Exposed ceilings present pros and cons for operators
In his new hip restaurant where seasonal artisanal pizzas are delivered from a wood-burning oven, Mike Isabella wanted just one thing: exposure.
Isabella, who appeared on season six of Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2009, opened Graffiato in June 2011, in the Chinatown section of Washington, D.C. He deliberately sought a place to expose the building’s bones, including the ceiling. “For me, it’s the feel of the building,” Isabella says.
Isabella found it in a former printing shop constructed in the 1950s.
“I was looking for wood beams, that urban feel, that city building feel you get when you walk into the space. So I left everything alone –– the brick walls, the concrete walls. It was a cool old building that was just a shell, and I thought I could put my concept in there,” he says. The two-story, 130-seat Italian restaurant features an open ham bar on the second floor and on the first floor, a large wood oven tucked behind a U-shaped counter.
One of Isabella’s favorite features is the exposed ceiling over the 4,500 square feet of space. Before opening, Isabella had it scraped and cleaned, even the nooks and crannies of pipes overhead. Every so often, they get a dusting. As for the noise level, it can get pretty boisterous. But that’s how Isabella likes it.
“We want it to be noisy; that’s the mentality of it. Everything is loud –– the music, too. That’s the vibe. We want it fun and exciting, loud, upbeat, energetic, electric, all the urban things I wanted to hit.”
If you envision making a “Top Chef” personality splash with an exposed ceiling like Isabella, it can be done. But before you rip out panels and drywall, remember these caveats from Liz Toombs, an interior decorator and owner of Polka Dots and Rosebuds Interiors in Lexington, Kentucky, and architect Ed Shriver, Principal at Strada LLC in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania:
It’s incredibly unpredictable (both aesthetically and cost-wise) if you’re ripping out an existing ceiling, Shriver says. “You’ll see ducts, pipes, electrical conduits, all sorts of junk hither and yon. If I design a space so that it doesn’t have a ceiling, I have mechanical and electrical guy lay it out so it will look organized. But in a retrofit, you’ll find that they ran the ducts wherever they wanted.”
Dirt requires paint, paint and more paint. “When you have exposed duct work and pipes, you have to paint it. Don’t leave the colors as they are,” Toombs says. “It should be black, brown and grey to blend everything together. Now that’s a lot of labor –– a few thousand in labor and materials. And you don’t just paint the underside –– all of it has to be painted. But the benefit is, after you do all of that, you mostly can leave it alone. You can hide the potential dirty look with the darker color.” As for cleaning, use an industrial company. “For one thing, it’s a risk to put someone on a ladder as an employee. You need a commercial cleaning company that is equipped,” Toombs says.
Hot air rises. This has as much to do with your utility costs as with fire safety, Shriver says. “The way sprinkler heads work, hot air rises to the ceiling, and the ceiling holds it close to the sprinkler head so it goes off. But with an exposed ceiling, the sprinkler head doesn’t have anything to bank the heat against, and it sets off much later. You have more fire damage. So you have to point them up to set it them off sooner. It’s a code issue,” Shriver says. This is easy to fix, although it’s an expense most people don’t anticipate. A sprinkler contractor can loosen and twist pipes in the right direction.
As for utilities, use ceiling fans to offset costs. Keep in mind, though, a regular ceiling cuts bills by five to 10 percent, Toombs says.
Don’t forget wires for lighting. “That’s a lot of feet to run cords down,” Toombs says. “Run it so it’s below where
the lowest pipe and vent is. Otherwise, you’re casting a lot of shadows. The benefit is it creates an ambient feel, a darker and intimate feeling.”
Are you prepared for sound? Noise levels rise exponentially with an exposed ceiling, Toombs says. The benefit “is that it makes everything busy and bustling. In the back of customers’ minds, this is a hot spot,” she says.
If you want to control sound, float sound panels. “They can look like an interesting piece of art. They can be flat above you or angled. You can do it in different colors. They bounce the sound off, and customers can hear the people they’re dining with,” Toombs says. Large specialty manufacturers produce sound panels for offices. “They’re made of a certain material with a nice fabric that is meant to absorb that sound.” u
The Exposed Ceiling: A “Supporting Player”
When deciding whether to expose your ceiling, think of your restaurant like you would a theater, says interior decorator Liz Toombs. The ceiling shouldn’t detract from the main performance: interesting things at the customer’s table level or activity in the restaurant.
“You want everyone to focus on things at their eye level. The ceiling is not the focal point, but a supporting player. It’s not the main focus. It’s ironic, because it’s so costly to get it looking great!” she says.
Chef Mike Isabella says his exposed ceiling contributes to his restaurant’s overall performance. “For me, an exposed ceiling gives texture to the space,” he says. “If I had a regular dropped ceiling, it’s boring like an office. It’s a quality. I love it, I enjoy it, I’m very into the whole feel and space. It gives the character I wanted, and there has definitely been talk from people saying it’s a cool space.”
Heidi Lynn Russell specializes in writing about the issues that affect small business owners. She is a regular contributor to Pizza Today and lives in Wilmore, Kentucky.