Restaurant Web Design: New Site For Ethan Stowell

I’ve been designing and managing the Ethan Stowell Restaurant brand for several years now. Logos, menus, photographs and the all important website. We started talking about a website redesign well over a year ago. I had designed the first Ethan Stowell Restaurants website back in 2009 when there were only four restaurants—and Union was still one of them. As the company began to grow the website quickly ran out of real estate. It wasn’t really designed with enough scalability. And more importantly, it wasn’t designed with mobile in mind—or tablets for that matter. We needed something flexible, extensible and a little more grown-up as the ESR empire steps into maturity.

Of course, right away we knew we wanted a responsive design. Sadly, I’m still seeing restaurants—and even former clients—get talked into these cheap (or in some cases free) “mobile websites” that essentially redirect mobile and tablet traffic away from the main website to a stand-alone, third-party mobile site with a logo slapped on the top and a row of buttons to choose from. This is a terrible solution for a variety of reasons. First, you are now responsible for managing content on two different sites and you are redirecting your own valuable traffic (and therefore your Google ranking) to a third party business. Second, you are no longer in charge of your own brand. A logo on the top of the page is not the brand—the user experience is—and you just outsourced that. If you want to leave your brand up to a company that isn’t even charging you money, you should be very worried. What is their motivation? Selling ads? Booking reservations? Likely, all of the above.

What you really want is a responsive website. This is a site that can tailor both content and design to the device it’s being viewed on. It’s a single website but it’s flexible enough to increase font size and narrow focus on a smaller iPhone for readability, or serve up giant photo slideshows on a larger desktop. It’s a lot more work on the designer’s part (mine) as we are essentially designing 3 or 4 different sites with various incremental changes built into a single entity. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very worth it.

For this project, I once again brought in my good pal and web developer Ryan Scherler. Ryan is really doing some amazing things on the backend of a website these days. It’s stuff the casual viewer might not notice directly, but believe me, the reason the site works so well is all because of Ryan. Every concept I came up with during the design phase he executed brilliantly. Back in the day, I used to write all of my own code and I even dabbled in various scripting languages and bit of PHP (and I still can for the most part). But, I can honestly say that I am now officially a “retired web developer”. Ryan is so much quicker and smarter than I ever was, and there is no good reason for me to muck around in the bits and pieces anymore. I can now focus all of my energy on design and content where I belong. (Life lesson: know when it’s time to hang up certain tools and let people that are better than you take the lead.)

And speaking of content, this is really where the new ESR website really shines in my mind. Trying to manage a single website with ten or more discrete restaurant locations can be tricky business. We wanted to make the information simple, comprehensive, and easily accessible with a minimum of clicks. Each location gets its own page and thats where everything for that restaurant lives: hours, menus, photos, phone numbers, reservation links, etc.. We siloed this information on purpose, so that users needed to commit to a location before we would offer all the details—this is to avoid visitors making a reservation at the wrong location or reading the menu for the wrong restaurant. On the home page you simply get big, blocky, branded squares with names and phone numbers. I envisioned a couple in the back of a cab wanting to call a restaurant if they were running late, so the phone number of each location is accessible from the home page. If you are on you phone, you click it to call. Simple. The modular design allows for the site to easily scale to the device and more importantly accommodate new restaurants as they arrive (these days that can be quicker than I can keep up.)

The other big feature was an event calendar. As the company has grown, so has its involvement in the community, and ESR hosts charity cook-offs, Sunday Feasts, pizza tossing contests and all sorts of special events. So Ryan and I came up with a custom event calendar that is built into the content management system. On Ryan’s recommendation, we’re using ProcessWire as a CMS base for the site and it’s been a really great tool. We can log in and set up events in just a couple of minutes and the postings cycle through the website and retire themselves automatically when they expire. The open nature of ProcessWire was really perfect for this kind of stuff. We also extended it to a job board and a simple drag-and-drop menu editor to allow staff daily access for menu updating.

And of course, there’s a giant pile of photographs available on the new website. Everybody loves to look at photos and I’m lucky to be in a position that gives me a lot of direct access to Ethan’s kitchens. We are often shooting for magazines, cookbooks, and events so I’m always there with a camera capturing more and more content for the site. It’s fun work.

All that said, my favorite part of the website is the staff bios. While I’m sure my concept created some anxiety for a few people on staff, everybody stepped up. I worked in restaurants for many years and I met most of the people I know in Seattle (including my design clients) from being in and around restaurants. Restaurants are full of amazing people. Our bio section for the new site highlights chefs and managers and tells the kind of story you don’t normally get to see on a restaurant website—or any website for that manner. Who are the people behind ESR? Where do they come from and what do they like to eat late at night? The bios give us a different slice and remind us that no matter how big a company gets, it’s still made up of small groups of interesting people. And in the end, content is still king.

Visit the new site at ethanstowellrestaurants.com.

Lowell’s Restaurant: Rebranding A Piece of Seattle History

Logo Refresh for 2012

Lowell’s Restaurant in the Pike Place Market has been a Seattle institution for many years—about 56 if you’re keeping track. Lowell’s contacted me via a regular client of mine, Cactus Restaurants, which is run by two brothers who are actually the sons of the guy who owns Lowell’s (small town!). Turns out, the Brothers Cactus basically grew up in Lowell’s while their father ran the place, and it kind of makes sense to me now why they are such successful restaurateurs. The elder Cactus has long since handed over operations to a fellow named Mark Monroe, and he’s the guy I first met regarding the project.

