DeRusha Eats: Smart Associates

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Kenwood in Minneapolis looks and feels like its namesake neighborhood: elegant, understated and comfortable.

Jim Smart designed the eatery, which is just one of his more than 320 restaurants around the country.

“My background, educational background, undergraduate, was theater design. So I was a set designer,” Smart said. “And I gotta tell you, in almost every single way, restaurant design is the same business.”

Every element of The Kenwood’s main dining room is theater, from the art on the wall, to the type of chair and table.

“This furniture’s from a vintage store, and we send it out and had it reupholstered,” he said. “If you can tell us who your customer is or who you want your customer to be, we’ll design the restaurant accordingly. I want to know what kind of cars people drive. I want to know what music they listen to.”

Smart’s eight-person design firm — Smart Associates — is behind neighborhood spots like Hazel’s Restaurant in northeast Minneapolis, and the striking new Mattie’s on Main in southeast Minneapolis.

Also, there are potential national chains like Honey & Mackie’s in Plymouth — an ice cream and French fries shop.

“If you’re doing particularly fast food or fast casual, you want something sort of iconic,” Smart said. “You know, like your own golden arches is what you’re looking for.”

In his 30 years of designing restaurants, design has gotten way more important — and Smart says the biggest obstacle is always money.

“Restaurants are very expensive to put together,” he said.

And tastes have changed, although Smart says he doesn’t design for the chef or the owner.

“I design this for your customer, not for you,” he said. “I never had to do that except [for] the original owner of the Green Mill who said, ‘Just remember, I don’t like green.’ I said, ‘Too bad! You’re the one who bought the Green Mill!'”

Smart Associates does more than just restaurants, which maybe explains why Smart is such a stylish guy.

“We’re the largest designers of mens’ clothing stores in the United States, of higher-end mens’ clothing stores,” he said.

In the theater of dining out, how food tastes is important, but how a restaurant makes us feel matters most.

Smart isn’t a chef, but his three decades of designing restaurants seems to have rubbed off on his daughter.

Casey Smart is a chef in a New York City restaurant.

More from Jason DeRusha
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