BY STEF SCHWALB
Located in the buzzing gastronomic neighborhood of San Diego’s North Little Italy, Herb & Wood is the latest restaurant concept from celebrated Chef Brian Malarkey and Partner/General Manager Christopher Puffer. As an eclectic study of contrasts, Herb & Wood evokes comfort and “the dual persona of the Gilded Age: lavish sophistication set against and amidst industrial simplicity.” A seamless mix of category-defying styles and genres – as well as the integration of masculine and feminine elements – is evident throughout.
For Puffer, the choice of lighting fixtures was crucial for achieving a cohesive experience. “Lighting is everything to me. It is so important to have it be perfect. No one wants to dine in a place that is too bright, or at table that feels like you are in the spotlight,” he explains. “Also, no one wants to dine in a restaurant that is too dark. Choosing the correct fixtures to accent the different dining areas was a daunting task. I wanted the lighting to be even across the space without hot spots. This involved many late nights and the purchase of many different bulbs to get it right. We created a ‘light bulb bible’ to make sure there would be no question as to which bulb goes where when it was time to replace.”
With 30 styles of lighting at Herb & Wood, sourcing each element was not easy. The selection process was labor-intensive from concept to installation. “The lighting grid alone took me over 100 hours. As for the time spent spec’ing the fixtures and creating the custom sconces, I could not even begin to say,” Puffer reveals. “The lights that hang above bar – which resemble Spanish street lamps from San Sebastian – took me two days to hang and involved a team of two electricians, scaffolding to the ceiling, and two 16-foot step ladders.”
The lighting fixtures Puffer chose ran the gamut of manufacturers. “I really liked the more classic designs from Visual Comfort and used them to accent the patio and café,” he says.
“Restoration Hardware has always had an interesting range of entrance/foyer lighting,” Puffer adds. “The main beaded clay chandeliers that hang in the center of the main dining room were selected because I felt they complemented the custom fixtures and worked with the blue accent wall and the under-sea feel of the space. I also thought they would be recognized by guests and help with the residential feel. People love to say, ‘Hey, I know where those came from.’ I have had many guests stop me and say, ‘I recognize those. I wanted them for my house, but they were too expensive.’”
Herb & Wood is comprised of four areas: the check-in/lounge/bar; the Lavender Lounge; the patio; and the main dining room. The lighting plays an integral role in defining each. The first was critical since it welcomes guests and forms their first impression of the restaurant.
“There is a vintage Parisian concierge desk for check-in accented with vintage brass lamps,” Puffer explains. “The custom couches, accented by floating seashell globes and mini gas lamps, make for a perfect waiting area for casual cocktails and bites. The bar’s Spanish street lamps make our French white Pyrolave [glazed lava] bartop glow, but also help accentuate the gilded steel and golden back bar, which has a French Quarter-type feel.”
The Lavender Lounge pairs marble tables with brass accents, wooden high-top French farm tables, and a dual-sided fireplace. “For this space, the lighting took on a more Bohemian feel with the use of iron gold-accented glass prisms and birdcage-esque hanging lamps,” he remarks. “The use of these lights creates textures on the walls and ceilings.”
For the patio, Puffer specified gas lamps and classic American hanging lamps to provide New England charm. “The use of gas lamps and amber bulbs give the patio a beautiful golden hue to help create our ‘secret garden,’” he notes.
Lastly, Puffer points out that in the main dining room, custom and residential lamps with all Soft White glow bulbs help create a different feeling of underwater that is light and airy. “The large oversized Modigliani paintings in gilded frames give the room a sophisticated feel; however, the ‘open’ kitchen behind blue panes makes you feel you are in the action without the noise,” he states.
In general, Puffer is inspired by several kinds of lighting when it comes to design and trends. “The Edison light bulb still seems to reign supreme,” he says. “I am a fan of dimmable lighting from the 1-10 range, so you can really take it down to the perfect level. I am also a huge fan of vintage styling and anything that makes me feel like I might have seen it in an old movie.”
While Puffer is a partner in four other restaurants, Herb & Wood is the first venue that he designed himself — a process that was challenging, to say the least. “Mind numbing, terrifying, obsessed, sleepless nights…my God, what the heck was I thinking?! It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life,” he reveals.
“The end result? I stood on the patio and thought, ‘Everything I have ever experienced in my life – good and bad – has brought me to this moment.’ Being a singer/songwriter in a past life, I felt like this was my frustrated artist finally getting to express himself. Herb & Wood is sort of like my art installation piece. It’s real and authentic and does not feel like a California theme park.”
When it comes to future projects, Puffer is currently collaborating on two restaurants with a design group, but doesn’t foresee taking the lead. “Maybe someday when I retire I will do another restaurant from the top to bottom,” he surmises. “For now, it is difficult since we have four venues to operate and two more opening within the next 12-13 months, but for Herb & Wood, the timing was perfect to design.”