To make more than just a pretty place, interior designer Helen Reed Hayes puts brains and backbone into the business of restaurant design. Nearby eateries have never looked so good. 

Power Lunch

Helen Reed Hayes flies up Interstate 95 with the velocity of a lightening bolt, clipping across lanes to thwart the road rage of D.C. drivers, splashing her SUV through rigs and rain on her way to a Tuesday power lunch. Not five minutes into the trip, her cell phone squeals, which wouldn't be quite so notable except that the thing plays the William Tell Overture, high-pitched and frantic, instead of ringing. This is life in overdrive, and this woman, this 36-year old creative workaholic on the phone and at the wheel, slows down for no one.

Her destination is The Caucus Room, the just-opened and much-talked-about new Washington restaurant, a $3.3 million mahogany monument to bipartisan investing. Its backers are the nation's most prominent lobbyists and politicos, and the place is the hottest investment in town, The New York Times notes, its shares snapped up in four mind-boggling days.

Hayes avows an avid disinterest in politics. The restaurant's investor list, including former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, lobbyist Tom Boggs Jr. (Hale's son, Cokie Roberts' brother), Senate sergeant-at-arms James Ziglar, and several dozen others, draw from her an almost-blank stare and a polite smile. Yet Hayes' passion for The Caucus Room, and her intense determination to get there on this day, has everything to do with Washington.

She's curious to see just how this city likes her design.

The place swarms with gray suits and faces familiar to C-SPAN. A glassed-in but soundproofed conference room and a handful of spacious dining rooms all churn with the business of deals and pitches. Elegant paneling crowned with gold stars, tufted leather banquettes, metallic suede wallcoverings, dense navy-blue velvet curtains fringed in gold, and a medallion-theme carpet — these details, lifted directly from the Senate chambers with a little of Hayes' creative license, are now working in the machinations of politics and capitalism. All this, and one block from Capitol Hill. But Hayes is not able to relax.

"The six brass trashcans are still somewhere on a boat from China," she frets. "We still need more political photos for the back dining rooms. Are the chairs comfortable enough?"

Though the Richmond native looks poised and professional in a sleek Ann Taylor suit, her eyes scour the room with an anxious scrutiny that leaves no blemish undiscovered. Her work as president of H.L. Reed Design is all about details, and there's nothing worse than a last-minute snag to keep a restaurant interior from being complete. But the lobster bisque arrives, and for a golden moment, she delicately drowns herself in it, awed at the luxurious texture and caramel-colored broth. Soft, opalescent orbs of light glow across the room from large custom chandeliers trimmed with stars, and overscaled wine goblets clink in celebration. Diners appear to be satisfied, and not unwilling to ante up $10 for soup, twice that for salads, triple for the sizzling steaks and chops that will make this place solvent well before the dinnertime crowd descends.

Assured that this will be another successful venture, Hayes huddles with the owners, tallies a final checklist of finishing touches and walks out carrying a brown paper bag. It contains, she says almost incredulously, the gavel from the 1984 Republican National Convention. She'll get it framed and return it the following week, to hang somewhere near the black-and-white photos of Richard Nixon playing with lions, or young JFK cavorting with senators on the White House lawn. "It's truly a Washington restaurant," she says, for a moment pleased. And though it looks like it's been there a while, the place was completed in four months, a breakneck pace by restaurant standards.

By the time she blasts the Jeep Cherokee back into Richmond, Hayes has shifted gears to other projects, talking through her design for Bookbinder's, coming soon to Tobacco Row, or Nuccio's, a family-owned South Side Italian place about to open. Another venture is fresh off the drawing board for owner Garland Taylor. This Wyndham-area family eatery, to be called Garland's Way, is Taylor's fifth local restaurant. "Helen presented the interior proposals this week, and there's so much movement in the room, so much color," Taylor enthuses. It will be a cross between Melito's and Grafiti Grille, he says, wildly colorful, casual and a burgers-and-specials menu "where families can go in to eat or to dine."

As foodies and trend-seekers place higher expectations on their evenings out, some restaurant owners find they're in the business of theater, too. Lighting, sound, texture, fragrance, attitude, visual stimulation, comfort all play a part in their increasingly sophisticated quest to lure diners. Hayes' diverse list includes some of the area's best- designed restaurants, large and small: Main Street Beer Company, Nuvo Bistro, Kimbo's Noodle Bar, Bottega, Pasta Luna. Each place operates on different creative concepts, unified by Hayes' interest in bringing quality materials and attentiveness to clients. "If people are going in (to the restaurant) and talking about it, if the client is making a profit, if the project is completed in a timely manner, then it's a success. If it allows us to continue our relationship, that's a success, too," she says.

