Santa Monica Place
395 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA
The Tab(2) vodka martinis
(1) Redwood Blonde
(1) ahi tuna tartar
$33.67 + tip
Having grown up in New Jersey, I’m no stranger to mall dining. In middle school, my friends and I spent many Saturday afternoons consuming pizza slices and garlic knots on our way to (or from) Claire’s Accessories. My grandmother and I shared countless lunches at Bloomingdale’s café, and my brother and I adored cookies from the mall’s Mrs. Fields. All perfectly pleasant dining experiences, but they weren’t hip. So I’m sort of surprised that the architect who designed hip places like Spago Beverly Hills, the original Lucky Strike Lanes, and M.B. Post should choose to meet me at a mall.
The elevator at Santa Monica Place has a dedicated button for the Redwood Grille, and I am deposited directly into the restaurant foyer. It’s no food court. I’m surrounded by sleek wood and glass, big brown leather banquettes, and windows that stream in light through palm trees. Stephen Francis Jones is sitting at a table inside, but we head to the back patio, which has a nautical vibe, thanks to dark blue cushions and sail-shaped awnings that provide both shade and drama.
Jones explains that the restaurant’s Canadian owners didn’t want diners to feel that they were on the third floor of the mall (though I personally like the view of the Third Street Promenade from up here). He tells me that once the sun goes down, the birds of paradise in planters around the patio cast shadows on the sails above us. The sails wink at the proximity of the ocean, and Jones adds that the design is also inspired by the contoured, curved ceilings at the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.
Jones, who is in his early 50s, says he got hooked on designing restaurants in the late 1980s, not long after getting a graduate degree from UCLA. He’d previously worked on high-rise projects, for which the design and permitting phases alone can take years. “I like the fast-pacedness of the restaurants,” he says. Jones and his firm are responsible for everything from liquor permits (his least favorite part of the job) and the kitchen to furniture and smaller design elements, like working with the artist of the mural on one of the Redwood Grille walls.
Jones likens the creation of a restaurant to the designing of a sports car: “You have a very sexy body that has a big-ass engine in it, and it has to perform at top speeds but look perfect doing it.” That engine—the kitchen—has to flow, the servers need a certain amount of space to work, and the lighting needs to make the room and the people and the food look good. Plus, the gig comes with perks: you can easily show off your work; dinners out can be written off as a business expense; and you get treated very well at the restaurants you design.
Jones’ firm, SF Jones Architects, takes on about 10 to 15 projects per year and currently is working as far afield as Kenya. But his dream job, building his own Cheers, was closer to home. Jones has lived in Manhattan Beach since 1993, so he jumped at the chance to design the restaurant M.B. Post, which opened in 2011. The chef told Jones he wanted the place to have “soul” and “to feel like it’s Manhattan Beach.” So some of the restaurant walls are reclaimed wood, with faded markings imitating those on the lifeguard stands at the beach. He replicated beach volleyball posts that stand beneath the bar. The shelves that hold the liquor bottles are umpire seats; the men’s and women’s bathrooms are marked with men’s and women’s volleyball nets; and Jones even went so far as to steal the rusted eyehooks that hold the nets up (replacing them with new ones) to use in the restaurant design. “M.B. Post is my little neighborhood hangout,” he says.
When Francis designed his first restaurants in the early 1990s, the term “locavore” was still over a decade away. Today, it’s in Webster’s, and food culture has gone mainstream. Has the ascension of the foodie changed restaurant design?
To answer my question, Francis tells me a little bit about Typhoon, the restaurant at the Santa Monica Aiport that (along with Chaya Venice) introduced him to his line of work over 20 years ago. Eating dinner at Typhoon recently with his niece and her friends—who are 20 years Jones’ junior—he noticed that as far as his dining companions were concerned, they could have been in a recently opened restaurant. The concepts Jones uses today are similar to what he was doing a few decades ago; it’s only the applications that have changed. Tablecloths are gone, and layouts have become more communal with the rise of the shared plate. “The type of design I do is I design social spaces,” says Jones, “places where people come to meet with other people, and they want to be entertained.”
Jones is currently working on a new Del Frisco’s Grille in Irvine that’s going to have “the coolest bar you’ve ever seen.” The four corners of the bar are going to be attached to communal tables, so that people sitting at the bar can talk from the same height to people at the tables.
Unfortunately, there’s no need for such a bar at the Redwood Grille on this weeknight. It’s getting to the end of happy hour time, we’ve finished off our tuna tartar appetizer, and Jones is working on his second martini. We still have the patio to ourselves, and he is clearly disappointed that more people aren’t enjoying his space. But Jones, who says he doesn’t go out to dinner as often as you’d think, is happy to have an excuse to linger here.
Jones tells me he’s at the point in his career where he doesn’t have to prove himself. He has done a range of work, and he has the luxury of a good stable of clients—which is an architect’s best asset. While the recession has made him a little less picky, he still feels like he’s surrounded by good people, both clients and employees. “Happy cows make happy milk and good milk,” he says, and he encourages his employees to have a life.
As for Jones’ life outside the office, he and his wife shuttle their two kids (ages 11 and 16) to volleyball games and school. He rows at the UCLA Aquatic Center in Marina del Rey three times a week—a 20-year-old habit—in addition to cycling and playing volleyball regularly. And like most Southern Californians, he spends a lot of time in the car, commuting from Manhattan Beach to his Marina del Rey office—which, he admits, is not too bad when the sun’s setting over the ocean.
After we settle the bill—I have to insist on paying—we head out of the still-empty restaurant and into the Santa Monica evening. As outstanding as the view might be from the Redwood Grille, this mall restaurant is still a mall restaurant—and thus isn’t going to become my regular watering hole. But the happy hour specials are pretty good, and the design, which I’ve taken the time to appreciate, is even better.