked over,” he says. “I’ve got to find new haunts, which I’ve found new ones, so I’d be hesitant to give out the names.”
Even then, it’s not like Black saved lots of money outfitting his restaurant with what some might consider other people’s junk. “It’s a lot more expensive. Oh, yeah. Oooooh yeah,” Black says, especially because so many things in the old building needed to be adjusted or retrofitted to make it all fit and function properly. The entire restaurant cost more than $2 million, Black says. He estimates he might have saved $600,000 if he’d done everything brand new.
That’s the irony of the mania for reclaimed and recycled decor that’s sweeping D.C.’s restaurants: It often costs a lot of money to make things look like they didn’t cost much, and a lot of effort to seem effortless. As restaurateurs embrace “hip farmhouse” or “industrial chic” designs in an attempt to make their spaces feel more comfortable or “authentic,” antique dealers and other vintage vendors are realizing what they can charge for, say, a dusty bar top or aging barn wood. Now, designers and architects are going farther to find the perfect reclaimed items, especially those with a story, and getting more creative with how they refurbish old items into new light fixtures or wall coverings.
Artist and designer Maggie O’Neill of SwatchRoom relies heavily on recycled or repurposed items for her restaurant designs, from the penny floor at Lincoln to the chandelier made out of monocles at Teddy & The Bully Bar. But between the reclaimed aesthetic popularized by restaurants and the glamorization of antiquing by TV shows like American Pickers, she’s now competing with homeowners, boutiques, and other buyers for stuff that used to be just junk. She says places like Baltimore’s Second Chance—a haven for D.C. restaurant designers looking for reclaimed décor—have started using social media and sending out newsletters to their major buyers with the latest finds. “The cool stuff is gone before it even gets to the warehouse,” she says. O’Neill sometimes ventures out to the Eastern Shore to find antiques, but even when she finds a hidden gem, “the good and bad news is they understand the value of what they have now.”
Antique lighting has seen one of the most substantial spikes, O’Neill says. Milton’s Chandeliers in Kensington used to be her go-to spot for light fixtures. “Unfortunately, it got to the point where I couldn’t afford it. I was like, ‘I’ll just get a reproduction. I can’t get the real thing.’” Pulleys that O’Neill used for light fixtures cost $5 to $10 two years ago. “They’re $45 now,” she says.
Restaurant designer Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense, whose recent clients include Daikaya, The Red Hen, and Dolcezza’s new gelato factory, says industrial artifacts in particular have gone up in price. Pieces that might have gone to general secondhand stores are now showing up at specialty retailers. Old 1940s tanker desks, like the ones Dolcezza has in its workspace, have doubled in price over the last few years to $700-$1,200, he’s found. “The cheapest salvaged furniture is generally going to be more than the cheapest commercial furniture, but the cheapest commercial furniture looks like crap,” Miller says. Upkeep can also be a lot more, especially because you can’t just order another one if something breaks.
Even the ever-present reclaimed barn wood—found in places ranging from Mintwood Place to City Tap House to Good Stuff Eatery—costs more, too. A decade ago, Miller says, if a contractor stumbled upon an abandoned barn and offered to take it down for free, the owner would think it was a deal to get old junk removed from his property. “Now, it’s mostly more expensive than new wood, depending on the species,” Miller says. The reason? High demand and limited supply. “You can go to Home Depot and get new wood. You’ve got to seek this stuff out. It’s harder to find.”
Then there’s the question of whether that “reclaimed barn wood” even actually came from a barn. O’Neill says people throw around the term like they did the word “Tuscan” eight or nine years ago to refer to, say, a “farmhouse” table. “I’m like, ‘That’s as Tuscan as T.J. Maxx.’ It just didn’t make sense,” O’Neill says. “It’s such a descriptor now that you have to take it with a grain of salt.”
