Theatrical. Swanky. Contemporary. Opulent. These are all good descriptions of
M.C. Spiedo Ristorante & Bar, the newest project of James Beard Award-winning chef-partners Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier. 

Opened this February in the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, the 130-seat hot spot in the city's resurging seaport area represents the antithesis of the stereotypical mid-market hotel restaurant, which too often lacks both culinary and design character.

Like the chefs behind it, M.C. Spiedo exudes character, putting a fresh twist on upscale Italian by way of the Renaissance. The Old World flavors of Florence, Bologna and Venice are brought to life with plenty of live-fire cooking on the food side ("spiedo" means "spit" or "skewer" in Italian) and the romance and beauty of the Renaissance era on the design side. "We wanted [the design] to reflect the style of the food, which is historical Italian, without being kitschy or cliche," Frasier says. "We wanted a modern restaurant but to evoke some of the feelings that you associate with Italian Renaissance culture."

Gaier and Frasier, working with Minneapolis-based design firm Shea, set about reimagining and remodeling the roughly 5,000-square-foot space on the hotel's first level. Previously home to 606 Congress, an underperforming restaurant serving seafood and American cuisine, the space needed a lot of work. Most of it, however, was cosmetic.

"We didn't change the footprint or anything significant structurally, but we changed almost everything else," Frasier says. "The designers did a great job of taking what was a pretty hideous room, with a lot of high-gloss surfaces, really high ceilings, sharp edges and cold colors, and completely transforming it on a modest budget."

Before the concept was even solidified, chefs Gaier and Frasier brought the design team to view the space and discuss directions. "We all thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to do an Italian restaurant, but not a typical Italian restaurant," says Shea's Tanya Spaulding, lead designer. "There's a lot of Italian influence in Boston, but the spin here was something entirely different, something not yet done here or anywhere in the country that we know of. It would go back to the era of the Medicis, look at the roots of the food and the culture and use that as the foundation for the concept."Lounge Spiedo 4273

The challenge, Spaulding says, was to use the opulence of the Renaissance to guide the design strategy without going overboard and ending up with a look and feel that was too big, too rich and too red. "Ultimately, we developed a hybrid concept," Spaulding says. "It's very rich in history, using historical cues as inspiration for the patterns and colors, but it's also got a contemporary sensibility — clean lines, simple woods and natural materials — to give it a bit of relief and some contrast. It's a nod to history, but with a modern interpretation."

Creative Strategies Yield Warm, Elegant Space

Restaurant Booths 3915

Another big challenge was taking what the team describes as a cold and cavernous space and giving it a more intimate, comfortable feel. Several strategic design approaches helped to effectively shrink the feel of the space without altering its footprint or changing its structure.

One of the first decisions was to restain what had been high-gloss hardwood floors with a high-contrast striping pattern. "Clark and I didn't really cue in on the floors as a big deal, but Shea immediately suggested the change," Gaier says. "They specified a dark stain with a matte finish, and once we saw it, it was obviously the way to go. It's much warmer."

The effect of bringing the room's soaring 20-plus-foot ceilings down to a more comfortable scale was achieved in part with what are among M.C. Spiedo's signature design features: its chandeliers. Measuring more than six feet each, the five custom fixtures' shades are open on top and bottom. They're covered on the outside in baroque-patterned fabric and on the inside with gold-leaf paint, which is also used on several structural columns to add a soft shimmer of warmth to the dining room.

"These large-format lights add some color and Renaissance imagery, but they also effectively bring the ceiling down so it doesn't feel like a big, vast room anymore," Spaulding says. "They change the scale."

"The lights were an aha moment — a great find," Frasier adds. "The fabrics on the outside clearly say Italian Renaissance, yet the style of the shade and the shape are very modern."

The lights are also used in the private dining rooms, existing spaces that were simply refreshed with new carpeting and furniture. A dividing wall between the two rooms can be removed to accommodate larger groups of up to 25 or 30 guests, and can also be opened up to the main dining room for overflow seating.

"We didn't want the private dining rooms to be an afterthought, so we put one of those large-format light fixtures in each of those spaces," Spaulding says. "When the doors are open to the main room and you look down at the expanse of space, you see that drama at the end of the private dining rooms as well."

Also helping to add intimacy to the main space are four raised, cabana-style "VIP" booths that create both an enhanced level of comfort and a focal point in the back of the space, where most of the seating is. Roomy, soft, brown leather seats wrap around tables that can comfortably accommodate up to six guests.

The rich, velvet-like fabric draping the booths was chosen, Frasier says, to help evoke the sense of romance the team was after. "They actually address two issues," he adds, "one being our overarching issue of making the space seem less cavernous but also to add that kind of sexy feeling of having your own space. I think a long time ago there was more of that sensibility in dining, a semiprivate feel. So we wanted to offer a return to that with those velvety drapes and the soft leather cushions."

Antipasti Bar, Open Kitchen Add Energy

While no major structural changes were undertaken during the renovation, one significant new feature was added that, along with the light fixtures, had the most dramatic impact on the space. It's a white, Vermont-marble antipasti and mozzarella bar positioned along the front of the open kitchen, just past the bar/lounge area.

A working station for the kitchen, it's also a nine-seat chef's counter that allows guests to sit and enjoy drinks, antipasti or dinner while getting a bird's-eye view of the chefs at work. "It's a shining beacon regardless of where you walk into the space; whether from the hotel entrance or the external street entrance, it immediately catches your eye and lets you know this is something special," Spaulding says. "It's the biggest focal point, with the beautifully lit white marble, stainless steel, and open-flame cooking equipment. You can sit there and watch the chefs make the pasta, slice the meats and really be part of the theater."

If there was a splurge in the project it was the antipasti bar, as it required new plumbing, mechanicals and electric, Spaulding notes. "It was costly, but most everything else was very economical, and we determined this to be such a key opportunity for the space that it made sense to make the investment."

Beyond the addition of the antipasti bar, the balance of the kitchen's footprint was not changed, and the existing HVAC system, which had sufficient capacity for the type of live-fire cooking that would define M.C. Spiedo, remained in place. The roughly 25-by-10-foot kitchen was, however, completely gutted, redesigned and re-equipped both for aesthetic purposes and to improve efficiency.

It is, after all, the only full-scale kitchen facility in the hotel. "We cater to everyone — guests, locals and visitors to Boston," Frasier says. "We do breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as in-room dining. And we service the lobby bar from this kitchen as well. We wanted a space that would be attractive and functional for all of those groups."

"The equipment is all new and reoriented," Gaier adds. "It's a real working kitchen, not just a display kitchen that has a pretty little out-front area with the real kitchen somewhere else."

Project Team

  • Chef-owner: Mark Gaier
  • Chef-owner: Clark Frasier
  • Creative directors/team leads: David Shea and Tanya Spaulding, Shea
  • Interiors: Meghan Hendrickson, Shea
  • Architectural: Jamie Brunotte, Shea
  • Graphics: Susan Van Westen and Sarah Bjerke, Shea
  • Engineering: Richard Wallace, Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel


Snapshot

  • Location: Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel
  • Project type: Conversion
  • Opened: February 2014
  • Space: 5,000 square feet
  • No. of seats: 130
  • Design highlights: Large-format "Renaissance" light fixtures, gold-leaf columns, open kitchen, Carrara marble mozzarella/antipasti bar, cabana-style semi-private booths, dramatic wall graphics
  • Build-out: 3 to 4 months