Hire a hotshot architect like David Rockwell or Adam Tihany to design your restaurant and it becomes a high-profile project the minute they come on board. But these guys, talented as they are, are small potatoes next to Frank Gehry, the world’s most-well known, not to mention wildest, architect. So what would happen if Gehry ventured onto Rockwell and Tihany’s turf and designed a restaurant? Now we know, thanks to the opening last month of FRANK, located inside the revamped Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. Does Gehry’s ability to create mind-bending buildings translate to an exciting restaurant space? And, oh yeah what’s on the menu at FRANK?
We hope our readers are familiar with noted Gehry projects like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Experience Music Project in Seattle or Dancing House in Prague. If not, our descriptive skills simply aren’t enough to convey what his radically deconstructionist approach to architecture is like. Let’s just say that his work is so unique that Gehry buildings become tourist destinations in and of themselves, regardless of what happens to be inside. See one of them in person and you’ll find yourself wondering how anyone could (1) imagine it; (2) create workable drawings for it; or (3) physically build it. Stare at certain Gehry buildings long enough and you might get vertigo.
Gehry turns 80 this year, and is nearing the twilight of his career. But he still has plenty of creative juice left, and he used plenty of it on his latest project. He agreed to a design a major expansion of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. Gehry has built iconic buildings all over the world, but this is his first Canadian project. It’s also unusual for him to tackle an expansion of an existing building, rather than to create one from scratch. The restaurant space was part of this commission, and museum trustees were so flattered that someone of Gehry’s caliber would agree to design it they named the restaurant after him: FRANK.
So how’d it turn out?
By Gehry’s standards, it’s pretty tame. He did one restaurant previously, 1986’s Fish Dance in Kobe, Japan. That one is marked by a dramatic four-story-high fish sculpture, but the rest of the building is, says the New York Times, “ordinary, even dull.” You have to think he was ready to up the ante this time around.
The bulk of Gehry’s work at AGO was as adventurous as ever, both on the exterior and inside. But he kept the restaurant’s design spare, the better to showcase the works of art AGO chose to display in the dining area. Gehry didn’t want his design to compete with the food, either. So while FRANK is sleek and contemporary in a Euro-chic kind of way, it’s hard to discern any signature Gehry design touches.
It could be that the space itself didn’t get Gehry’s juices flowing. The restaurant is meant to be a profit center, not a standalone design statement. The trustees’ idea was to tuck FRANK under the building’s façade at street level so that dining patrons could enjoy direct access to FRANK. That way the restaurant could offer lunch, dinner and brunch service outside of gallery hours. If not set up this way, potential patrons would have had to pay a stiff museum admission fee ($18) to gain access to FRANK. Now they can simply walk in off the street. Dinner service goes as late at 10:30 p.m. on weekends.
The end result is a handsome restaurant that could have been designed by any number of people. It turns out even a design colossus like Frank Gehry couldn’t get around the realities of the restaurant business. We’ve included a couple of images that will give RH enewsletter readers a flavor of the new FRANK, and we hope to run a more complete set in an upcoming issue of Restaurant Hospitality once official images from AGO become available.
Separate from the design, another challenge for FRANK was this: What kind of food do you serve in a restaurant that celebrates a world-famous architect? “Our honest and direct cuisine is presented in a warm and inviting room, offering contemporary dining without pretension,” says executive chef Anne Yarymowich.
What’s on the menu? At $8, roasted sunchoke soup with toasted sunflower seeds and sunflower oil is the least expensive item on the small plates & starter section of FRANK’s dinner menu Other options include what’s billed as a “”still life with pear, pancetta and fig” that’s accompanied by Quebec Bleu Benedictin cheese ($14); and roasted bone marrow and salt-cured beef tenderloin with grilled baguette toasts, Maldon salt and preserved lemon ($18).
The low end of the nine-item entrée list includes open-faced ravioli with braised beef short ribs, celeriac and chanterelle mushrooms ($22) and Lake Erie pickerel pan-seared with cauliflower ragout and cloudberry sauce ($23). Big-ticket items are a wild boar loin chop with braised red cabbage, purple potatoes and wild blueberry-green peppercorn preserves ($28) and braised Ontario rabbit in white wine and Pommery mustard with wilted winter greens and semolina-potato galette ($25). So far, per person check averages for the artsy comfort food served at this 130-seat restaurant have been around $100 at dinner, $50 at lunch and $40 at brunch if you factor in taxes, tip and a glass of wine.
It’s adventurous food for a museum restaurant, and it was love at first sight for Toronto’s food critics. But like us, they were scratching their heads at the Gehry-designed dining room’s lack of energy, excitement and, well, Gehry-ness. “Too bad that the Gehry-designed space…has such little personality,” says Toronto Now’s Steven Davey. “There’s very little about FRANK that says art. Instead, we get a subdued palette of black, white and beige offset by a lot of blond plywood, the same anonymous Douglas fir featured throughout the gallery.”
So to answer our own question about Gehry’s restaurant design capabilities, it looks like FRANK is going to succeed despite his contributions, not because of them. The operation pulled in $50,000 in the first week.
Gehry’s a genius about many aspects of architecture and design—just not restaurants. If you wonder why Rockwell and Tihany continue to get big restaurant design jobs even though they cost so much, it’s because they’re worth it. If you don’t think so, go take a look at FRANK.