When she opened Vibrant in August 2018, the Montrose-area restaurant quickly became a staple for hip, health-obsessed diners thanks to its chic (and delicious) sesame rose lattes and bone broth spiked with turmeric. But as good as the food is, the thoughtful design at Eater’s most gorgeous restaurant of 2018 has also been a significant factor in its success.
Kelly Barnhart always knew she’d do something special with the building that once housed a dry cleaners at 1931 Fairview Street. A Houston native, Barnhart drove by the building frequently and knew that she would eventually transform that utilitarian space into something special. “I just had a really strong intuition that I would one day resurrect its original, wonderful, retro aesthetic,” Barnhart says. “It’s got all of its original elements, and I didn’t have to scrape away years of renovations, which is something that normally comes with finding a great relic.”
There was, though, one major issue: Dry cleaning, which is of course not dry but uses chemicals to clean clothes instead of water, can leave behind some pretty nasty residues that wouldn’t have been conducive to a space that would serve what Barnhart describes as “clean food from the earth.” To determine if the space was even viable for a restaurant, Barnhart hired two different companies to conduct environmental assessments on the property. Somewhat shockingly, neither company found substantial levels of chemical residue. “Because this was such an old dry cleaner, they just didn’t require the amount of chemicals that are used now,” she says. “It was totally lucky that we got the green light to go ahead and open a restaurant there.”
From there, Barnhart says that she scraped the building back to its original shell, leaving behind only a simple cinderblock rectangle outfitted with its original clay tiles. Working alongside Lake Flato Architects and The MP Shift, she stuck to a small set of materials — laminate tables and cabinets, the space’s original concrete floors, fir wood banquettes, and Vibrant’s custom terazzo pieces — to keep the interior simple, which made room for the team to get creative with the restaurant’s fixtures.
The most iconic of those fixtures are the terazzo pieces created especially for the space by U.K. surface designer Olivia Aspinall. Originated in Italy, terazzo is a type of composite tile that traditionally involves setting small chips of stones and other materials in a resin or concrete. “I envisioned creating a cooler kind of terazzo with a concrete feel and different types of materials than what you normally see,” she says. “I tried to manufacture something like this on my own, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it as beautiful as it really needed to be. I was so wowed by Olivia Aspinall’s work because it coincidentally has the exact same look and feel that I was trying to come up with on my own.”
Barnhart and her team painstakingly sourced the rest of the restaurant’s fixtures, especially its chairs. Collected from across the world, the restaurant’s seating includes a number of iconic chair styles from designers like Friso Kramer. Same goes for the period-appropriate Scarpa lighting fixtures, all manufactured in the 1960s. The tables, inspired by decorative art designer Ana Kras, are paired with a small laminate bench manufactured by the artist. The restaurant is an art nerd’s dream, with modern and post-modern and contemporary pieces, each of which nod in the direction of the space’s other fixtures.
To create the restaurant’s serene, contemporary color palette, Barnhart looked west. “I am in love with desert sunset vibes. Whether it’s West Texas or New Mexico or Arizona, the color palette really gives me the feel of those sandy, vast sunsets,” she says. “Just looking at it transports me to that feeling you get when you’re in those locations at that time of day.”
It’s not surprising that someone like Barnhart, who studied interior design at the Art Institute and art history at Sotheby’s in London, would open such a design-focused restaurant. She also spent time at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, which helped her to parlay her love of decorative art history into a career. Now, she’s looking to bring what she created at Vibrant to new cities beyond Houston.
Barnhart is currently in the very early stages of bringing an outpost of Vibrant to Austin. She hasn’t settled on a space just yet, but is already thinking about how she’ll want the second location of her restaurant to look. She’s also considering a new project at an as-yet-unnamed hotel in Houston, and has big plans for the future. “I intend to expand Vibrant as far as I can in as many of the cultural cities that I love as possible,” she says. “I’m interested in doing things that service the well-being of mankind, and I feel like this place helps me accomplish that goal.”
This is the third in a monthly series of features on Eater Houston’s 2018 Eater Awards Winners. Stay tuned in May for the next installment.