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Far From Square
Kate Abney | Photo: Sarah Dorio | May 28, 2014
Together, restaurant design couple John and Vivian Bencich are creating a culture of conviviality for our city—and helping to turn fine dining experiences into unforgettable nights out.
John and Vivian Bencich don’t just create restaurants, they create gathering places: environments where you can begin the evening with an aperitif, then linger well past dessert. As the design principals for Square Feet Studio—a modern-thinking firm of the commercial, residential and even pro-bono persuasions—they eschew the idea of the power bar, serious restaurant or last-stop pub, designing places in which we want to spend our whole evenings.
Though that’s by no means the extent of their work—they’ve won coveted ADAC awards, including the recent Design ADAC 2014 Southeast Designers of the Year; developed the interior aesthetic for Pink Barre; and built out a majority of the White Provision spaces we love—their collaborations with rock-star restaurateurs and chefs have been instrumental in making Atlanta a more festive place. For this crowd, hospitality and comfort come first.
Take Brookwood Hills’ Saltyard, with its front-and-center chef’s table, tucked-in bar, intimate alcoves and high booths for seating six or eight, plus curtains to create instant private dining settings. Patrons can escape the hustle and bustle, or imbibe out in the open, waving to neighbors as they walk in.
Or, consider the chic patio they just completed for Kevin Rathbun Steak, which features a cozy fireplace, contemporary furnishings and glowing string lights—a fuss-free space dedicated to light bites and wine, and often booked like a private room for predinner functions on-site, beguiling passersby on the BeltLine.
Similar was their tack for Abattoir, whose Westside patio acts as a calling card to passersby across the train tracks, advertising the golden evening they’ll experience within. “We want people to see that warm glow—the lighting and activation of people,” Vivian explains.
Barcelona Wine Bar’s patio taps into the European tradition of wraparound seating, so it commands your attention well before you enter. Though this was the eighth location of the Connecticut-based restaurant, Square Feet Studio’s design for the Atlanta iteration has set the standard for all the rest. It routinely buzzes with fun-loving types thanks to a U-shaped bar that’s far more social than the long, linear alternative.
“What we’re coming down to is more personal environments,” Vivian says. “These are places where you can take different groups, entertain family or business deals, or just be a single person sitting at the bar, chatting with a really great bartender.”
At Decatur’s Kimball House, that bartender interaction is an intrinsic part of the experience. Tiny in the tradition of a Brooklyn boite, its patrons are no strangers to hourlong table waits. “I’ve seen people come from as far as Sandy Springs, but they’re happy to kill time at the bar with cocktails and oysters,” John explains. “I think they feel like they’ve had a personal experience worth driving 20 miles for.”
When Staplehouse, the long-awaited restaurant from Jen and Ryan Hidinger, finally opens at 541 Edgewood Ave., it will offer just as warm a welcome. Square Feet Studio’s restoration will retain the brick walls that harken the building’s former life as a general store. And Executive Chef Ryan Smith and Bar Manager John Wayne—who was recently tapped from Empire State South—will greet guests right on arrival.
So what’s next? Upscale Asian street-food spot Makan in Decatur and the Second Self Beer tasting room on the Westside will precede Staplehouse in Old Fourth Ward, followed by two concepts at Krog Street Market (Cockentrice and Little Tart Bakeshop), plus a possible Ford Fry project in Houston.
No matter the outcome, you can expect a homeyness and hospitality that defines every spot this power couple designs. “The best thing about restaurant work is that you can visit your clients anytime,” Vivian adds jovially. So if you see the Benciches out, raise a glass, won’t you?
One of their most exciting new additions to Atlanta’s cultural scene is their contribution to the exterior of the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University where Georgia Shakespeare performs. “Their outdoor space desperately needed to be thought about in a nice way, especially the approach to the entryway,” says Vivian. “We’ve added new furniture, new finishes, new lighting and a bar-cart area for the outside. It’s a big upgrade for them. They’re really thinking about the patrons who are coming there to enjoy a performance.”