Big, tasteful style for little cash

Few new eateries will get their own TV series. But every place does have some of the drama of the new show "Restaurant," often because of one major question: How do you create a beautiful space for very little money?

It's not an easy question to answer, even for those who have already become successful restaurateurs. Just ask Tim Partridge, who owned Perdix, a 10-table place in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston. Mr. Partridge is now trying to open a 50-seat restaurant in Boston's South End for less than $20,000.

Part of his approach has been to enlist the help of a designer with no previous restaurant experience. What Greg Wilson did have was a love of Perdix's food - but not its decor. So he offered his services free of charge.

Most people opening new restaurants won't find a designer in their midst, but they, too, are having to watch their pennies, because of the slumping economy. "I think it's obvious that restaurants ... are being a little more careful about how much they spend," says Tim Zagat, publisher of Zagat Survey restaurant guides. "There are not that many splashy, big, extravagant restaurants opening at the moment."

But rather than abandon their dreams of Viking stoves and Sub Zero refrigerators, thrifty chefs, owners, and designers are discovering creative ways to design a restaurant on a shoestring.

In order to stay within budget, Mr. Partridge is doing much of the work himself. Walking through his new space, he gestures toward light-blue walls that he and a waiter will coat in a golden caramel color. He looks up at the faux pressed-tin ceiling, pulling out a seafoam color swatch, a variation on what's already there, he says, but subtler. He grins proudly at a gaping hole - soon to be a window - leading to an enclosed green room in back. He cut the hole with a chain saw that morning.

Partridge isn't alone in his quest to open a new restaurant as inexpensively as possible. Alison Nelson and her partner, Matt Lewis, opened Chocolate Bar, a candy shop in Manhattan's West Village, with $25,000 for 700 square feet of space. Like Partridge, they took what some call the "Home Depot" approach to design and construction.

A little help from our friends

In Playa del Rey, an out-of-the-way Los Angeles beach community, a retro gray-and-white sign quietly signals the entrance to Chloe, a 10-table restaurant that opened April 16. Chloe's chefs, Jeff Osaka and Christian Shaffer, spent less than $5,000 to decorate.

They couldn't have done it without help from friends, family, and people they met along the way. Messrs. Osaka and Shaffer had a half dozen friends over for a painting party; Osaka's brother, an electrician, did the lighting; and an architect friend designed the mahogany panels over the bar.

Ms. Nelson and Mr. Lewis also teamed up with family and friends to cut costs. Lewis's father helped with the bathroom. In an attempt to save a little money, he suggested that the existing toilet didn't need to be replaced, just cleaned. He told them: "Put on rubber gloves, get down there, and you'll save yourself a couple hundred dollars."

Although the goal of most owners who end up doing the work themselves is to save money, the personalized touches that result add to the restaurant's ambience. And, according to Jim Leff, founder and editor of the website Chowhound.com, those details can also tell potential customers if a restaurant's any good.

Mr. Leff recently visited a small diner that had been converted into a Southeast Asian restaurant by an enterprising Laotian family. The windows are draped with handmade pieces of fabric that hang from bamboo poles. Rice paddy hats rest on coat racks at the corners of the booths.

Leff believes that the same care behind these extra touches makes its way into the food. "That's how you find a good restaurant," he says. "You just look for the cumulative weight of a lot of decisions... 'Should I stir the pasta one more time? Should I turn it down a little?' It's those little touches that make food delicious and restaurants congenial."

Once a restaurant...

But attention to detail doesn't always mean starting from scratch. Perdix and Chloe both occupy spaces that had previously housed restaurants, which made the new owners' jobs easier.

"Almost every restaurant is moving into a place that had been another restaurant before," says Mr. Zagat. "Why do you want to build an entire restaurant? Or put in a kitchen? Kitchens are expensive. To the extent that somebody can take over a good space, clean it up, repaint it, and put in different lights, there's a powerful motivation to do that."

Chloe's walls got a fresh coat of grass-colored paint; its raw-pine banquettes took on a muted yellow. There are a few new sconces on the wall.

Chocolate Bar and Chloe have a similar feel. Those who look closely can see the care and thought in each detail: the patch of tiles in the front of Chocolate Bar that look like a minilawn, laid by Nelson and Lewis. The black-and-white photos carefully hung throughout Chloe were taken by a carpenter who worked on the new restaurant.

Partridge wouldn't have turned down more money if the bank had offered it. But he's not complaining, either. "It just forces you to be a whole lot more creative than if you had all the money in the world.

"You tend to focus your energy more on the people than you do on how much money you're spending on chandeliers," he says.

Nelson and Lewis agree. "You feel an enormous sense of pride when you walk into the store, knowing that you played a part in everything - from laying down the floors to painting the ceiling," says Nelson.

Curried Crab With Celery Root and Green Apple Salad

8 ounces fresh crabmeat, cooked, or substitute top-quality canned
4 tablespoons Curry Mayonnaise (see recipe)
2 tablespoons chives, chopped
2 tablespoons Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons shallots, chopped
1 large Granny Smith apple, julienned (cut into long, thin slices with a sharp knife or a mandoline)
1 large celery root, julienned (optional)
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and julienned
1 head frisee, washed and trimmed, using light green portion only (dark green leaves are bitter)
1/4 cup Lemon Vinaigrette (see recipe)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place crab in a medium bowl and fold in Curry Mayonnaise. Set aside in refrigerator for at least 1 hour to combine flavors. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the chives, 1 tablespoon of the parsley, and 1 tablespoon of the shallots. Return to refrigerator.

In a medium bowl place julienned apple, celery root, and cucumber. Add frisee. Mix in Lemon Vinaigrette and remaining 1 tablespoon chives, 1 tablespoon parsley, and 1 tablespoon shallots. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Shape crab salad into 4 round cakes and place on 4 chilled plates. Place apple-celery root mixture in equal portions on top of each of crab cake.

Serves 4 to 6.

Curry Mayonnaise

4 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 to 2 teaspoons curry powder

Mix mayonnaise with curry powder and set aside at least 1 hour to combine flavors.

Lemon Vinaigrette

Juice of 1/2 lemon
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.

- Adapted from a recipe from Jeff Osaka, Chloe restaurant, Playa del Rey, Calif.

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