'Exploring' with design: Meet the man behind some of Vancouver's coolest restaurant interiors
Craig Stanghetta prides himself on designs with a point of view
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Craig Stanghetta came to Vancouver to try acting, but ended up finding his artistic feet on a special kind of stage: the design of restaurants.
His studio, Ste. Marie, has created the interior look for 17 restaurants so far—many of which have gone on to become iconic Vancouver destinations.
There’s the acclaimed Italian-Japanese restaurant Kissa Tanto, tucked away on the second-floor of a Chinatown building, inspired by Tokyo jazz cafés of the 1960s. There’s Ask for Luigi on a Railtown corner, whose coziness (it’s packed with small tables) nods to family feasts cooked by Italian grandparents. There’s also Gastown’s Revolver, a fastidious coffee shop for connoisseurs, where a peek behind the long wooden counter is look into a lab.
Behind the art installations, custom lighting and bespoke furniture of restaurants, “there’s a larger ecosystem at play,” said Stanghetta at his studio this week.
While he didn’t have formal training, he’s always had a passion for architecture and interior design growing up in Sault Ste. Marie. Stanghetta even made his own furniture. After giving theatre, film and TV a try, he started his studio.
“Coming from a background where there isn’t a formula for how you get it done, I was always thinking, what does this restaurant need to be a good restaurant?” said Stanghetta. “Or what does this store need to represent the ideals of the brand or the people that own it? What are guests going to respond most to?”
One of Ste. Marie’s first projects was the modern Chinese restaurant Bao Bei.
“It was very hands-on!” said owner Tannis Ling of the collaboration. “We would scavenge things and make light fixtures. I think it’s really important to think about the minutia of the details. It translates really well when people come in and they’re not exactly sure what they’re going to. It’s a full sensory experience than just eating.”
Aside from designing the space to be dark and romantic, Ling also wanted to bring in her story. If you visit, you’ll see her family photos from Hong Kong and Taiwan on the walls; there’s a massive one of her father’s rock band.
On top of the design and the food and drink, “it all has an emotional tether,” said Stanghetta.
For the restaurant he co-owns, Savio Volpe on Kingsway by 15th, he used Italian folklore from his childhood.
“There’s a huge history of folklore in Italy, with all these sayings about how to live your life, with all these interesting characters. We liked the idea of having our own character, and he ended up being this anthropomorphized fox, and he became our muse. For us, we were saying, ‘Would he like this? Does this suit him’?”
The creation became a warm roadside tavern run by a dandy, fictitious fox that loves wine, hosting company and telling children stories.
Many Ste. Marie-designed restaurants are in changing, upscaling areas like Chinatown or Railtown, which Stanghetta says “used to be very vibrant and alive but they’ve fallen by the wayside.
“Habits of people change, businesses change, zonings change, but that doesn’t mean these places won’t again be extremely vibrant parts of the city.”
Ste. Marie’s recent project in Chinatown paid homage to the neighbourhood’s former glory: a classic Cantonese barbecue shop.
It was the passion project of the Chinatown Foundation’s Carol Lee, who has long been involved with neighbourhood revitalization efforts. The restaurant, Chinatown BBQ, proved to be a nostalgia trip for many longtime Vancouverites when it opened in November.
“It wasn’t for us [as a studio],” said Stanghetta, “it was for people’s memories, to try and materialize the best version of how people remember Chinatown.”
Also with the foundation, the team is working to bring back Chinatown’s legendary Foo’s Ho Ho.
Research and details are important to Stanghetta, who has consulted locals and historians.
“The more you can get into a place, with things of interest or history, it engages your guest. It engages your own team. Everybody wants to feel like they’re part of something that’s had some thought put into it.”
It’s more fulfilling, he says, than working on a “flash in the pan” restaurant that’s bandwagoning a trend.
“That’s the way 90 per cent of people open restaurants. But what’s their point of view? They saw it somewhere else and want to make money? I’d rather do the work we do because we’re trying to explore something. We’re trying to make this perfect version of this thing that exists in our dreams.
“As soon as you open the door, all that…”
He gestures outside.