When I reviewed the much-admired Italian restaurant Biba several weeks back, I withheld a rating for the "ambience" category. Biba Caggiano had told me prior to publication that she planned to close the restaurant for a week and remodel.
The restaurant has closed, reopened and the remodel is complete - there is new art on the walls and those walls have been given new life. In the bar area, which is what customers encounter when they walk in the front door, paneling has been added and the paint gives the room a darker overall clubby feel. Beforehand, the bar had lots of mirrors and brass fixtures that suggested you were entering a themed restaurant called "Ode to the '80s."
In the main dining room, color has been added to those white textured walls (it's a creamy yellow called "Spring Buttercup"). Furniture has been reoriented. The chairs are new.
When I caught up with Caggiano, the legendary restaurateur and cookbook author, she was more than pleased about the new look.
"I love it," she told me.
Biba closed for eight days - for those who crave the gnocchi or the complex flavors of the lasagna or the handmade ravioli, that might seem like an eternity. It closed July 3 and reopened July 12 and the place has been packed most nights since. People are curious about the new look and Caggiano says the response has been favorable.
The man in charge of the remodel was Bruce Benning of Benning Design, who worked his magic within a limited time frame and limited budget.
I had my opinions about the place, but I wanted to know what Benning thought.
"It was tired. It just wasn't up to the current standards," he said. "It was also a little odd that it had some art deco overtones to the design in somewhat of a Tudor-style building, so there was an incongruity there. We wanted to freshen it up a bit. The challenge whenever you do that is not to alienate the clientele that has been going there for years and loves it the way it is."
As mentioned, there are two main spaces at Biba: the bar area and the dining room. Benning wanted them to have more distinct identities. Those brass sconces in the dining room have been replaced with hand-painted Italian silk sconces. For that alone, Benning could be given a high-five!
"They screamed 1980s," Benning said of the old sconces. "That's the problem with anything that's too trendy. In a restaurant of Biba's level and quality, it needs to not be trendy. It needs to be timeless."
The design of a restaurant, of course, cannot make up for subpar food. But it can bring an extra dimension to a restaurant like Biba, where the food and service are absolutely first-rate.
I'm not surprised to hear that Caggiano was a demanding and discerning hands-on client. She may not be an interior design expert, but she knows what she wants - and what she doesn't want.
"Biba is absolutely fabulous," Benning added. "She was there every day watching what was going on. Biba brings extreme passion to her restaurant, which I found very refreshing."