Bethesda Magazine | November-December 2017

Grand Designs

What it takes to create a restaurant's layout and décor

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Roberto Pietrobono has designed five restaurants, including his second Gringos & Mariachis, which is at Park Potomac. Photo by Deb Lindsey

It’s early August, and Roberto Pietrobono is standing in what will be the dining room of his fifth restaurant when it opens in a few months. A bit of a rarity, Pietrobono is an owner who designs his own restaurants, and this second outpost of Gringos & Mariachis, at Park Potomac, looks nothing like he originally envisioned. 

For starters, the bar. Made with colored plywood, it’s quartz-topped and appointed with attractive white and black tile. It is not, however, circular, the shape Pietrobono wanted. Then there’s the mezzanine. Or the lack of one. After his initial visit to the space, he scrapped the concept. 

The murals at Gringos & Mariachis in Bethesda were inspired by Mexican street art. Photo by Violetta Markelou

“The minute I walked in here I knew my design was completely wrong,” he says. “I was given a corner space, and I’ve always liked a circular bar. I’ve never had one, so that’s the way I designed this first. But I started imagining a busy place, and the flow just didn’t work. So I changed the whole plan. Moved the bar up to the window, had open windows where I have an indoor/outdoor bar. It drove everyone crazy, it delayed us, but in the long run who’s going to remember that 10 years ago it took us a year and a half rather than six months to open?”

Restaurant design is both a technical and artistic endeavor, and Pietrobono’s ability to create functional interiors and atmospheres that are pleasing to his customers is one reason why his Montgomery County establishments—two Olazzos, Gringos & Mariachis and Alatri Bros.—remain popular. In a cutthroat market like suburban Washington, D.C., a place with uncomfortable chairs, a cold color scheme, or a deafening dining room can quickly become an afterthought, no matter how delectable the food is.

At Alatri Bros. in Bethesda, above the pizza oven, there’s a coat of arms of the Italian province Frosinone, where Alatri is located. Photo by Violetta Markelou

“In Bethesda, the guest is way too sophisticated not to pay attention to everything you’re doing,” says Chris Meers, a president and executive partner of Lettuce Entertain You, which owns local eateries Summer House Santa Monica, Stella Barra Pizzeria and Mon Ami Gabi. “We view the food, service and design as critically important. You have to bring all three to the game.”

Doing so isn’t cheap. Hiring a top-notch designer can cost up to $500,000, Meers says (although his firm employs its own). Pinching pennies is one reason Pietrobono designed the first Olazzo himself after he and his partner, his brother Riccardo, bought the old South Beach Restaurant & Bar on Norfolk Avenue in Bethesda for $60,000 in 2001. 

The bar at Alatri Bros. Photo by Violetta Markelou

The restaurant design arms race started to heat up in the mid to late 1990s, when the Food Network began making pop stars out of chefs who previously toiled in anonymity. 

“I first started seeing a lot of it when we opened Mon Ami Gabi in Vegas in 1998,” says Meers, who lives and works in Chicago but grew up in Bethesda. “The TV chefs of the world started opening these big, beautiful restaurants.”

Finding stylish and comfortable bar stools is a challenge, says Roberto Pietrobono, owner of Olazzo (the Bethesda location is pictured here). Photo by Violetta Markelou