I’ve been saying “no” to new work for over a year because I am actually that busy. But after listening to Mark Monroe tell me the history of Lowell’s and the market space itself—all the way back to the turn of the century—I became rather intrigued. There is a lot of history in those three floors, and to a designer, a lot of history means a lot of material to work with. There were old photos from the lunch counter days, and even a few back when it started as a coffee roaster and café. There were old guest checks, coffee coupons, and menus that listed the price of an omelet at $4.95. I began to see Lowell’s as a genuine piece of Seattle history, and I was quickly sold on the project.

Business cards featuring the original 1957 staff.

This was going to be a complete rebrand including a new logo, menus, postcards, advertising, signage, and the ever important website. Since Lowell’s has a captive audience of tourists throughout the year, one of goals was to make an appeal to locals. This was interesting to me, and while I had enjoyed breakfast at Lowell’s years ago, I really hadn’t been back since. It seemed a bit too touristy in my mind, but in actuality, it’s kind of a cool place and not a bad spot to grab a cocktail in the market. It’s one of those places that everybody knows but hasn’t been to in a while. Lowell’s will always be famous for its breakfast and will always appeal to tourists who can’t pass up the views—but a question arose: How can we make Lowell’s appeal to Seattleites too? Do people even realize there are three floors? One floor even has a fantastic bar serving decent cocktails with those amazing views. Does Seattle even realize what we have here? This became the beginning of our creative brief.

We zeroed in on a logomark rather quickly. I proposed a handful of options, but we were both drawn to a banner style logo that seemed rather timeless. Other options felt too period-specific, or too “Pike Place”, while the final direction felt at home in any decade and had a certain retro-contemporary feel to it (if that makes any sense). The original tagline for Lowell’s had been “Almost Classy”. There was some talk of letting this go for various reasons (too comical?) but I actually kind of liked it. But I also really felt that a strong part of the Lowell’s brand was the history, so adding the birth year of the modern incarnation of Loweel’s seemed like a way to give the tagline some context. Almost Classy Since 1957 says a lot. It’s lighthearted like the restaurant itself—but it’s also got staying power. Sure, Lowell’s is going to have fun with your visit, but they’ve been around. They know what they are doing.

Menu redesign.

From there we redesigned the menus, created a postcard guest check holder that guests could take with them (and they did, we had to do a second 10,000 count print run by the end of summer) and we eventually created a new website from the ground up. For this project I knew I wanted to create a responsive design that could tailor both content and graphics to whatever device the visitor was using. More and more websites are being accessed via phones and tablets, and with such a large tourist base, an efficient serving of device-specific content became a major goal. Unlike the shoddy, secondary “mobile sites” you see a lot of companies trying to sell to restaurants these days, a true responsive design is a single site that recognizes the device it’s being viewed on and optimizes content accordingly. You don’t suddenly realize you are on a “mobile version of the site” because you aren’t. One site serves all.

Responsive website design.

I brought in my pal Ryan from Crashpad Design to work on the code and production and he did a great job with my concepts. Taking on responsive design like this is almost like designing 3 or 4 sites at once, and there are certain challenges to making it all work—especially when designing on the fly like I do. I threw a lot of different hurdles at him and Ryan did a great job. In the end, a great balance of visuals and content as the site scales.

Some website photography.

After a few photo shoots the site was soon ready to go live. I gave Mark the keys to the blog engine and he hasn’t taken his foot off the gas since. Great to see somebody so committed to the voice of a restaurant. Check out his blog when you can. (I need to tell him to lighten up on the multi-colored typography at some point! Or not.)

And when you do get a chance, go visit Lowell’s again. It’s probably been a while. Tell Mark that Geoff the designer guy sent you.

The Making of a New Restaurant Brand (and a Design Career)

I’ve known Eric Banh for a very long time.

After spending a few years teaching English at a University in central Thailand, I returned to Seattle well-tanned, penniless and in desperate need of a job. This was late in 1998. After a brief stint working for Wolfgang Puck(!), I ended up waiting tables for a Vietnamese restaurant that had just opened the previous month. It was called Monsoon. I ended up working there for almost four years as I tried to get my design career back on track, waiting tables a few nights week while teaching myself web design between shifts. I had been working in the industry since I was old enough to drink, but as it turned out, Monsoon would be my last restaurant job—well, relatively speaking.

First Monsoon website, circa 2000.

But, before I was lured away to work in a big, fancy graphic design agency, I had the pleasure of really getting to know Vietnamese cuisine (and wine) working for Eric and his sister Sophie. And, I got to moonlight as a web designer all the while. Monsoon’s website was the first restaurant website I ever designed—and probably one of the first chef-owned restaurant websites in Seattle. I did the entire project in trade for two bottles of Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris.

After I left Monsoon to get that “real job”, I continued to build websites and do graphic design work for Eric. I probably designed and built around five different versions of Monsoon’s web site over the years (and yet another in the works currently). Several years later I finally decided to quit the agency world to run my own design business. Right around that time Eric told me he was finally going to start building the noodle house we had been talking about for years. I was excited. A new place! A new name! A new logo! It was all going to be created from scratch. Perfect timing.

