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Designing New Spaces For The Texas Restaurant Boom

Gin Braverman is founder and creative director of Gin Design Group, an interior design firm based in Houston with a specialty in hospitality.

I started out working in production for TV and film. In that kind of production, you’re exposed to so many ideas, and so many design approaches and resources. It was great, but it was always so fleeting, especially because I was mostly doing commercials. We’d design something, build it, and tear it down. A lot of agony over a paint color for a two-second blip on a screen.

Then I helped design for an HGTV show where we were designing actual homes for actual people. That was my first exposure to designing something with longevity, and for human use. That resonated so much more with me.

I was studying photography and fashion and all this other stuff while I was working in film production. Then I moved to Taiwan, working over there teaching English. I interned with a design firm while I was there.

When I came back to Houston, I got a job with a really cool husband-and-wife team who did crazy art installations of reclaimed items. They were very talented, and they got me to think about things in a different way—like how art installations become a focal point for a concept, rather than a run-of-the-mill interior design approach. I got my hands dirty there. I learned how to do wire, and patina, and woodworking, and how to work with paint and finishes. I got exposed to the artisan side of the process, which was awesome. We bring a lot of that to our projects now.

When I started my own design firm, I did one or two residential projects with HGTV. Then I did a restaurant, and I was like, “Oh, this resonates on an even higher level.” I’ve always worked in the hospitality industry, waiting tables and bartending and such. That’s what I knew. If you ask someone to design a really high-end mansion who’s never lived in a really high-end mansion, it’s a learning curve. But in a restaurant, you’re like, “Oh, this is my language. These are my people. I know how this works.”

Photo: Courtesy Gin Braverman.

Then in about 2012 we did a restaurant project in Houston that was a really big deal for the city at the time, called Oxheart. They were among the first of their kind with this chef-driven concept, and they won a James Beard Award. Luckily that was one of my first restaurants. After that, we were a go-to for restaurant design in Houston. The business just kind of grew organically.

The Houston restaurant scene is family oriented. I wouldn’t say it’s incestuous, but people hop around like crazy, and everyone ends up knowing everyone. We’ve also been doing work in New Orleans, Dallas, and up in New Canaan. We’re very open to working in other cities. Houston has just been so busy. We’ve really had most of our projects happen here.

Our designs have gotten a little more brave. What has always held true is that the space should reflect the client and not us. That’s why our spaces all look incredibly different from each other. You look at the portfolios of some restaurant design firms, and you’re like, “Oh, I like their style, I’m going to hire them.” We want you to like what you like, and we will help you get there.

On a new project, we go through a pretty intense pre-design phase where we get as aligned as we can with the client, without designing the space yet. Sometimes they’ve done a restaurant before, sometimes they haven’t. We start off with a wide-angle lens. Sometimes we’ll pick two or three or four different style directions—”look at this restaurant, is this a yes or a no?” And then you show them another one. “What about this do you like? Do you like that it’s moody? Do you like that it’s airy?” Once we land on something that everybody feels good with aesthetically, then we start to move into more conceptual stuff, space planning, and so on.

That’s when we really start to have fun. What story are we telling? We just did a Chinese restaurant, for example. Is this a frenetic Asian street market vibe, or is this the bucolic, countryside, artisan vibe? It turned out it was the countryside. Okay, let’s get rid of the neon. What’s the energy? What’s the story? The woman was from Sichuan Province in China, so we brought in all these elements that are specific to Sichuan, not just generalized Chinese or—God forbid—not Korean or Japanese. We make sure it’s authentic.

It’s awesome that you learn so much about culture and history as you design a restaurant, because it’s really important to people that you’re getting these subtle details right. We have a client who’s doing this Eurasian, Levantine type restaurant. In one part he really wants this Marrakesh aesthetic, but back in another part he wants it to feel more Taksim Square, a little more edgy. You really have to know your shit, especially with your educated clients. They know what they’re talking about, so you have to know it also. You can’t phone it in.

We designed one restaurant featuring global cuisine—Traveler’s Table. The owner told us, “It’s going to be the best dishes from all the countries. We’re going to change the menu all the time. The atmosphere and the environment really has to be global. It can’t feel like some certain place.” That’s a really hard aesthetic to nail. The architecture we had to work with was very modern. We couldn’t do any Old World European, so we brought in plaster and all these different fabrics.

Traveler’s Table restaurant in Houston. Photo: TK Images.

Like everyone when the pandemic hit, there was a solid six or eight weeks of sheer panic. Batten down the hatches, cut all our expenses, negotiate rent, get some PPP money. Very fortunately for us, Houston has been much more open than other places. Houstonians have kind of a Wild West attitude. Everybody was just like, “Hey, do you know what? We’ve got to live. We’re opening.” We only had one client who canceled a project. Everyone else paused briefly, and then picked right back up again. Now we’re busier than we were before COVID. It’s crazy. I don’t get it. But I’m not complaining.

We have a foundation here called Southern Smoke by Chris Shepherd, one of our local celeb chefs. That’s huge in terms of bolstering the community. Everyone’s taking care of each other as much as they can and trying to help everyone get through. It’s a little different everywhere, but in general everybody feels they have to be open in some capacity. There’s just not enough support from the government not to be open.

Houstonians are opportunists. They’re like, “People are still going out to eat, so we’re going to keep opening restaurants.” There’s a mixed bag of attitudes, from, “Well, I was already going to do this project, so now I’m going to keep doing it and hope for the best,” to “I’m going to open a restaurant that’s super COVID-friendly and make bank.”

The biggest design change we’re seeing is really robust, efficient, user-friendly, and pretty to-go areas. Right now, you walk in and a whole restaurant is taken over by to-go bags and Uber Eats drivers. It’s a mess. The new places moving forward, they have a separate entry or a separate pickup window, or tons of shelving hidden under the counter that people can grab for themselves. To-go has been sustaining a lot of places, so they’re trying to make it the best to-go experience that also doesn’t interfere with people dining in, because it is very disruptive.

There’s an increased request for booths where you can be more separate without having to deal with partitions. We don’t have anybody right now who wants to install partitions. Nobody wants to believe partitions will have to stay. Again, I think that’s a Houston or Texas thing, because I know in the Northeast everybody is like, “Partition it all off! Cubicles everywhere!” I think people here are just like, “Well, it will pass, and I’ll be stuck with these partitions. So let’s just not do that.”

With the restaurant scene thriving, we’re trying to go back to where we left off last year before the pandemic. We just finished designing a boutique hotel here, and we are trying to get more boutique hotel projects because that’s our next tier of hospitality. That’s been a pretty quiet scene for the last year because of how much tourism has dropped. We’ve designed a swim club, we’ve designed that hotel. We’ve designed restaurants. We just want to bring it all together in one spot. We’re just hanging in and grateful, keeping an eye on things in the meantime, and not getting too crazy.