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Bay Area restaurants tap into visually flavorful designs to elevate the food and ‘experience’ of dining

Bay Area restaurants tap into visually flavorful designs to elevate the food and ‘experience’ of dining

A meal at Bombera serves up plates of Chicana heritage, blending ancestral traditions with a dash of Oakland history.

But it’s the physical design of the restaurant, constructed inside an old fire station that was boarded up for decades, that showcases what Bombera is all about — even before any wood-fired Mexican cuisine can touch diners’ lips.

Chef Dominica Rice says that was intentional.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Restaurant owner and chef Dominica Rice Cisneros poses for a photo at her Bombera restaurant in the Dimond district of Oakland, Calif., which features a mural by artist Jessica Sandoval, on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Every artistic element at Oakland’s Bombera was carefully planned by restaurant owner and chef Dominica Rice, from the papel picado to the mural by artist Jessica Sandoval. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Long before she opened the rustic fire house doors in the city’s Dimond neighborhood in May 2021 — two months after ending her 10-year run at Cosecha, a cafe in Old Oakland — she knew she wanted to create a space that honors its architectural bones, her menu’s Mexican mercado origins and a lasting investment in community.

“I used to live in that neighborhood, and I never even knew that was there — right in front of me the whole time, but it was just so hidden,” Rice says. “For this space, we wanted to highlight what we see as our standards of beauty — family and indigenous beauty. Our research has always been, ‘What are we doing in California?’ What grows really well here, what are the farmers doing and how can we support them?”

Restaurants across the Bay Area have embraced art and design, transforming what was once simply decoration into a larger aesthetic that helps define their dining experience.

These design choices can be as simple as a nod to its location — such as the calico cat mural painted above a doorway at Shepherd & Sims in Los Gatos — or an ode to the people who inspired and preserved culture through food, clearly illustrated in the pixelated murals of Black slaves and farmers at one of Oakland’s newest fried chicken spots, Kowbird.

LOS GATOS, CALIFORNIA - September 23: A drawing of a cat is displayed above the entrance of Shepherd & Sims, a new Los Gatos restaurant on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Los Gatos, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
The feline mural above the entrance to Shepherd & Sims gives the restaurant a sense of place in Los Gatos, the city of cats. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Rice wanted to meld both of those elements at Bombera.

“I want my spaces to be beautiful, but I don’t want people to forget that there we are in Oakland,” Rice said, explaining how the building’s “function-over-form” blueprint taps into the region’s industrial roots. “People are always asking me, ‘What part of Mexico does this food come from?’ and I always answer, ‘Oakland.’ Chicana food is indigenous to Oakland, too, and we wanted to find a way to show this.

“We wanted that feeling, but also for people to be able to focus on the food and not crazy paintings of mariachi or Frida Kahlo selling mezcal.”

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Mexican papel picado banners decorate the patio at Bombera restaurant in the Dimond district of Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Mexican papel picado banners decorate the patio at Bombera in Oakland’s Dimond district. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

As guests munch on heirloom blue corn tortilla quesadillas or spoon up a bowl of pozole verde under Bombera’s vaulted ceilings, cathedral windows and papel picado streamers, eyes are naturally draw in to the restaurant’s sole mural on otherwise clean, white walls: a portrait of two indigenous women from Arizona’s native Pima Indian tribes.

The art — painted by local Colombian-American artist Jessica Sabogal — honors the heritage of Rice’s husband, Chicano historian and professor Carlos Manuel Salomon, the journey Rice’s  Mexican ancestors made to tend Northern California’s farmland a century ago and the restaurant’s current residency on the original homeland of Ohlone people.

The kitchen’s open layout allows the fragrance of boiling pots of garlic beans and lavender Fabuloso cleaner to waft into the eatery as soon as the morning’s prep begins. Soon after, neighbors and friends can commune on a simple front patio over a margarita, horchata or a bag of chips — without any expectation of racking up an expensive check.

It’s Adam Winig’s job to listen and compile all those different inspirations and ideas into an architecturally sound and budget-friendly plan. The co-founder of Arcsine, an Oakland design firm, says their industry’s goal is to help restaurants visually narrate their menu and atmosphere, whether that’s at Shepherd & Sims or Meso Modern Mediterranean on San Jose’s Santana Row.

“I think that a restaurant experience needs to deliver to all senses,” Winig says. “It’s not just about sitting in a chair and eating something that tastes good. It’s about sitting in a chair that’s comfortable, with a temperature that’s right, with a sound level that’s right, with lighting that accents and helps you see what you’re eating, but isn’t too bright, and where the flow feels good.”

That may be especially important in a place like the Bay Area, where many residents have travelled the culinary world and discovered fine dining in every neighboring zip code.

Additionally, the rise of the “Instagrammable moment” in recent years seems to have simultaneously sparked new opportunities for restaurants to attract new customers, while challenging owners to decorate unique and genuine dining rooms that can hold up alongside their peers’ colorful murals, elaborate installations and artistic artifacts.

“Whether you like it or not, that has impacted design a bit — people kind of want that wow factor,” Winig says. “I think it’s competition, and the bar has been raised, kind of across all levels. People expect a fully curated experience that they can remember for a little while and really takes them away from anything they could create at home on their own.”

Undeniably at the lavish end of the spectrum, LITA in Walnut Creek was designed to transport diners to Miami, Florida, only minutes from home.

Guests often take advantage of the tropical backdrop’s bold blue bar, lush greenery, towering ceilings and gold accents, dressing to the nines and taking photos in between bites of jerk chicken, mushroom empanadas and lobster corndogs.

Co-owner Rolla Ghaben said each intricate detail is essential.

“Everything was aesthetically put together to make it Caribbean Latin, but also to make it look sexy, beautiful and bring that culture in there, too,” Ghaben says. “I want to go to a space where I feel like I’m out of Walnut Creek for a minute. But for us, it wasn’t just about feeling somewhere else; it was about coming in to LITA and having a different experience to what you would feel anywhere else downtown.”

Ghaben — who operates LITA alongside her two brothers, David and Mike Ghaben, and extended family members Sam Ghaben, Celina Gonzalez and Sofia Ghaben — says they used unexpected delays during the COVID pandemic to take their time connecting with food and design consultants in Florida, including visiting in-person and shipping all the furniture and decor direct from the southern Sunshine State.

“It all goes together — the food, aesthetics, service, management, team, ownership,” Ghaben said. “We wanted to be different, and we wanted to be the sexiest place on the block. The designer killed it and brought Miami to Walnut Creek, literally.”

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