Inside Story: Interior Design at Depot Diner focuses upon the insides of restaurant space as much as the food served.

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By David Hammond

Oak Parker Harlene Ellin recently launched Fine to highight the design and environmental details of the dining experience. Her focus is unusual in that she concentrates upon the insides of restaurant space as much as the food that goes inside us.

Recently, Ellin visited the Depot Diner and gave me her perspective on how the design of this diner has been crafted to shape the customer experience.

“I really like this space because the owners successfully accomplished what they set out to do.  They wanted the diner to have an Edward Hopper-esque Nighthawks feel to it. (There's a Nighthawks poster in the bathroom).  And sitting there in a vinyl red booth on that dark lonely stretch of Roosevelt Road, I had the feeling of being in an actual old school diner.  It was dark outside and bright inside and the neon ‘open’ sign was on and the horizontal blinds were casting cool shadows on the floor.  So besides having a delicious pot roast sandwich with mashed potatoes, I had a little ‘experience.’

“I'm glad they did not ‘kitsch it up’ and go for that cutesy Johnny Rocket's look.  I'm also thankful they restored it and gave it a period look.  I hear it was pretty hideous when they took over.  Diners can be ugly and depressing.  This is not.  I think people come here for the food, indeed.  But it’s also a comfortable place.

“The design is simple, but still effective.  I like how they kept the original gold/green linoleum flooring and then pulled those colors out in the paint.  I think the long vintage grill is a thing of beauty.  (I love old soda fountains, bars and barbershops, too.)  The red booths and counter stools liven things up and pair up nicely with the black counter-and-chrome table and counter tops.  And I love the whimsical ‘chalkboard’-style paintings above the grill.  I think the pictures of iconic diner foods -- spaghetti and meatballs, turkey and gravy -- are really fun and charming.  They are a nod to the past - in terms of what they depict - but they are executed in a contemporary style.  I also like the two big black-and-white diner photos above the booth.  Nothing fancy, but they fill the space and give the place a sense of context.  A lot of people would have mucked it up by filling the joint with a bunch of old diner memorabilia.  The photos fulfill the same purpose, but do not add clutter to the space.

“Which leads me to my final thought.  It's just a very clean-looking space. There are lots of clean lines and once again not a lot of clutter.  Obviously, this was not a bazillion dollar design job, but with a bit of thought, they created a space that has both character and is inviting.”

It’s sometimes easy to focus just on food and forget that the design, as well as the service ware and other hard items, affect the dining experience. Ellin brings us back to that reality, and it’s undeniable that ambiance, however much we may try to stay laser-focused on the chow, shades our enjoyment of the dining experience.

Do you have a favorite Oak Park restaurant interior?

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matt from chicago  

Posted: April 19th, 2011 4:19 PM

ditto on the decor. well put. the bathroom was adequate in my time of use. sometimes just a hit or miss issue as it can occasionally be a bit of a challenge to stay on top of, when last used can be so sudden.

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