The bar at Legal Sea Bar at Washington D.C.'s Union Station. / Legal Seafood  The bar at Legal Sea Bar at Washington D.C.'s Union Station. / Legal Seafood

Designing a Chain Restaurant for 40 Million Travelers

The estimated 40,000,000 people that pass through Washington D.C’s Union Station annually were a major consideration throughout the 6-month development of one of its newest bars and restaurants. Legal Sea Bar (part of the 37-Restaurant Legal Sea Foods chain) opened this past July on the West side of the station’s mezzanine level, was designed with high traffic in mind.

Griz Dwight, principal and owner of his semi-eponymous, capital-based firm, Grizform Design Architects, designed the restaurant’s sister space, Legal Sea Foods, at Reagan National Airport before tackling this project. As Dwight explains, “transportation dining automatically implies that you’re on your way somewhere.”

And so the casual bar/restaurant combo is “primarily designed for people trying to catch a train.” Small details take travelers’ needs into account: there are designated areas to put suitcases aside where visitors are still able to keep an eye on them, sufficient space between tables to store luggage, and ample hooks underneath the bar for easier purse and backpack storage.

The design approach at Union Station was decidedly different from that at Reagan, another transporation hub, in other ways, though. Dwight and his team hoped not only to catch the attention of those passing through on their way to somewhere else, but also to appeal to those who could afford to stay a while.

Diners and Drinkers in Transit

Optimistic that “people without a train ticket would come by,” too, Grizform “actively reviewed the other businesses that existed within the station” and chose to differentiate themselves, deviating from an established aesthetic. Legal Sea Bar is intentionally designed to stand out because “if it matched the station, you’d blow right past it.”

Recognizing the building’s “beautiful bones,” Dwight admitted that working within them was difficult, as he and his team wanted something that didn’t blend in. The space, “previously a boxed-in clothing store,” was approached from an outside-the-box angle. Dwight identifies two noticeable features of his firm’s design in particular: the horseshoe bar and the tile floor.

Grizform injected color in both elements to add “some flash and some pop.” The tropically-inspired palette of turquoise and coral in each detail effectively hints at far-away destinations where fresh-caught seafood is plentiful. The hexagonal floor tiles whose lines are meant to resemble palm fronds also complement the similar design of Union Station’s ceiling.

Given the highly-trafficked site, durability played a significant role in design decisions. The contractor laid out the cement tile floor and sealed it three times off-site before bringing it in, effectively preventing staining and ensuring its finish would withstand the test of time. And the fish scales on the main wall of Legal Sea Bar’s kitchen not only stay on theme and bring in shine, they’re also “almost indestructible,” since they’re made of zinc, a material that’s “meant to be outside.” The bar’s vertical dowels, too, are designed to accommodate easy replacements. If need be, you can “pull one out and plug one in.”

Other factors were influential in the design process. Addressing budgetary limitations, Dwight explains, “When we work with lower budgets, we try to put all of our efforts and budget into one element, and in this one it’s obviousy the bar.” By doing that, Grizform was able to save on other elements, like the floor that “came from overseas for a lower price.”

Staff functionality is clearly valued, too: the design fit as many seats as it could at the bar for maximum seating with the smallest footprint, but also for maximum efficiency; a single bartender could easily cover the entire bar, at least during quieter hours. Back of house is meant to be purely functional and not seen, so visual access to it from the main space is limited to a small pick-up window.

The design process wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. Dwight admits to contending with “bureaucracy working within the station,” a historic space. The station insisted on doing its own demo preceding new construction, lest Grizform “damage anything,” for example. The station ceiling also needed to remain visible, so “they wouldn’t allow us to close in the space in any way,” and the bar required some convincing.

Without a ceiling, the team also had to get creative with lighting. The firm ultimately settled on a mix of custom-made hanging pendant lights, inclduing built-in brackets above some tables. The vision often required justifying “why we’re doing what we’re doing and how it’s going to work.”

With Legal Sea Bar, Dwight hopes to prove that transportation dining is “not just about point A and point B. It’s more about the journey that’s an aspect of it, stopping to enjoy it.” The past few times he’s visited to eat, he’s had to wait for a seat, suggesting that his vision for a space that houses Amtrak, Marc, VRE, and Washington Metro rail services is, well, right on track.

Skift Table contributor Ally Spier is a Brooklyn-based writer and designer who studied ergonomics at Cornell, and architecture at Pratt. Her background in design informs her love of food and travel… and vice versa.

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