Lila Restaurant is located on Paseo de los Locutores Street, near the intersection with Federico Geraldino Street in Piantini. The diners who frequent it have become accustomed to not trying to locate its sign, because it does not have one – it is one of those places where it does not fall at random, but the visitor must know in advance what is behind the door. Those in search of its gastronomic promise, modern Asian cuisine, might also be confused upon entering and seeing an interior design proposal that has little to do with the normal indicators of inspiration from China, Japan and the southeast of the continent. Besides, the space is huge, with a mezzanine that surpasses any previous daring in local hospitality; more than a restaurant, it could be the territory of a cathedral.
Why does Lila seem to have gone, in terms of design, against everything that the restaurant trade had established during this period of gastronomic bonanza in Santo Domingo? Because, actually, it all makes sense. To explain it, one of its owners, Daniel Fernández, and the two interior designers in charge of the project, Gabriela Hernández and Coral Chávez of Estudio GC, answer these questions.
Why doesn’t Lila have a sign?
Fernández and his partners -Eric Heinsen and Teófilo Haché- decided not to have a sign with a name for the place. Instead, they bet on the communicative strength of an isotype: the extraction of the interior of three lowered arches, the element that makes up the imposing façade of the restaurant, in a project executed by architect Lucía Freites. This idea came before the menu and the interior, as the partners – fans of architecture – dreamed of such an entrance. It wasn’t until they shared the renderings with an architect that he pointed out that they had inadvertently paid homage to one of the most iconic entertainment buildings in the Americas: New York’s Lincoln Center, built in 1956. “We believe very much in the power of architecture, and we wanted a building with these kinds of arches because we felt it could visually add to the city,” Fernandez explained. “As a citizen, the details that you see stick with you, and they come out in unexpected ways. For example, although subconsciously there was a reference to Lincoln Center, the initial inspiration was actually the Basilica of Higüey. But that’s all part of the design education we acquire as we pass between buildings in our daily lives.”
But then why does Lila do have the name on the profile image on the Instagram account and not on the restaurant itself? “It’s a strategy to look for word of mouth to spread faster,” Fernandez said. “The feeling is different when people have to know that’s there; you value it more if you hear about it from someone else. That’s why we don’t put signs on our restaurants, as is the case with our previous project, Laurel.”
Why is the ceiling so high?
There are eight meters between the floor and the ceiling of Lila. When you enter the restaurant you have to give your breath time to travel all the way through the vertical space and back into your body, because it definitely takes it out. Why such generosity, something so uncommon in local restaurants? “Because usually in Santo Domingo restaurants are made in old remodeled structures… but we built this from scratch,” Fernandez explained. “You have to understand that design is 50 percent of a restaurant’s business: if you invest in a new structure and friends of yours come from outside and are impressed, it was worth it. If Lila becomes the place where you can proudly take foreign visitors, it was worth it.” When Lila opened, in fact, the feedback they heard most often from local visitors was “I felt like I caught a plane,” a reference to how the restaurant lived up to what they had seen in other countries.
Why is it so important to him that a foreign visitor is impressed? “Because we are a gastronomic city, where you eat very well, but we are not really, because we still don’t have the gastronomic tourism that we could have,” said the businessman. “We only have cruise ship or resort tourism that spend a few hours in the Colonial City, because we don’t have convention tourism either. If in the Central Polygon we bet on creating innovative gastronomic experiences, with buildings that impress, then we would be contributing to the creation of that type of city tourism.”
Why doesn’t it look like an Asian restaurant?
In Fernandez and his partners’ experience with the local market, themed restaurants don’t become staple restaurants, those with a high frequency of visitation. “Not everyone wants to eat Japanese or Chinese or Mexican food three times a week,” the partner explained. “In the Dominican Republic, the comfort food is American and then Italian. You eat Indian or Mexican or Korean food only once or twice a month, usually.”
So while Fernandez, Heinsen and Haché wanted to test the waters with a fused version of Asian cuisine, they knew they needed a safety net for their experiment. That’s where the interior design, by Estudio GC, came in. “Instead of going for the expected, we decided to explore the materiality of Asian cuisine: from the color tones of the fish to the textures and freshness of many of its ingredients,” Hernandez explained. “It wasn’t about bringing the aesthetics of a region to the décor, but bringing what’s on the plate to the walls. That’s why, every time I see Gustavo Peña’s central painting, made with the leftover paint from his spatula, I think of one of the pizzas from the initial menu. I remember looking at that plate and thinking that I was eating the painting”.
Hence the restaurant places so much emphasis on letting the beauty of the natural “ingredients” speak: the wood and stones of the tables, the marble of the bar, the thread of the tapestries from the Mexican workshop Caralarga or the palm fibers of the huge hexagonal patterned panels made by Santiago Rodriguez’s artisans for the local project Los Tejedores. The result is a space that feels cohesive but not overwhelming, neutral without being impersonal.
And that’s precisely what the partners wanted to take advantage of: to have a neutral canvas that would allow them to recalibrate should the menu need to change. And it was: while the public appreciated Lila’s innovative menu, with its unexpected Asian insertions, it still yearned for the comfort classics it so seeks in local restaurants. So a few weeks ago, Lila introduced a new menu, with Asian favorites now joined by more international options, such as burgers, pastas and sandwiches; it also changed its slogan to “Modern Cuisine”. By investing in an attractive design without being themed, they were able to make that business decision without having to make any physical changes.
Why do you have so many different chair and table arrangements?
Lila has 230 chairs, with an additional private lounge. At first, the interior designers had opted for a layout focused on privacy, with a dividing line down the center of the main aisle that placed diners with their backs to each other. “But then Daniel and Teo gave us an important piece of information: here people go to restaurants to see and be seen,” Chávez recalled. That changed the seating arrangement: now, no matter where diners sit in the large space, they have a full view of the restaurant. With that freedom of placement, they also had the luxury of combining materials: that is why not all the chairs and tables are the same, nor do they have a standard number of seats per unit – precisely to achieve that visual trick.
What is the function of the small library room at the entrance?
As you enter the restaurant, on the right hand side there is a small room with a bookshelf with books and sculptures, a coffee table and various types of seating. In theory, it should serve as a waiting area for diners with reservations. In practice? “What would a restaurant be today without a space that photographs very well on Instagram?” the interior designers laughingly pointed out. “That’s the most Instagrammed spot in the entire restaurant, and it’s something that helps spread the word.” In other words: as Hernandez, Chavez and their Lila clients already know, investing in good interior design is investing in good marketing.