"I opened Escape Ultra Lounge when I was younger," says Minneapolis club operator David Koch. "Now that I'm 44, I know myself. I want a place where I can have a great dinner, be surrounded by beautiful people, have some fun and be in bed by midnight."
Koch also knew exactly whom he wanted to hire as a concept consultant on this venture: Piero Filpi, whose Miami restaurant, Mezzanotte, made a huge impression on him. "The first time I went there in 1993," Koch says, "I waited 31/2 hours to get a table and I didn't mind, that's how great the place was."
"Mezzanotte," of course, means "midnight" in Italian. But since Koch was looking for an earlier, though no less memorable, evening, he and Filpi opened Bellanotte, which means "beautiful [if presumably shorter] night."
This is a hybrid lounge/restaurant where one can order a shaker cocktail and a handmade pizza, or tuck into a major steak and a serious bottle of wine. And, given that the restaurant is 10,000 square feet, there is plenty of room for a variety of environmental moods.
The major style note here is sunniness, intentionally alluding to Miami's tropical glitz and the hip earthiness of Italy (whose cuisine inspired the menu). Not surprisingly, the freezer-burned populace - who suffer through seemingly interminable winters - have been swarming the place since it opened.
Located in Minneapolis' Warehouse District, across the street from the Target Center and part of the Block E entertainment complex, it draws a cross-section of glitterati: sports personalities like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley or the Timberwolves, music celebs like Usher, U.S. senators and glamazons like Cheryl Tiegs and Jessica Simpson.
Koch hired the Echeverria Design Group, the Coral Gables, Fla., firm that had worked with Filpi before, to do the project. The lighting was chosen carefully, "to create the kind of upbeat energy we wanted for the room," says firm president Mario Echeverria. The bars are long slabs of onyx, cut thin enough to be translucent (3/4-inch onyx resting on 1/2-inch acrylic) and illuminated from within the counter by fiberoptic lighting, which doesn't emit much heat nor require bulb-changing. The effect is a flattering honeyed glow that, Koch says, "makes everyone look tan!" Contrasted with its wenge-wood base, the tabletop appears to float. The onyx appears again in the illuminated pedestals on the bar tables and in some wall panels.
A Tuscan glow is subtly carried into the warm, butterscotch-tinted leather textiles in the dining room upholstery and tiling the bar area floor.
LED lighting illuminates room divider panels of striated acrylic and highlights ceiling details. The oblong acrylic sections are mood enhancers as well, helping to break up the visual massiveness and the loudness of such large spaces. LEDs also effortlessly manipulate the dining room's mood, ever accelerating the clubby atmosphere as the evening creeps toward midnight. In the most dramatic dining room, Echeverria hired an artist to decorate the vaults with abstract layers of copper and wood, the up-lighting creating some jaw-dropping chiaroscuro. The same artist also gave some similar treatment to frame the kitchen viewing area off the main dining room, enhancing the theatricality of producing fine dining.
Squares and oblongs appear throughout the restaurant, in the smoky mica ceiling lamp fixtures, soffits, tabletops and the mullions of the 14-foot-tall "wine tower" that impressively displays thousands of wines
for any price range. Square fire pits anchor the dining rooms, romantically flickering throughout the night. Echeverria was pleased to find a realistic faux stone that would make the pit exhaust hoods much lighter - and safer - to suspend from the ceiling.
As a nightclub world veteran, Koch keenly knows the importance of "the full sensory experience." Some nights there is live jazz, on others there are regional food and wine events. Koch says, "The deejay might start off the evening spinning real smooth R&B over the dinner hours and will later heat it up with some Latin or 80s dance music."
Not only is he concerned about the menu, the comfortable environment and music, however, but also the human backdrop. He encourages a "dressy casual" attire that is commented on in all the reviews. Both genders get to be happy: The women can wear their sexiest dress and men can get away with their jeans, so long they pair it with a French-cuff shirt.
If the ability to turn one's desires into reality is the ultimate benchmark of success, Koch should be feeling pretty smug. In his restaurant every night, he delivers a beautiful night, customized exactly to his liking.
Client: Bellanotte, Minneapolis
Design and Architecture: , Coral Gables, Fla.
Mario Echeverria, president
John Naranjo, project senior designer
Robert Dominguez, project manager
General Contractor: Diversified Construction, St. Louis Park, Minn.
Lighting: Florida Architecture Lighting, Pompano Beach, Fla.
Stephane Dagani, New York
Kitchen Consultants: Premier Restaurant Equipment, Minneapolis
Furniture: The La Sala Group, Hollywood, Fla.
Custom Millwork: Vision Woodworking, Fridley, Minn.
Sound System Consultant: Sound Stage Systems, North Haven, Conn.
Signage: Signcrafters, Fridley, Minn.
Photography: Douglas Reid Fogelson Photography, Chicago