Eric decided to name his new place Ba Bar. Ba means “father” in Vietnamese and Eric’s dad had just passed away. This restaurant was going to be dedicated to the elder Banh himself. Eric told me stories of being a kid in Saigon, eating street food with Sophie and their father, sitting on tiny stools and slurping noodles in the crowded marketplace. He wanted to bring that very feeling to this new restaurant. He wanted to keep it casual and keep it fun. This wasn’t going to be a down-market version of Monsoon, it was going to be something completely different. Simple food inspired by the streets of Saigon—with cocktails. My kind of place.

Tagline: Street Food & Cold Drink

So I spent some time with Eric’s ideas and I came back a week later with some logo roughs and a tagline concept: Street Food & Cold Drink. Eric and I have understood each other pretty well over the years, and I could see his eyes light up. Street Food & Cold Drink! That was exactly what he was after. The concept was born.

The rest of the Banh family needed some convincing, however. Nobody quite understood the missing “s” on Drink and they were worried that Americans would think we spelled it wrong. It took some work, but I convinced them in the end (I think). It helped that Eric understood it from the beginning. The other hurdle was the idea of Street Food itself. People in the west tend to think Street Food means food served out of a truck. While in Southeast Asia, street food is food served roadside or in busy markets by some of the best cooks you can find. It’s more like fast food—but really good fast food. (Side note: One of the first critics to review the restaurant made this very observation—that Ba Bar wasn’t really street food because the food wasn’t “portable”. Which goes to show what little food critics actually know about South East Asian cuisine.)

Logomark illustrations.

For the logo itself I brought in illustrator and good pal David Cole to help come up with some drawings of the mark. I really liked the idea of using a simple, graphic illustration of Eric’s father’s face, but not everyone could agree on the appropriateness of using the elder Banh’s likeness as a logo. Next, we tried a guy bent over a bowl of noodles sitting on a tiny stool. (If you have ever spent time in South East Asia you will understand this visual.) That got a bit more traction, but in the end, we decided to keep the mark simple and opted for a straight typographic solution. The biggest challenge was to make sure the logo read as Ba Bar not Babar, as we didn’t want to be confused with a certain French Elephant. So stacking the type seemed crucial. There’s only three different letters in the name, so that was challenging, but I think it worked out really well in the end. It’s not too repetitive visually and it reads Ba Bar as much as it can. I still ended up using the illustrations that Dave created in some of the collateral, but the main logo became the name and tagline in a circle.

Logos in the wild. Neon sign and menu clipboards.

From there we rolled out laser-etched menus boards, rubber-stamped napkins, a giant neon sign, window graphics, jam jar labels, a website and much more. I’m especially happy with how the website turned out. We really wanted to make it fun and semi-educational by highlighting certain dishes and and explaining them in detail. We are planning to expand this kind of content moving forward.

Website pages.

If you live in the Seattle area you should stop by Ba Bar for a bowl of soup or a cocktail—and a grab a macaroon on the way out. It truly is a fun place, the vision paid off. And Ba Bar makes the best phở in town without question. You might even find me at the bar hanging out with Eric, talking about the good old days when he could still boss me around.

Check out the website at www.babarseattle.com and view more of the design and photography in the portfolio.

Rebranding Cactus Restaurants

Marc Chatalas contacted me a few years back because he had seen some of my web design work around Seattle and wanted to meet me. We had a drink over at Alki Beach and we talked websites and design. As it turned out, he didn’t really have any pressing design needs at the time, he just wanted to see what I could offer for future reference. At the time, I was still working at an agency while doing freelance design for restaurants on the side.

The Collaboration

Fast forward to the future (early 2011) and Marc contacted me again to discuss a new website and ultimately a brand refresh to coincide with the opening of a new Cactus location in South Lake Union. This sounded like a perfect fit for the business I had just started a year earlier. My goal has always been: to offer soup to nuts design for restaurants (I just trademarked that BTW). But sadly, I was buried in work. Too much work in fact, so I told him no. I recommended some other, bigger firms in town, but in doing so also told him that he would likely pay more and get less with a bigger firm. My way of keeping one toe in the door I guess.

A week later he emailed back and asked me to work on his project again. Due to my sinister workload, I should have said no a second time, but the project sounded really challenging and fun, so I started looking for a partner to help out on the print side. My plan was to get someone to collaborate with me directly on the brand refresh, then set him or her loose on the print collateral while I worked on the new website and gathered photography. Nikki Cole Creative agreed to join the effort, and we pitched the idea to Marc and his brother/business partner Bret. In early summer of 2011 we started work on the new Cactus Brand.

The Old Brand

Cactus Restaurants has been around since 1990. They started out small, cooking tapas at their first location in Madison Park. The logo itself had been updated a few times, but the overall look and feel of the brand was made up of a lot of different parts over the years and it was becoming unfocused and disjointed. Another problem was how they displayed the name ¡Cactus! by using the traditional Spanish punctuation. With the advent of all things iPod and iPad people began to mistake the name for something related to the tech industry: i-Cactus. This was eroding trust in a brand that really wanted to stay humble for the most part. It reeked of bad marketing decisions by no fault of their own. (Blame Steve Jobs).

