By R.J. Weick & R. Collins
In the urban landscape, the riverfront is a valuable natural, economic, and community asset. While it may have been underappreciated historically, in more recent years there has been a renewed interest and return to the waterfront—arguably the Great Lakes region’s most iconic frontier. There is a push to consider ecological principles in the early planning stages of development and a pursuit to activate the waterfront on existing properties.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan—a city named in homage to the rapids that once roared down what is now the heart of downtown—the riverfront is inherent to its identity and defines the cityscape silhouette. There is a cluster of commercial, civic, educational, residential, and retail structures that line the banks on either side, and at the Amway Grand Plaza, Curio Collection by Hilton, the riverfront was carefully considered when renovating dining space to accommodate The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck.
The upscale-casual restaurant project, which features a menu designed by renowned celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and was built on a brand encompassing the three companies of Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Catering, and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc., renovated nearly 12,000 square-feet at the hotel. With collaboration from Concept Design Group—now known as Concept Design, a Ghafari Company—Lynn Hollander Design, and the Wolfgang Puck design team, the Amway Grand Plaza introduced a dining concept of The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck in 2015 that is one of only two locations in the world.
Great Lakes By Design Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Rick Winn, president at AHC+ Hospitality, and Lynn Hollander, IIDA Member, Green Building Council, at Lynn Hollander Design to learn more about the project and design of the dual-level riverfront dining terrace experience.
How did the Amway Grand Plaza become involved with Wolfgang Puck?
Winn: It goes back to the Ruth Chris restaurant. It was so successful—and still is—and embraced by the community, we decided to duplicate it in some fashion with a different brand and different offering. We thought Wolfgang Puck was a well-recognized, well-respected brand, and it was different than Ruth Chris. We thought it would appeal to a different segment of the community.
What was the vision or goal for The Kitchen concept at Amway? What did you want to achieve?
Winn: We wanted to choose a well-respected brand and our secondary—or equally important—goal was to really engage the river. I think we did that by pushing out the exterior wall a bit. We increased the size of the windows so the river views were more profound and created almost 100 feet of outdoor seating at the river. That was really one of our main objectives: to really activate the West side of the hotel, provide some river edge activity, and generate some community engagement along the river.
What was some of the initial inspiration or goals for the space?
Hollander: It was originally another restaurant and very dark. The ceilings were very low and you couldn’t even see the river. You would walk down the hallway to this restaurant and the windows were very small and it was a very tight opening.
The first goal was to open up the back of the restaurant as much as we could to expose it to the river: we wanted people to be a part of that. We also used materials that have a natural feel. We used a lot of walnut; even the ceramic tile flooring looks like walnut.
What are some of the interior finishes or design elements that stand out to you?
Winn: I think wine is an important aspect of so many restaurants and Wolfgang Puck, so we created the wine walls, which are a significant feature in the restaurant. We also used a lot of metal and wood—some natural wood aspects to really give it a more earthy feel. We knew we were trying to make it casual fine dining, so we wanted to make sure it was approachable by so many other people.
Where was the metal work?
Hollander: We have some screens that were [custom] done and we have a wine rack that separates it from the dining portion. We also added a staircase that goes down to a lower level, so that was a little challenging—at least the construction of it. Down below are the eating areas and private dining and we kept a lot of it glass so it was airy and didn’t obstruct the view.
We have some lighting that we used over the staircase and we had a custom light made in the dining space on the first floor. Dan Carlson [of Carlson Design in Ada, Michigan] helped with that particular design.
What type of material was used on the bars, countertops, and tables?
Hollander: We tried to use local tables. They were done by Grand Rapids Chair Company. Those [chairs] were a wood finish and then the bar was done in quartz and we had a ceramic tile on the floor. At the back of the bar there are some mirrors that were incorporated into the metal work of the shelves so you have a reflection.
The back bar is backlit and then we used some metal work for the liquor shelves. The interesting thing is it just allowed for a very clean back bar; a lot of times they can be very cluttered, so our goal was to avoid that.
How would you describe the overall aesthetic?
Hollander: It has a contemporary, but casual feel to it. We had the opportunity to travel to California to meet with the Wolfgang Puck team to understand their branding process and how they work. It’s important to them that if the food has fresh ingredients and things are simple and clean, we try to pull that into the design process as well. Even though it was casual, they wanted to have an upscale feel to it.
How did you make the materials and features functional for a restaurant setting?
Hollander: That’s really important. We focus on a lot of restaurant and hospitality spaces so all the products have to be functional. For the flooring, we used ceramic tile so it is easy to maintain. The countertops were done in quartz so it is easy to wipe down. It is a simple, clean space so all of the chairs were done with vinyl to allow for it to be maintaince-free.
The Kitchen concept is somewhat unique for the Wolfgang Puck brand. What do you think is the significance of having that in Grand Rapids, Michigan?
Winn: I think just having Wolfgang Puck’s name in Grand Rapids is significant. I think we could have chosen a couple other concepts, but the open kitchen and the menu provides for little more interesting items, gives us some flexibility in the menu, and I think distinguishes the restaurant a bit from all of the other competition that is around.
We are basically another extension of his brand and that is certainly one of the things we want to do—really be the best restaurant in the chain if possible.
Anything else you would like to add?
Winn: The majority of the menu is really Wolfgang Puck’s personal recipes. Some are his mom’s recipes. Even though this is a chain, or people perceive it as a chain, this is a very personal chef menu. These are all the recipes that made him famous to begin with.
Hollander: When you walk in, there is a glass wine storage unit and we used some greenery in that. It is a pretty space, I think it is very inviting to people.
I do like the bar and the first impression you have when you walk in. We’ve done a lot of spaces in that hotel—and I think from where you enter the hotel and come down that hallway, you see right outside and I think that draws you in.
Photography courtesy AHC+Hospitality