That’s not to say there isn’t real barn wood out there. For Copperwood Tavern in Shirlington, O’Neill actually dismantled a barn in Berryville, Va., and used it to cover the walls and ceilings for a cabin look. For Farmers Fishers Bakers, architect and designer Griz Dwight, founder of GrizForm Design Architects, says his millworker sent him a photo of the Ontario barn the wood used on the ceilings and walls came from—in the same way you might get a photo of the starving child you’re saving with your 25-cents-a-day donation. “They may send the same picture of a barn to everybody,” Dwight says. “I guess there’s no way of knowing if it really came from a barn, but I feel comfortable that ours came from a barn…The wood looks like the wood that we got.”
Manufacturers are also making more new things that look old, especially light fixtures and tables. “It used to be that you would have to find a custom furniture house or millworker that could repurpose the wood from a barn into a tabletop,” says CORE interior designer Allison Cooke, who worked on Minibar, Del Campo, and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace. But now some manufacturers that supply restaurants and hotels are mimicking that look in a standard product lines. “It’s not custom. It doesn’t take 12 weeks, it takes four weeks, so there’s become kind of this mainstream approach to providing stuff that either is reclaimed or looks reclaimed,” Cooke says. Faux-rustic is also generally less expensive than real rustic.
But just having something that looks like it’s seen some history isn’t enough. The provenance of the décor or building materials can be a selling point for a restaurant, touted in press releases and regurgitated by the media as if it was just as important as the food. “People like things that have soul to them and have a story and a narrative,” O’Neill says. And the decor of a place is the first impression, setting the tone or transporting diners to another place or era. The frequent refrain about Le Diplomate, on 14th Street NW? “It really feels like you’re in Paris!” That’s in part because the restaurant imported its furniture, including the long pewter bar, from old cafes and bistros throughout Europe. To make it seem even more authentic, the reclaimed flooring, milled to replicate the pattern from a specific bistro in Paris the designers encountered, was purposely built to creak.
At Teddy Roosevelt–inspired Teddy & The Bully Bar, O’Neill made sconces and table legs out of rifle stocks in an ode to the former president’s hunting passion. Other references are even more obscure: light fixtures made out of old DC Water meter plates. “Those were a complete score,” O’Neill says, explaining they’re from 1905, when Roosevelt was president.
Transforming items into something totally different is one way restaurant designers aim to get a vintage look without paying vintage prices. At Minibar, Cooke says they wanted domes over the counters, but it was very expensive to have them custom-fabricated and ready on time. Instead, her team used boat hulls covered in gold leaf. Eat The Rich made light fixtures out of old oyster cages, while GBD made them from fryer baskets. And Farmers Fishers Bakers features worn-out tires, which were free from a junkyard, as wallpaper.
The reclaimed trend is also heading in a more utilitarian direction: Instead of just seeing antique items on the walls, you may be eating or drinking with them. Rose’s Luxury uses mismatched antique cutlery and china, some from owner Aaron Silverman’s own family. Meanwhile, vintage glassware is catching on in the city’s trendiest cocktail bars, including 2 Birds 1 Stone and Barmini.
Furniture and glassware are one thing, but the same aesthetic considerations are also driving location choices. Miller points out that with some of the biggest restaurant openings of the past year—Le Diplomate, Red Hen, Rose’s Luxury—“they’ve all realized the best thing to reclaim is an old building.” Restaurateurs Eric and Ian Hilton took that idea a step further, building their new U Street NW Mexican beer garden El Rey almost entirely out of used shipping containers from Paxton Van Lines.
Designers don’t see the reclaimed trend going away anytime soon, but they do expect the look to get edited down and less in-your-face. Instead of just slapping some barn wood on the wall, designers say they’re aiming for more refined looks that incorporate their salvaged finds with some subtlety, or mix old with new. Cooke even sees splashes of neon—about as visually opposite from barn wood as it gets—making its way into restaurant designs this year.
After all, some diners are beginning to backlash against Edison bulbs and exposed brick. “I definitely never want to hear the words ‘modern urban farmhouse’ again,” Miller says. “At the end of the day, you’re making a restaurant. You’re not making a barn.”
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Photo or Republic by Jessica Sidman