The old Cactus website and logo

Something else I noticed in talking with them is the notion of Southwest Cuisine itself. What was once a hugely popular cuisine in the 80s had been slowly pushed to the back burner in favor of more traditional Mexican or Taco Truck style restaurants. But Southwestern food is actually great, so why do people downplay it? I wanted to explore this. I used to work in the agency world and often brand strategists would say things like: “Company X needs to own the color red.” I always found that to be kind of a ridiculous statement. How do you “own” a color? What the brand people really mean is: “Pick a color and use it a lot”. But, in thinking about this more, I really started saying to myself that Cactus should indeed “own” Southwestern cuisine. It really is a good differentiator for them in a market that is full of so many Mexican restaurants. Cactus does great Mexican, but the Southwestern stuff is really where they can make a statement.

The Brief

The creative brief for the logo was pretty simple. We wanted something a bit more modern and also a bit more sophisticated. This was driven by the new South Lake Union location which was going to be different stylistically from the previous Cactus restaurants. But, we also wanted it to work well at the older locations too, so it couldn’t be too slick. It needed some texture. And really, what we heard the most from Marc and Bret about Cactus is that they want the restaurants themselves to make you feel like you are on a vacation. When you dine at Cactus you should feel like you are taking a much needed break, enjoying a cocktail on the beach, relaxing. The brand needed to communicate that somehow.

The New Logo Direction

We explored a lot of different directions over the course of a month or so. We had cowboys, saguaro cactus arms, cactus flowers, Navajo cave paintings, type solutions pulled from old Mexican signage, and a whole lot more. We presented six solid options with a lot of variation. After the first meeting we had narrowed it to 5. (Not what we had in mind!) But, we liked them all too, so we went about refining the various options and incorporating feedback from the guys at Cactus.

Early rough design options

In the end we all decided to go with an option we were calling Mimbres. The idea for the mark was based around a style of Native American pottery found in what is now southern New Mexico. It offered us an opportunity to actually create four distinct marks, one for each of the Cactus locations. (This increased our workload fourfold, but we felt it was worth it.) Nikki did the illustrations herself, borrowing a bit from the Mimbres art, but in the end she really made them her own and incorporated abstract representations of cactus plants and flowers in each one. What’s great about the logo marks is that they are born from a marriage of Soutwestern folk art and cactus plants—but without being obviously cactus plants. The Saguaro cactus arm was really something we wanted to avoid (think Taco Time). So for instance, we used a top-down view of a barrel cactus for South Lake Union but the shape also works without that meaning as a stand-alone motif. Even better still, it could also be a lime wedge on the rim of a cold margarita. We ended up with a lot of room for interpretation which really made the whole identity system shine.

Mimbres illustrations

Color & Texture

Next we added color and texture. A lot of this came from photos Nikki had taken during a recent trip to the Yucatán. We were all really drawn to the bright colors washed over textured walls and this would later inform the collateral and the website as well.

Nikki's Yucatán vacation photos

Final Logo

Some various logo versions


While Nikki began producing new menus and collateral, I switched gears and began creating the new Cactus website. We wanted something bright and sexy, but function was equally important. With four different locations this can get tricky, so there had to be clear paths to the stuff people wanted most: hours, directions and menus. All the while keeping the user oriented to the individual locations themselves. The rest was easy. We had so much material to work with following the branding phase of the project, that the look and feel fell into place rather quickly. A good argument for finding a print designer who is also your web designer!


The Next Phase

This project was really fun. And fun because Marc and Bret Chatalas are great people to work with. They provided great feedback and brought a lot of good thinking to the process. And, they knew exactly when to be involved and also when to jump out of the way and let us work. I’m looking forward to a long working relationship with the brothers at Cactus. (We even designed a fifth logo mark just in case they get curious about new real estate.)

In the end, I’m glad Marc decided not to take my advice and find a bigger firm to work with. I haven’t had a day off since last summer, but it was well worth the effort.

Ignite + LookatLao = Food Porn

Join me at Ignite Seattle 14 for a fun-filled five minutes of food porny discussion. The show starts at 8PM at the King Cat Theatre. Wednesday May 18th. Get there early as it fills up fast.

Meet me for cocktails after or before. Maybe during.

Imagination Hardware: A Website in Three Days, Mostly.

Imagination Hardware Website

My good pal Dave of David Cole Creative started a new venture last year called Imagination Hardware. He basically makes kits and games designed to educate and entertain people of all sizes by encouraging them to make stuff. His first product was a DC motor kit that you build yourself. It’s a DIY puzzle of sorts, and when all is said and done you have a working motor and and better understanding of why it actually works in the first place.

Soon enough, Dave was selling a good amount of the kits and he didn’t really have the proper bandwidth available to put together a real website. I didn’t really have any bandwidth either, but for some reason I decided to turn the whole project into a challenge: build a working website from sketchpad to launch in just three days. It almost worked too. I’d say when all was said and done we were getting pretty close to the fifth day.

My favorite part of this experiment was that I spent most of my creative time in the sketchpad down at the corner coffee shop, and this step has now become a key part of my workflow. With no computer at my disposal, I was forced to sketch and think and write. I’ve always done a lot of sketching on projects, but getting out of the office does something different. It makes your sketching deliberate and focused but it also taps into a different level of thought that isn’t available to you when you are surrounded by easy answers. (Google, book shelves, etc.)

