French brasserie Couvant in the Eliza Jane Hotel swung open its doors last year with a knockout menu of classical French dishes like skate wing and roasted chicken — and an interior space that shined in its design.
Though the design embraces some of the original architectural elements of the space that once housed the Peychaud’s Bitters factory and the Daily-Picayune, the restaurant doesn’t recreate the past. Instead, its design forges ahead with its own identity, as a contemporary French brasserie built for a diner tucking in for an intimate meal or meeting friends for an energetic few rounds of happy hour cocktails.
Eater New Orleans sat down with Christine Magrann, COO of Makeready, to talk about what went into making Eater NOLA’s Most Beautiful Restaurant of 2018. Couvant was the first project Makeready saw through completely from idea to what it is today. Magrann helmed the creative design.
Stephanie Jane Carter: How did you get involved with this project?
Christine Magrann: We were engaged by the owners and they asked us if we would consider stepping in and operating a restaurant in New Orleans. We came at it from a really humble point of view: Are we really the right company to go into a great food and beverage city like New Orleans?
We spent a lot of time in the city really trying to learn what guests enjoy and what’s successful in New Orleans from a culinary perspective and price point.
We dined and observed a lot of really successful restaurants, with recognition and a great reputation and also some of the older, iconic restaurants. We did what I think a lot of people do: We went back to a lot of those places over and over again. We spoke to a lot of different servers and bartenders and just tried to connect with the people that were there that appeared to be really passionate.
SJC: How can a restaurant design foster that idea of a lingering visit to a restaurant or that kind of warm, genuine hospitality?
CM: It’s tricky. You’re hoping your guest will use your restaurant in multiple experiences. So, from a design perspective we really focus on seating arrangements — creating these little intimate pockets where you could have that great big night out together and feel like you’ve kind of tucked into an intimate moment, but then also where we could pull tables together into a twelve-top really easily for celebratory moments or happy hours or business get-togethers. And I think we accomplished that. There are a lot of different choices where you can experience a different type of dining on each one of your visits here.
Lighting played a big part in that — making sure each one of those lighting elements specifically played into that space. But it also had flexibility to it where you didn’t feel like there were such strong parameters that you couldn’t move tables around.
For example, we did kind of hit lighting specifically on [a specific] table so that a four-top feels like it has the right amount of lighting and it still feels warm and bright enough. You’ll notice that we have a lot more broader globes and ceiling-type lighting so that we can push three tables together and the lighting still feels very appropriate.
SJC: How did you work the history of the location into the design? What architectural details did you save? What did you change?
CM: You’ll notice a really unique wall structure in the building. We were very committed to restoring and reinforcing those brick walls so that they could remain part of the interior.
And then if you walk into the courtyard, that’s where I think we have one of the most unique differentiators to other some other restaurants in that market with those original structures all throughout the courtyard. It creates another little pocket for us to have small social gatherings and I think that makes the space feel really authentic and genuine in a really warm way that kind of envelops you when you are sitting in those spaces.
CM: We wanted to choose materials with a little bit of wear to them. We were careful that nothing came across as glossy or brand new. When you walk into the space, there should be this emotional connection and comfortable approachability. For example, there are two colors in the bar dye so it has a natural-looking wear to it. We didn’t want to come off as fake, like we were trying to bring back or make it feel like it was from the original building. We just wanted there to be a synergy with that beautiful history.
CM: From an operational perspective, New Orleans is full of really loyal hospitality, and recruiting and getting people to take a chance on a new opportunity and a new restaurant was really challenging. So, taking the time to foster relationships — we spent a lot more time there than we did in some of the other cities.
From a design perspective, it was hands-down really being committed to keeping those original walls because it took a lot of restructuring and reinforcement and it just took longer than we expected and it took more reinforcement than we thought it would.
SJC: Is there something you’ve learned in your career that you take with you to each project?
CM: I would say a focus on that first point of entry and the feeling guests get when they walk in on a slow period or a busy period. I think that’s something a lot of designers might take for granted. You imagine your restaurant being busy and bustling all the time so that’s the point of view when you design. So I think that designing to those slow moments is really important, especially in the seating arrangements and the the look when you enter the space.