John Kessler / April 2012
Food Arts presents the April 2012 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to the Atlanta-based architect Bill Johnson, whose urbane, kinetic restaurant designs—numbering more than 400 nationwide—prominently promenade their panache at such diverse settings as the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Las Vegas’ Paris Hotel, the new waterfront outlet of Legal Sea Foods in Boston, and the Roof Lounge atop theWit hotel in Chicago. Although his Johnson Studios made a name by designing dozens of restaurants in its hometown (Canoe, Two Urban Licks, Pano’s & Paul’s, among many others), Johnson’s high-energy style and sense of urban place are now in hot demand coast-to-coast.
To wit: “My team and I are building a Del Frisco’s Grille in Rockefeller Center in New York City and the first boutique hotel in Charleston, South Carolina,” Johnson says. He sounds most excited about Relish & Savor, a restaurant slated to be a centerpiece of Klyde Warren Park, the new green space rising from a decked-over freeway in Dallas. A joint public-private venture, the project will transform that city’s downtown. He just completed Restaurant R’evolution, the collaboration between John Folse and Rick Tramonto, in New Orleans. And he has started construction on a restaurant inside Philips Arena (home of the Atlanta Hawks) to be called Red. “It’ll be pretty cool,” Johnson notes. “When you’re eating there, you’ll be able to see the action in the arena and in the kitchen at the same time.”
Johnson has also proven himself a vital partner for high-profile chefs, with an uncanny gift for translating their personalities into appropriate design sensibilities. “We love to collaborate,” Johnson says. “Chefs are very creative people who make our job more fun. His meandering design for Fearing’s in The Ritz-Carlton Dallas gives the gregarious Dean Fearing room to roam through an astounding variety of formal and casual spaces. At Tru in Chicago, his clean lines and sharp use of color underscore the precision and playfulness of food. Rathbun’s and Kevin Rathbun Steak in Atlanta are as boisterous, friendly, and rollicking as Kevin Rathbun’s cooking.
A native of Charleston, Johnson came to Atlanta to study building construction at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His first job, 30 years ago, was the Peachtree Cafe, a casual dining spot that became a neighborhood sensation, thanks to its bristling energy. As other projects followed, Johnson proved himself equally adept at both architecture and interior design, with an uncanny ability to create different moods in the same restaurant.
“We make spaces that can be hard to capture in a photograph,” Johnson says. “It’s about the total environment. The way it’s lit. The acoustics. It’s about what the space feels like much more than what it looks like.”