Rough sketches from the coffee shop.

And when it came time to execute, I jumped right into the HTML/CSS and skipped over my typical Photoshop phase. I used Photoshop of course, but there was never a fully-formed Photoshop composite of the site available before I started writing code. I basically jumped back and forth between the sketchpad and the text-editor and then created Photoshop graphics “on demand” as I moved along. And it worked great.

All of this was made possible because Dave trusted me of course. He knew going into it that he wasn’t going to get to see much before it took shape in the browser—and he was perfectly okay with that. This approach probably wouldn’t work in every situation, but it sure was fun to just go and not spend a whole lot of time nudging pixels around.

The other great part of this assignment was the copywriting. Dave created the Imagination Hardware brand himself: the logo, the packaging, the visual vocabulary—everything about it was already in place. So I got to bring some new ideas to the table via the copy. This resulted in a tagline of sorts: We make stuff for people who like to make stuff. This came about during the coffee shop sketch phase and I really like this point at which design meets content. Quite often on the web, designers work around copy and treat web design as a way of building content containers that will (hopefully) get filled up with magic words at a later date. When really, content and design should always work together to inform each other. “Headline Goes Here” is usually the beginning of a mediocre website.

Anyway, this project was mostly a self-imposed challenge, but more importantly a fun way to help out my pal. (He returned the favor with some illustration work a few months later.) In the end, I learned a new way to tackle web design projects (skip Photoshop, mostly) and the site just got nominated for a 2011 Seattle Weekly Web Award.

Check out Imagination Hardware and pick up a Monster Kit. Tell them Geoff sent you.

Spring 2011: New Websites and A Whole Lot More

Lagana Foods Website

Lagana Foods Website

Well, time does fly. Since my last post I’ve launched a few sites, shot a bunch of new photos and even managed to sneak a logo or two in there. Here’s the run-down:

Lagana Foods
Not only do people often think that Ethan Stowell and I are the same person, they probably think we spend a lot of time together with all the work I do for his company. While we do hang out from time to time, for this project I actually worked more closely with his partner, Kaela Farrington, on a new website for their specialty pasta company: Lagana Foods. During the discovery process we spent several hours drinking Negronis and snacking on smoked mackerel before we decided we didn’t really want to do the usual website design. That led us to the top-down pasta pile photo shoot which quickly became the obvious choice for a homepage. The rest flowed from there. I really like how this turned out.

Check out Lagana Foods and if you are in the Seattle area buy a bag of pasta. It’s really good stuff.

Spring Hill Website

Spring Hill
This project was more of a design refresh than a complete redesign. The old design still looked great, but the navigation needed a big usability upgrade and we needed to find a better way to show off even more of Mark Fuller’s amazing food. But sure enough, by the time I got into it I ended up re-writing all of the HTML and CSS from scratch. (Four years of out-dated code gathering dust.) This new version is much simpler to use and to maintain—and it looks pretty good too. A good argument for a realign vs. a redesign. The old website is still in there, but now it not only looks better, it’s actually more in tune with what Spring Hill’s customers wanted from the site.

Spring Hill is still one of my favorites. As a restaurant site it’s a great combination of food-pornery and information accessibility.

Book Bindery Website

Book Bindery
This project was quite comprehensive. Over the course of a year I worked on the Book Bindery logo, then the menu design, and finished off with an interim website. Eventually as the space itself began to take shape we crafted the complete site that is live now. All throughout the design process I stopped in for various photo shoots of the space, the food and even the pressing of a Columbia Valley syrah.

The Book Bindery is a great new restaurant situated on the banks of Seattle’s Ship Canal. It’s run by Patric Gabre-Kidan and Mike Almquist who also runs the winery and distillery next door. Chef Shaun McCrain is the guy behind the food and he’s doing some pretty incredible stuff.

Check out the Book Bindery. They are taking it to the next level in all areas.

Northwest Palate Cover & Spread

Northwest Palate
I recently provided photography for the cover and spread in a recent issue of Northwest Palate. Ethan Stowell again, this time digging for clams off Whidbey Island. These photos were actually outtakes from last year’s cookbook project. We all spent the weekend on Whidbey shooting photos, digging for clams, and drinking way too much wine. It was a spectacular time.

There’s a lot more work coming in the next few weeks. A local retail food company gets a brand refresh and website, another Northwest Palate spread goes to press, and my favorite new project this year: Eric Banh’s fantastic new noodle bar and cocktail lounge. This one is going to be great!

Happy Spring.

New Year and New Marjorie Restaurant


Logomark and Tagline

The year is coming to a close and I thought I better recap one of my favorite projects that recently wrapped up: Marjorie Restaurant. I’ve worked with Donna Moodie since the beginning of Marjorie back in 2001, providing various websites, photography, branding, and more. She lost her Belltown lease a couple of years ago and has since moved up to Capitol Hill and this was a good opportunity for us to update the brand and create a new website. We began rolling out new pieces earlier this year and I’m very happy with the results.

