Design, Redefined

Chaya Downtown marries whimsy with age-old tradition

Los Angeles is a city of storytellers and image-makers. For L.A.’s many illusionists, graceful plot arcs extend beyond the screen and into the fold of LaLa Land life and dining. Narratives pervade the landscape on a daily commute, and flow into late night exploits. This is also true of memorable meals—those dining experiences that unfold with cinematic progression: the amuse-bouche like a teaser trailer, the main course a dramatic peak, and sips of dessert wine the sweet finale.

Chaya Downtown’s story is informed by the highly regarded legacy of the Chaya family of restaurants (other locations include Venice, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, and three M Café outposts). The culinary brood is rooted in Japanese tradition and mixed with a stylish, modern sensibility. And as for the set design for the newly opened locale, the overall look of Chaya’s restaurants is not a simple replication of its sister locations. Chaya Downtown is simultaneously loyal to its ancestry, and wonderfully different; a gentle deviant. Enter the bank-come-culinary haven, and you are met with a wealth of sensory stimulation: a whimsical, day glo-hued chandelier by London artist Stuart Haygarth dresses its entrance; a hand-painted mural is contrasted against pop art-esque posters. These elements logically mold into something reflective of Chaya’s spirit and gourmet credibility.

The multi-faceted and multi-talented team of Poon Design, Inc., led by Anthony Poon, supplied the project’s visionary drive. Poon embodies the same variegated approach fed into his work, with a background not only in architecture and design, but also in music, photography and graphic art, among other things. Chaya Downtown’s birthing journey was nurtured by the belief that space can tell a story. Much like Chef de Cuisine Kazuya Matsuoka’s composed Franco-Japonaise dishes, Poon embraces the concept of synthesis, ultimately translating it into a bold final product.

“Chaya Downtown came from the word ‘fusion,’” Poon explains. “We were interested in juxtaposing the old and the new. The owners figured we could bring some fresh ideas, but also be skillful and mix in the past. It was the past and the future coming together.”

Visual proof of such amalgamation lies in the different cultural notes Poon incorporated into the design (taking “a lot of the creative cues from the food”) and a special approach to spatial composition. Chaya is neither a cavernous loft nor a cramped closet passed off as “cozy.” It achieves intimacy without feeling awkwardly communal, thus attracting both large groups of slick-suited businessmen and flirtatious young couples in search of a refined date spot. Normally detached areas—bar, sushi station, out door dining room—deliberately bleed into one another with the help of glass walls, strategically placed dividers and soft draping.

Unlike upscale restaurants appealing to the whims of a trend-centric clientele—like that of West Hollywood, where turnaround is often blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rapid—this Chaya has the distinction of being a part of L.A.’s Downtown Renaissance. Luxury lofts blossom nearby, while hard-core foodies trek to the neighborhood for destination dining, along with discerning theater-goers after taking in a show at the Mark Taper Forum.

While wise to what is au courant, Chaya has never been too voguish—a sustaining philosophy which Poon manifested through the materials living in its interior, like the high quality walnut planks topped with a woven brass mesh that serve as partitions. “Chaya really wanted to do things that look great aesthetically and would hold up maintenance-wise over the years,” says Poon.

What Poon’s team introduced to Chaya Downtown was a confident sense of play, the audacity to take what might otherwise seem like disparate elements and skillfully integrate them. The inclusion of Stuart Haygarth’s 1,500 item-rich chandelier is the best example of such forward-thinking.

Everything from sunglasses to hair claws hang from its 450 strings, the ornaments sourced from Haygarth’s European travels. Conversely, look to the restaurant’s far wall, and Tokyo artist Ajioka’s mural evokes a thoroughly classical aura. Poon explains why, at Chaya Downtown, contrariness gives way to unity: “We didn’t just pull things together and hope everything would match. Each item had a story of its own, so each one had a lot of content with it. So, when it all comes together, like good special effects that are backed by a good story line, you get a really good movie.”

If only Hollywood more often took this ethos to heart.

– Heidi Atwal