A peek inside Bastion, located in Nashville, Tenn. / Bastion A peek inside Bastion, located in Nashville, Tenn. / Bastion

Designing a Restaurant for Diner Interaction

Bastion in Nashville, Tenn. is disorienting in the best way: you might not know who is in what position (is that person the chef, a sommelier, or a host?), what the next course consists of beyond its vague menu description (Blackberry + Oregano doesn’t tell you much about that dish), or what song might be played next on the turntable (the restaurant has an impressive vinyl collection).

That’s all part of the design, of course. It’s a playful and welcoming experience beginning with the building itself.

Executive Chef Josh Habiger, formerly of Catbird Seat and The Patterson House in Nashville, and a member of the opening staff of Alinea in Chicago, is all about breaking down the formal ideas of the restaurant as we’ve come to know it. At Bastion, Habiger built an environment that inspires personal interaction between diners and the chefs, as well as creating a place that allows the individual to serve the collective, from individual chefs crafting specific dishes to the flow of diners out to the big bar and vice versa.

When it comes to the structure, the location itself is the first clue. If you end up at Bastion, you planned it (or at least someone you’re with did). This restaurant is located in Wedgewood Houston, a getting-hotter-by-the-hour-but-not-yet-Germantown part of town, inside a space that previously housed a syrup and preserve company. The outside of the building is a nondescript warehouse with only a small sign and a person at the door, so it’s easy to overlook.

Once inside, the space opens up into a large bar with twinkling lights and quirky artwork, and the crowd is usually bustling. A small door inside the bar is the only entrance to the smaller lounge and the restaurant beyond. In fact, the space has a bit of a Russian nesting doll effect — the big bar welcomes you, then there is a door that opens into a smaller bar, and then beyond that, an unmarked door leads to the 24-seat restaurant dominated by a curved chef’s counter. Diners are meant to feel as though they are sitting somewhere special, like in the center of a cave or a special room behind a fake bookcase.

“We initially were looking at the other side of the building for a possible restaurant space, and then heard about this space, which wasn’t ready for viewing but we got a peek at it anyway,” Habiger said, noting that at the time he’d been considering creating a “sexy French restaurant, dark and dim,” but he also had future ideas about a neighborhood bar, too. When he looked at the old syrup and preserve company — complete with a hallway reminiscent of a creepy, horror film set and lone chair under a light bulb — he suddenly realized that the space could define the project. “I could see it: a neighborhood bar, and then a restaurant inside of it, too.”

Creative Collaboration

The resulting concept, Bastion, is a one-of-a-kind melding where the physical attributes and limitations of the space became part of the project itself. The building helped mold the creative ideas of the chef and his team, instead of being something they had to fight against or overcome. Its long narrow shape would be off-putting for many traditional restaurants, but when reimagined as three concepts in one, it became a playful treasure hunt for the guest.

Although the big bar and the restaurant get a lot more attention, the small inner bar also plays an important transition role between the two. “The Little Bar” is a dark, intimate space, much quieter than the other bar outside, and so the mood change is an important one that attracts its own set of regulars.

“It feels good in there,” Habinger said, and it also feels special, which creates anticipation for the restaurant beyond it. At the restaurant, tables are for parties up to six people, but it’s obvious that the best seat in the house is at the maple counter, which seems to almost lean into the kitchen. Chefs are close as they move about, talking to diners about dishes, garnishing plates, and generally interacting with customers during each course. It’s a constantly rotating dinner party that refines the mood of the other two bars rather than contrasts it. And while sitting in the restaurant, many diners make plans to continue the evening at one of the other bars on the way out.

“Financially, all of these three concepts share responsibility, and they are symbiotic,” Habiger said. That symbiosis seems to exist for diners and imbibers as well, the idea of the restaurant and bar reimagined into a space that suggests new areas to discover and food and drink treasures to uncover.

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