Website Homepage

Like a lot of my clients here in Seattle, the work I do with Marjorie is ongoing. We are continually creating new content, shooting new photos, and maintaining the web presence. So while the new brand launch and website are complete, the working relationship continues to grow. This is one of the best parts of running my own business: my clients become my friends and we get to extend the partnership indefinitely, thus allowing the work itself to evolve and improve. It’s a very agile working relationship and I think it’s key to the great success I’ve had so far this year. (More examples from this project in the portfolio).

Website Detail

And, what a year this has been! I just returned from a month-long working vacation in Thailand where I took a little time off to gather my senses and plan for 2011. I probably didn’t get as much work done as I anticipated, but the time was well spent. Here’s a few photos from the adventure.

Have a great holiday everyone, looking forward to what lies ahead…

New Identity: Staple & Fancy

Logo and Door Sign

Shortly after launching the new Ethan Stowell Restaurants website, we got to work on the identity for Staple & Fancy. Staple & Fancy is Ethan’s new restaurant in Ballard and is going to become the Seattle chef’s permanent digs. The restaurant occupies a newly renovated space in the Kolstrad Building and a lot of the original brick signage still occupies the walls. One of the former occupants was a grocery store that offered goods both staple & fancy, as the old painted sign on the brick wall states, and a restaurant name was born.

Staple & Fancy Menu

Daily Menu

For this logo assignment we went through quite a few rounds of revisions before landing on the final result. Trying to hit the sweet spot between old-timey but not too period-specific or hackneyed is harder than I expected. (Maybe in a future post I’ll show the giant pile of discarded attempts.)

In the end, the final logo seems like the perfect mix of old and new, and very appropriate for a restaurant which marries old and new architecture with Ethan’s simple and modern take on classical Italian cuisine.

Business Card

Business Card

We came up with a simple business card based on a photo I took of the original signage. The menu was a concept we all came up with during a late-night brainstorm. (I’m sure the hosts are questioning the need for a staple gun to keep the daily menu current.)

Staple & Fancy

If you haven’t already, get down to Staple & Fancy and dine omakase style where Ethan takes care of all the ordering. Then simply sit back and relax with some of the best food in the country.

Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen


Late last year I was approached by Ethan Stowell to discuss a new project he was working on, his first cookbook. We had worked together before on a few of his websites, but this was going to be a big deal. And while I had shot plenty of photos for websites and a handful of magazines over the years, I hadn’t really taken on something of this scale—so I had to think about it. At the time I was working as senior interactive designer at an agency, so I was fairly concerned about how I was going to juggle a full-time job and a full-time book project.

So, I did the only logical thing: I quit my job. Granted, I had been entertaining this idea for some time already, but the book project was just the impetus I needed to start my own full-time business in one of the worst economies on record. And it was the best decision I ever made.

Watercress Salad + Fried Clams

We shot the photos over the course of a year at Ethan’s restaurants and we also spent two days on location on Whidbey Island where we dug for clams, cooked food, ate food and drank wine all night. It was a great time. I learned a lot. About Ethan’s food and about how to be a photographer. I should probably thank Ten Speed Press for taking a chance on a graphic designer with a camera—but luckily for me they have had success with this formula in the past.

How to clean an artichoke.

The cookbook itself is great. Ethan makes some of the best food I’ve ever had. Everything is simple, clean and delicious. You should buy this book. I’ve cooked from it myself. It works. And the photos aren’t half bad.

LookatLao Studio Review: Six Months of Mostly Award-Winning Design

best website award

While LookatLao Studio has been around in various incarnations for the last two decades or more, it has never been my sole source of income. I’ve freelanced here and there and bummed around the world now and again, and I even moonlighted a bit during my time in the agency world, but I never tried to make LookatLao Studio a legitimate, full-time business that can pay the bills and then some. Until this year.

And so far it seems to be working out very well. Six months in to it and I’ve just received an award for Best Website Design: Restaurant/Bar for my work with Ethan Stowell Restaurants.

It has been a challenging kickoff and I have certainly learned that not having a boss does not equal more free time. But it has been worth it for sure. Like a former colleague said to me before I left my job: you will wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

So here’s what happened since January: I’ve launched websites for Ethan Stowell Restaurants, The Chef In The Hat, and Monsoon Restaurants. I worked on a logo for Seattle Restaurant Week with Lorie Ransom and refreshed a previous logo effort for Marjorie Restaurant. I also shot about 20,000 photographs for a cookbook that will be out in September–more on that one when the book is available.


And currently in the works are a couple of new websites, another handful of logos and I’m about to put together a pitch for another cookbook that I hope will take me and a talented chef to far off lands in search of food and photo opportunities. Needless to say, I’m staying busy.

I’ve updated the design portfolio with several new projects if you want to see more, and the photography portfolio will be updated next.

It’s going to be a busy summer!

New Work: Ethan Stowell & Marjorie

Ethan Stowell Restaurants

Since the day I left my full time job at the agency last February I haven’t had a single day off. Needless to say: business is booming! And no, I’m not complaining. (Mostly)

Just last week I launched the website for Ethan Stowell Restaurants which turned out really great. We are still tweaking the details here and there, but I’m very happy with the results. We also finished up the photography for Ethan’s first cookbook as I just sent 170 final print-ready photographs to Ten Speed Press. This book is going to be awesome. More on that adventure in a future post.

