As part of this year's Architecture and the City Festival, Inhabitat had the chance to tour the award-winning San Francisco restaurant Bar Agricole, which opened almost exactly one year ago. The LEED Gold certified renovated space — originally a brewery and more recently a plumbing warehouse — is warm, palpable and inspiring. A wooden wall made from recycled whiskey casks stands opposite an exposed concrete wall, which has left intact the low holes designed to pass kegs to the street. The front bar features wood recycled from razed Midwestern barns. Add in abundant natural light and you've got a place people like to sit in.
But Bar Agricole turned out very differently than it might have. Owner Thad Vogel, a Yale grad and longtime barman and restauranteur, had observed the trend among San Francisco restaurants of spotlighting local, artisan ingredients. He wanted to take it a step further and have the physical setting reflect the same values. He explained with perverse pride that he signed the lease on the location in August 2008 — just before the economy tanked. Working with radically diminished financing, Vogel decided to offer the architects and craftsmen equity instead of cash money to get the results he wanted. What he got in exchange was the good work that comes with pride of ownership.
The location, which has earned LEED gold certification and won several architectural awards, was re-created by Aidlin Darling Design. It features exposed original concrete, augmented by new but lived-in concrete flooring, banquettes and a second bar by Mark Rogero of Oakland’s Concreteworks, along with textile-evoking glass sculptures by Nikolas Weinstein that decorate the skylights. The kitchen was designed in consultation with chef Brandon Jew.
Vogler and architect Josh Aidlin allowed Rogero to do fill as much of the space as possible with concrete because it’s cheaper than other materials. Rogero produced the second bar — designed to respond to table orders, freeing the wood bar in the front to operate completely on a first-come, first-served basis — using “really old” technology endowed with some rough edges to make it feel less industrial. He used brand new high-tech materials to produce the award-winning banquettes, which look sort of like wood and sort of like marble but nothing like concrete.
The architect and the craftsmen use the word “authentic,” which may describe their own experience making the space as much as the effect. But the the fare is also authentic: Neither the food, nor, more impressively, the drinks at the bar, contain anything artificial.
Architect Josh Aidlin fielded a question on how to foster the love of material that is clearly on display. “Get your kids off the computer,” he said, almost before the questioner had finished. “Kids are meant to play in dirt, and in all kinds of difficult materials all their lives and never stop.”
Glass artist Weinstein couldn’t help but put in a last word to the audience of architects, asking them to remember that the neighborhood around Bar Agricole — which had to fight to get a zoning permit to provide entertainment — used to be dedicated to light industrial operations. Now there are so few of those shops left that artisans like him and Rogero are under increasing pressure to outsource their prototyping to China. “You can’t have a conversation with the guy in China,” he said.
Photos by Cameron Scott and Mike Chino for Inhabitat