Local interior designers go global at Vancouver's most photogenic restaurants

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      When siblings Vincent and Amelie Nguyen decided to take the reins at their parents’ restaurant—the long-standing Pho Hoang on Main Street—in 2015, a revamp was in order. But before the aging space was gutted and transformed into the bright, welcoming room that, today, is known as Anh and Chi, there were a few ground rules to establish.

      First, the Nguyens would continue to offer the traditional, home-style Vietnamese dishes, such as pho and bún bò Hue—a spicy noodle soup that often includes beef shank, oxtail, and pigs’ feet—that their mother and late father had perfected. Second, the restaurant’s new interiors, though updated, were to maintain elements of the family’s heritage.

      “We opened Anh and Chi to honour and showcase Vietnamese culture,” explains Amelie by phone. “And part of that is respecting, recognizing, and showing certain aspects that we remember as kids, what our parents experienced during their time growing up in Vietnam, and what we’ve seen during our travels back.”

      Working with local design firm House of Bohn, the brother-and-sister team created a space that propels Vietnamese cuisine into the realm of mid-range to upscale dining while staying true to their humble roots. Gold and brass fixtures—including a dramatic cascade pendant modelled, by request of the Nguyens, after the shape of a Vietnamese conical hat—shine alongside layers of elegantly stained wood and graphic French-colonial-era tiles.

      Numberless metal chopsticks form an intricate fan pattern behind the bar, while punches of earthy green in the tropical stained-glass window, Vietnam-sourced oil lanterns, and the bathroom’s banana-leaf wallpaper evoke the lush terrain of the Southeast Asian nation.

      Chinatown's Kissa Tanto borrows heavily from jazzu kissas, jazz coffee shops that grew popular in Japan during the '60s.
      Knauf and Brown

      “Every piece that we picked out, there’s a meaning behind it and why we did it,” says Amelie. Indeed, the grand, contemporary space is a far cry from the no-frills pho joints that have earned spots on countless cheap-eats lists. But the nods to Vincent and Amelie’s native Vietnam are also indicative of the far-flung destinations restaurateurs and interior designers are increasingly paying homage to in subtle—and highly Instagramable—ways.

      “I think that, in Vancouver specifically, there’s been a push away from the typical West Coast Modern style that’s been predominant over the past few years,” says House of Bohn’s media assistant, Todd Mitchell, who also worked alongside director Karin Bohn in the execution of vegan-pizza joint Virtuous Pie. “And that’s why a lot of our designs…have a little more of a global feel.”

      At Chinatown’s award-winning Japanese-Italian eatery, Kissa Tanto—a moody, upper-level space that pulls heavily from 1960s Tokyo jazz clubs—curtains fashioned from vintage Japanese fabrics divide the narrow staircase from the dining room and gilded sensa adorn the dark, dual-toned walls. Curvy Italian midcentury-modern lines juxtapose sharp corners, while banker’s lamps, floral wallpaper, and cushy forest-green carpeting help ground the pastiche of details in a retro, rec-room-like setting.

      “Each element on its own didn’t look very good,” Tannis Ling, co-owner of Kissa Tanto, reveals during an interview at the restaurant. “But once it came together, it was magic.”

      Savio Volpe's whimsical interiors feature plenty of warm woods and custom-made lighting fixtures that evoke religious iconography.
      Knauf and Brown

      Craig Stanghetta, founder and principal of local agency Ste. Marie Art and Design, was the creative mind behind that intimate 80-seat room, which was voted best new restaurant in this year’s Golden Plates. His establishment, Savio Volpe, an osteria in Fraserhood that he co-owns and engineered, draws from Italian influences too—specifically, the simplicity and modesty of the country’s cooking.

      “That’s what sort of drove the design, that kind of idea about Italian culture,” he tells the Straight at Ste. Marie’s East Van office. “Not people shouting and stuff like that—we’ve seen that version a bunch of times.”

      Stained woods and red-and-white checkered tablecloths typical of Italian eateries are swapped out for white-oak furnishings with a Scandinavian sensibility and houndstooth- and herringbone-upholstered seats that host guests chowing down on tripe alla Parmigiana, tender tortiglioni with beef braciole, and other rustic plates.

      According to Stanghetta, the restaurant is a cabin belonging to Savio Volpe’s muse—a sophisticated, firewood-toting fox—and the art, books, and trinkets scattered throughout make it all the homier. “We thought of the place as his inn,” says the designer, who looked to the Italian-penned Pinocchio for inspo. “He’s carrying the wood and you can see his tools and groceries all over.”

      Tacofino's Gastown bar and Yaletown cantina both incorporate handcrafted elements such as locally produced porcelain pendant lights and hand-painted murals.
      Laura McGuire

      Local designer Shiloh Sukkau, meanwhile, didn’t have to draw far from home when dreaming up the interiors of Tacofino’s Gastown and Yaletown outposts. “They’re really different in terms of the aesthetic,” she explains by phone, describing the two taco-and-burrito bars. “But I think that the references are coming from the same place, which is this West Coast, Vancouver-to-Baja kind of thing that is really reflective of their food.”

      From the handwoven Moroccan throws and macramé plant hangers to the funky porcelain light fixtures crafted by local artist Meghann Hubert, an eclectic mix of handmade objects conjures a laid-back, hippie-chill vibe that does Tacofino’s Tofino-meets-SoCal fare justice.

      Even the crisp lines on the Gastown spot’s hexagonal green tiles—the subject of innumerable #ihavethisthingwithfloors posts—were applied by hand. “The owners really, really loved that tile,” says Sukkau, “so we tried to fit it in where we could.”

      And while visually pleasing interiors—borrowed from overseas or otherwise—are today more integral to the dining experience than ever (“People are eating with their eyes and they’re telling people about it through their phones,” notes Stanghetta), the look and feel of a restaurant space serves a larger purpose. For Amelie, it ties back to the at-home pho pop-ups her parents conducted as a way to unite fellow Vietnamese refugees when they arrived in Vancouver nearly four decades ago.

      “That’s kind of the bigger picture with Anh and Chi,” she says. “Yeah, we want to elevate Vietnamese food, but we also want to bring cross-cultural and cross-generational populations together in a beautiful space and have people really feel connected.”

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.