Currently in the works and almost live is a new site for Monsoon Restaurant, a new site for The Chef In The Hat, and a bunch of new work for the upcoming Marjorie Restaurant which should be opening soon. I just finished the logo for that a few weeks back:


Don’t forget to check out Seattle Restaurant Week starting on the 18th of April. Lorie and I did the logo and the poster and you can check out the later over on her website. (She did all the work on the poster, I just stood around and smoked cigars.)

More updates soon…

New Logo For Seattle Restaurant Week

Seattle Restaurant Week

I keep meaning to write a blog post announcing my recent career change from lead interactive designer at Phinney Bischoff Design House to running my own business full-time here at LookatLao—but I’ve just to been too damn busy! But I’m not complaining, this is actually the ideal problem to have when leaving the agency world and going it alone—and I’ll get to that new career post sooner or later.

One of the projects that has kept me busy has been a logo design for a new restaurant organization that has recently formed here in Seattle called Seattle Restaurant Week. You can get the full background on the organization from this article by Nancy Leson over at the Seattle Times.

The best part of this project was that I got to team up with good pal and fellow designer Lorie Ransom who runs her own design and illustration studio in Lake Forest Park. To kick off our collaboration we spent a couple of weeks working on roughs but could never seem to narrow the choices down to the magic three (or even four or five) that designers love to present. We had a giant pile of logos, we liked them all, and they all satisfied the creative brief in different ways. So, we ended up showing the client sixteen different pencil roughs at a crowded restaurant downtown! It was a big risk, but it paid off. The presentation went really great.

16 Logo

In the end, the project became a true collaborative effort as our client chose a design that I originally conceived with a final illustration that was hand-drawn by Lorie. We followed that up with a poster design that should appear around town in early March, but I’ll give Lorie all the credit on that one. (And post it here when it’s done.)

It was a great project and Seattle Restaurant Week is going to be a great new event for Seattle food lovers—and chefs!

Photography Featured in the Latest Issue of GQ

GQ Photo

I recently shot a quick photo of Ethan’s Escolar Crudo with Hot Coppa and Sharlyn Melon over at Anchovies & Olives that just made it to a half-page spread in the January issue of GQ. (Five Best Dishes of the Year). Sadly, Rhianna didn’t make it to the shoot, but she was there in spirit.

Look for a bunch of new work from me for Ethan and Co. in the next few months. Lots of cool stuff in the pipeline.

A Day in Bangkok: Silom

I’ve spent a lot of time in Bangkok, Thailand over the last few years and I have to say it’s just about my favorite place in the world. Most folks would question this favored status and a few might even argue that Bangkok isn’t “Thailand” at all. Thailand, to a lot of people, is rice fields and beaches and golden temples and lush jungles. To others it’s the warm hospitality, the endless shopping or the morally ambiguous nighttime fun-park that draws them to Thailand. For me it’s Bangkok. The city itself. I love it.

My favorite activity in Bangkok is to wander around. This is easier said than done and takes a bit of practice. For starters, you have to ignore the heat, the toxic air, the traffic, the horrific architecture, the stumbling tourists, the noise, the partial sidewalks, the rabid dogs, the scam artists, the filthy canals, the maniacs and even your own desire to flee when it gets too be too much. But I think that’s why the rewards of Bangkok, when you do finally find them, are so great: it always feels like you’ve earned them.

So anyway, I spent a few days in the Silom area of Bangkok a couple of weeks ago and here’s a few of my favorite finds from the neighborhood:

Luxx Hotel

I’ve stayed at The Luxx once before, and for the money it’s a pretty great place. Smallish, quiet, modern rooms, wooden bathtubs and a decent breakfast in the café. I should clarify the quiet part: only the rooms facing the back are quiet. The suites–which actually cost more—face the street and are pretty loud up until 2AM or so. We had to switch rooms after just one night of listening to the mighty two-stroke engine orchestra. I will say that The Luxx is starting to look a little rough around the edges from general wear and tear, but it’s still a great place. That said, they are opening a new place over on Lang Suan road called LuxxXL in the location of the old Thang Long restaurant (R.I.P. Thang Long). It looks to be a step up from the regular Luxx and I think I’ll stay there next time.

Khrua Aroy Aroy

This is a great place to grab breakfast before embarking on the day’s adventure. The name translates as Kitchen Delicious. It’s small, hole-in-the-wall place with great food and regular Thai prices. It’s tucked away on Thanon Pan directly across from the Hindu Temple (off Silom across from Soi 20). Really good kanom jeen, rich curries and a perfect version of my favorite breakfast: chicken with garlic and a fried egg. Look for the sign with english on the bottom that says: Delicious Delicious Delicious.


A few doors down from Khrua Aroy Aroy is Kathmandu, and I usually stop in here whenever I make it to Bangkok. Kathmandu is the photography studio and gallery space of Manit Sriwanichpoom who is a photographer probably most well-known for his Pink Man series. Kathmandu’s downstairs space has lots of Manit’s work, some great books and postcards while the upstairs gallery space usually has a visiting photography show of some sort. Always worth a look. I hear they do Yoga and meditation here on Sundays as well.

