Tasteful Settings

Ron Rea has designed some of metro Detroit’s best-known restaurants. But he says décor takes a back seat to food and service
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

The name Ron Rea is almost synonymous with the Detroit dining scene. He’s been the designer behind many of Michigan’s most appealing restaurants, as well as some in places as far-flung as London, Madrid, and Australia (Melbourne and Sydney).

Rea, who studied architecture and industrial design at Lawrence Tech and fine art at Wayne State University, grew up in Allen Park and has lived in downtown Birmingham for 35 years with his wife, Anna, whom he married when he was 22.

For the past 10 years, he’s had a business partnership with registered architect Roman Bonislawski at the firm Ron & Roman, “a cozy little studio with no conference room” in Birmingham.

“It’s piled with books. It looks like a crazy person’s office. I love it,” he says.
Rea and Bonislawski met when both were at JPRA Architects, working for 18 months on the Bay Harbor project in northern Michigan. Bonislawski is the computer-savvy half of the duo. Rea, who admits he never uses the computer, says, “I’m very happy sketching everything by hand.”

How did you get into the restaurant-design business?

I was 24 years old and I had never been exposed to restaurant design. My wife and I happened to have lunch in Ann Arbor at a place called Bicycle Jim’s. I was aghast at how cool it was. I was knocked out. I had to find out who did it. It was Roger Sherman Associates, and I immediately applied for a job there.

Which local restaurants have you done?

So many. Beverly Hills Grill, Streetside Seafood, Elie’s, 220, Coach Insignia, Andiamo in the Renaissance Center and Dearborn, and at least 12 of the Chuck Muer restaurants. One of my favorites is Common Grill in Chelsea. I like it because it works — a neat little storefront that fits like a glove in that community.

Which was the first?

Charley’s Crab in Troy, for Chuck Muer. I worked with Roger [Sherman] on that. He was the master, and I was the apprentice behind the scenes doing the drawings of the booths.

Have the trends changed since you started designing restaurants?

They have and they haven’t. Everything old is new again. Nothing goes out of style; it’s just reinvented all the time. A new chair, a new barstool — it’s just like a woman changing a dress. It’s the same woman in a new dress. Still a restaurant, still a woman. Full circle.

Don’t some restaurants become outdated?

Yes. The classic example is The Hill [in Grosse Pointe Farms]. It has phenomenal bones, but it had a tattered dress. It was very easy to go in and make that place look better. Every restaurant needs a new dress, a pair of shoes, earrings, maybe a whole wardrobe.

What makes a décor appetizing?

I think familiarity. Feeling familiar in your surroundings, when things are slightly out of place, not so perfect, a little homey, if you will, not perfectly orchestrated. Perfect is perfectly boring.

What makes people want to linger?

I think it’s the service, the waiter or waitress. Hospitality. We all give too much credence to décor. It’s third on the list of food, service, and décor. Décor gets you through the door the first time. But it won’t bring you back.

What brings people back?

It’s a mix of all of it, a friendly spirit that gets you back. Over-designed, over-thought, over-wrought, ill-at-ease places are one-time places.

How significant is noise abatement?

It’s truly important, much more than it ever was. With every job for the last 20 or 30, we tell them we’ll come in at the end with things that abate the noise, if it’s needed. At first, at Beverly Hills Grill, people were walking out. It was too noisy. You learn a lesson, and from that point on, I did make a concerted effort. Lately, we’re using more carpeting, a little softer materials. Upholstered booths are amazing in abating sound. So are linens on the tables. And Sonex — it’s a brand of soundproofing they use in recording studios. It absorbs sound like crazy. It really works. Once it’s painted to match the ceiling, you don’t know it’s there.

What is your kitchen/dining room like at home?

It’s an old house. The cupboards are the same; they’ve just been painted 14 times. My kitchen is small, minimal, not grand, not kitchen-like. If I put a sofa in there, it would look like a living room. No extravagant appliances. My wife, Anna, does phenomenal cooking out of there. You can cook on a hot plate if you know how to cook.

Where do you like to dine?

I love Streetside and carryout from Phoenicia. I love the Gallery Restaurant; its funky and nothing special, but they have something called a Golden Burger. I love it. If I could go to a place once a week, it would be The Rattlesnake. That food is undoubtedly the best food in town. It’s still the best experience in town for everything: service, food, setting, the very sophisticated art collection — it’s got it. I love the crowd there; it’s always diverse.

What’s on the drawing board?

We’re working on No. VI Chophouse. After 10 years, the place still looks great, but it’s moving to the Crowne Plaza across the street. It’s going to be tough; it’s oriented toward the Japanese businessmen that love the place. It will have a glass-enclosed bar, so they can eat and smoke.

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