Those eating out at Charleston restaurants apparently like to savor the history of the restaurant building, even if that history isn't particularly monumental.
A growing number of recent restaurants have not been afraid to shy away from formal finishes in exchange for revealing characteristics of the building itself, even gritty ones.
Leon's Oyster Shop, which recently opened inside a former automotive repair shop at 698 King St., is the most recent example, and one of the best.
It's the work of Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink, two restaurateurs with passion for, but little formal training in, design work.
Their main exterior change, aside from the heavy-duty metal bins from a Michigan tool company that serve as planters to mark off the outdoor dining area, was a subtle repainting of the old Leon's sign.
The lettering was touched up by artist David Boatwright, who also has painted Hominy Grill's landmark sign and many other prominent peninsula murals. Instead of advertising car repair, the lettering was changed in the same font and color to "Poultry & Oyster Shop." Instead of noting the Leon works on "Foreign & American cars," the script was changed to "Foreign & American Beers."
"If you took away all the patio stuff and put the garage door down, you wouldn't be able to tell we've done anything with the place, which is the best compliment we receive," Reitz says.
Both Reitz and Mink not only hope the design helps their new restaurant succeed. They also hope it draws attention to their new restaurant design firm Neighbourhood LLC.
Increasingly, Charleston's new restaurants are showing off their building's rather industrial or unglamorous past.
The Grocery, Taco Boy, the Warehouse, Two Boroughs Larder and Xiao Bao Biscuit all carry an interesting vibe because it's tough to know what was renovated and what was left as is. Even Chez Nous has its rafters exposed.
At Leon's, Reitz says the greatest challenge was finding the right color treatment for the old exposed concrete floor.
The resulting weathered green tone is both appealing but also something that many people might assume was left over from the building's car repair days.
And the details matter, too.
Reitz takes pride in the simple metal grates that mask the modern air conditioning units, the bar light fixtures made from a conveyer belt, old metal chairs that look as if Leon might have used them, and an eclectic mix of old paintings.
"Almost everything we sourced existed in some form or fashion in another life," Reitz says. "Nothing looks like it was pulled off the shelf at Pottery Barn."
The painting that has pride of place at Leon's also is a new work by Boatwright. It gives the place a distinct New Orleans vibe but also may confuse many patrons.
Reitz explains he and Mink were in New Orleans' French Quarter when they heard Ernie K-Doe's 1961 chart topper, "Mother in Law."
"It had that breezy upbeat feel, and we thought, 'This is the vibe. This is the energy we want for Leon's.' "
The painting is a portrait of K-Doe, who later changed his name to the bewildering "Ma Naugha Ma Hyde." It also has circular references to money and women. Reitz says these strike a cautionary note not to enjoy oneself too much. (K-Doe battled alcohol and other demons before getting married and turning his life around). "He's like the Godfather looking over the place," Reitz says.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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