Ruen Nuad

After getting a dose of inspiration from Khun Manit I like to wander around for a few hours shooting photos and finding new side streets to explore. After a while the Nikon starts to weigh me down and as late afternoon approaches a Thai massage is usually in order. Authentic Thai massage can be a pretty amazing thing when you can find it, but if you don’t know where to look you might find yourself in an establishment of questionable skill level and dubious motives. But, even in the questionable establishments you might get a massage that isn’t half bad if you get lucky, and it will probably only cost US$10. On the flip side, you can spend a good chunk of change on the high-end spa experience that has taken over Bangkok in the past few years: foot baths, aroma-therapy, flower petals, the whole shebang. With this route it starts to feel like you are simply paying extra for the fluff, and when it really comes down to it, it’s the massage that matters. Enter Ruen Nuad. Nuad (nu-wut) means massage and Ruen (roo-an) essentially means house, though the usage typically implies a house of an authentic, old-school Thai sort. Ruen Nuad offers the best massage I have ever experienced without question. The space is clean and simple with teak floors, ceiling fans, soft music and your own private shower. It’s staffed by smallish, older Thai women who can seriously kick your ass into shape. (Do not be fooled by their size!) Get the oil massage for an hour and a half and try not too wince too much when she takes apart your calf muscles. It will hurt. It will feel great. You will come back for more. At US$20 there’s no reason not too. Enjoy the tea service before your last half hour and tip your masseuse, she deserves it. Find Ruen Nuad towards the end of Thanon Convent behind Raj restaurant.

Silom Soi 20

This is a great little market soi back near Thanon Pan and the Hindu temple where I had breakfast. There’s fresh fruit, skewered meats, grilled snapper, soups and curries all served street-side. It’s no-frills, but a great place to grab an afternoon snack. Just be careful if you are a foreigner as you might get mobbed and then corralled to a “tourist table” where they have English menus and the prices are triple(!) the going Thai rate. Basically, the middleman (a woman in our case) will sit you down and then take your order and then locate the appropriate street stall to fix you your meal at inflated prices. The menu represents the entire street. They even offer the standard Thai dishes in Small, Medium or Large portions. This is bogus. Just try to duck in to a street-side table quickly and order verbally. The farther down the soi you go toward the Islamic Mosque the better your chances are. The food is good either way, and the inflated prices aren’t that much in the grand scheme of things if you prefer to see a menu. It sort of defeats the purpose of street food dining in general, but it’s not the end of the world.

Café Ice

After a another walk and a quick nap back at the hotel and it’s time for dinner. Silom has a couple of really great, smallish restaurant/bars and Café Ice might be my favorite. Downstairs offers some tables and an art gallery but the the second floor is really what gets me to come back three different times in one week. It’s a great little outdoor roof terrace that becomes the perfect respite from the madness of Bangkok. The staff is great, the cocktails are tasty and they have a really good wine list. But here’s the kicker: really good Thai food. Usually when you increase the the quality of the atmosphere the quality of the food tends to suffer. Not so at Café Ice. The Thai food here really shines. Try the crab spring rolls, the pork sparerib soup and the grilled “Isaan” beef. All excellent. They have a western menu as well with what looks like mostly Italian food, but I haven’t ventured there just yet. There are pictures of Thomas Keller on the walls in the kitchen so maybe it’s worth a try? Either way, this is some of the best al fresco dining I’ve found in the city.

The best way to find it is to locate the Chong Nonsri skytrain station and head east down Narathiwat Ratchanakharin 3 next to the larger of two 7-11s and then take the first right on Soi Phiphat 1. Here’s a map.

Clark over at Popwuping has a recent take on Café Ice as well. And while you are there check out his Itinerary For A Short Stay In Bangkok. Good stuff.

Eat Me

Eat Me is fantastic. And for the sake of my narrative I’m coming here for a nightcap because the bar is that good. But really, the food is that good too. Less traditional and less Thai in general, but quite possibly the best modern food I’ve ever had in Bangkok. But let’s focus on the drinks for now. These guys know how to make a cocktail. The Passionfruit Caipiroska is fantastic and they make the best Caipirinha I’ve had in Thailand. Perfect ice, perfect sweetness and at least four Brazilian cachaças to choose from. And really, you haven’t had a Caipirinha until you had one with Thai limes. The flavor is so much more intense than those clumsy lemon-lime hybrids we get in the states. (Granted, I’ve never had a Caipirinha in Sao Paulo, so there’s a chance that Brazilian limes are even better.) The space is simple and modern with both indoor and outdoor seating. The staff at Eat Me is also really fun and I made friends with a couple of guys after my second visit and we traded emails. The owner is pretty cool too, but I didn’t get to talk to him much. From what I can tell he’s an Aussie expat living the dream. (I’ll need to consult with him soon.) The space doubles as an art gallery an there’s usually some pretty cool stuff on the walls. Eat Me is off right off Convent Road, not too far from Ruen Nuad and Café Ice.

There’s a lot more to do in Silom to be sure, but this is how I spent just one of my days there. To me, this is the ideal vacation day: eating, exploring, relaxing and drinking. I would recommend any of the above excursions without hesitation. And next time you are in Bangkok don’t be afraid to wander around. Here’s a few photos from my last stay in Thailand.

Some Beards I Tried Once

beard photo

After the holiday break last December I had some free time off work and decided to ditch the razor and cultivate a fine beard. The response was mostly positive and I have to say it was kind of fun. I might even turn it into an ongoing winter tradition. And of course, shaving the thing off presented a photo-op I just couldn’t pass up.