Make Room For the Food!

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The life-size mermaid outside Farallon in San Francisco is the first hint that something out of the ordinary lies in store within the restaurant. And indeed it does. Inside is an underwater fantasy, from the kelp-shaped banisters and fish-scale seat cushions to the hanging lights that look like jellyfish and sea urchins. You never quite know what you're going to run into in a restaurant designed by Pat Kuleto, but chances are it's going to be at least as interesting as the food. That's why his creations are behind some of the most popular restaurants in the land. From the warm, masculine interior of Atlanta's Buckhead Diner to the twinkly, romantic curves of San Francisco's Jardiniere, Kuleto's masterly blend of stone, glass, tile and copper, often whimsical and always hand-crafted, has made him one of the most innovative--and imitated--restaurant designers around.

A late-blooming gourmet, Kuleto, 55, first got into the restaurant business through the service entrance. He started as a busboy, waiter and cook, then worked as a contractor. When business got slow, he offered to design some steak houses for free if the owner let him build them. Despite a lack of formal training, the burly carpenter had an intuitive feel for creating dramatic, bustling environments that complemented rather than competed with the food. By the time his '50s-style Fog City Diner (in his home base of San Francisco) caught critics' eyes in 1984, Kuleto had thrown away his hammer and turned full time to restaurant design, a field that had barely existed before then.

His method? Start by making the restaurant comfortable for the employees who work there. "If you make them happy," he says, "that translates to the people being happy." After that comes lighting. "You can make a gas station spectacular if you light it properly," insists Kuleto, who says he's found design ideas in everything from European castles to industrial trash. He's also kept his star chefs happy (and loyal) by making them partners in their restaurants. "Pat has an amazing imagination, and he's fearless when it comes to design," says Nancy Oakes, the celebrated chef and part owner of San Francisco's Boulevard. "He said, 'I'm going to build a place where you're going to want to be 16 hours a day.' And he did."

These days, after having designed more than 160 restaurants, Kuleto still goes out to eat three times a week but not to look for inspiration. "I try to see what people are doing," he says mischievously, "so I can go in the opposite direction." Eager diners are sure to follow.

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