The relationships tend to continue. Claiborne Thomasson, who first hired Hayes and architect Bruce Perretz to design Ruth's Chris Steak House at historic Bellgrade plantation 10 years ago, says he won't start another project without the pair. And, because he's about to build another Ruth's Chris franchise in Short Pump, Hayes' 12-hour workdays won't be getting shorter soon. Thomasson's experience with the team is a source of pride: "The idea was to have a place that could seem clubby and male-oriented, but that ladies would feel comfortable in," Thomasson says. "Helen handled that masterfully. It has a huge effect on business." Hayes' use of soft fabrics and color schemes gently breaks the dark- wood-and-hunter-green mold of standard steak house décor. Thomasson's location gets three times the female customers that most steak houses do, and the franchise ranks 12th among the 72 Ruth's Chris locations, even though Richmond is the smallest city in the network.

Thomasson hired the pair to do Bottega Bistro next, and flush with success, is now doubling the bar area and adding a large party room to the Italian-styled restaurant. "I feel so comfortable with them as a team, I just let them do it. They used to bring us all sorts of boards and fabrics (showing their designs), but now I say, 'You guys are the pros,' and it's amazing what they do. I have so much confidence in them I cannot speak highly enough of their professionalism."

[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Framed political photographs from historical archives give The Caucus Room its Washingtonian character. To reflect the bipartisan spirit of the restaurant's investor list, Hayes chose images from across the political spectrum.Like any gracious starlet accepting her Oscar, Hayes (no relation to the actress) is quick to acknowledge her collaborators, specifically Bruce Perretz, president of Perretz & Young Architects P.C.; he designs many of the spaces that Hayes finishes, and deserves equal credit for the flow and finesse of their projects. Architect Dave Johannas, another frequent collaborator, brings restaurant experience from New York and Canada, and a laid-back attitude that sparks the team's creativity, particularly in the final stretches of new projects.

Hayes counts on her growing staff of six associates to carry out multiple tasks on crushing deadlines, and honors her mother Betty Lou, "who taught me how to do 17 things at once and keep my composure, which is very important at H.L. Reed Design. You learn more about what your parents teach you over time, like that it's better to laugh than to cry." Some days, though, when shipments are wrong, fabrics are back-ordered into eternity and mirrors are being hung just minutes before an opening night, the designer's expect-the-worst side shows itself. "Sometimes it's only minor things. Other times it smacks you in the face. The week before The Caucus Room opened, we called to check on the booths … and they hadn't even been started. These were beautiful, custom-made leather booths, and they hadn't even been started. That was a really bad weekend," she recalls. The booths arrived three days late, "but it was obvious that some important details had been left out, so the manufacturer sent in field crews to fix them on location," the designer says.

The frenzy seems even worse when Hayes describes her commuter marriage to attorney Steve Hayes, who's based in North Carolina. "There was a while there that I was in D.C. every day for a different client, and then I'd get on a plane for Charlotte," she says. "It's a 42-minute flight, and I see a lot of the same people every week, doing the same thing.

"It wasn't always this complicated, but I'd say we're working on 10 to 15 projects right now. My work ethic comes from my dad (local advertising executive Wellford Reed), from both my parents. I think my instinct is to not disappoint anyone, to check everything twice, to follow up everything in writing, and to be honest always with everyone we're dealing with," she says. At the end of long workdays, she cooks or dines out with friends at places she's designed, or at Zeus, a favorite Fan eatery. "My world revolves around food, wine, national dining trends, what's going to be the next big thing."

In Richmond, the next big thing in restaurants will be Bookbinder's, a second location of the 1865-era Philadelphia landmark that will transform a warehouse near the Canal Walk into a $1.2 million dollar "destination restaurant." Managing partner Steve Parry, who's worked on five projects with Hayes and Perretz, says he won't hire anyone else: "You know, it's just chemistry. I find that they understand what I am looking for. They listen really well, understand what I want, and follow up, and can do everything from traditional to trendy. When it comes together, I'm in awe." Parry and partners are banking on a fusion of old and new in the Bookbinder's project, with exposed brick walls, new millwork, a mosaic-tiled floor with the restaurant's lobster logo design, a generous bar, private dining room and the comfortable details diners now expect. "We don't want to be a flash in the pan. We're trying to build an institution in Richmond," Parry says.

"These trophy restaurants are very demanding," architect Perretz explains of the process that gets the high-profile places up and running. "Where we start is with the menu. The menu drives the kitchen layout, and then you know what you have left over for the dining room. The check average, whether it's $8 or $70 a person, gives you the starting point for the square footage, the amount of table turnover, the number of tables. If you want 150 seats in the dining room, you need 1,500 to 1,800 square feet in the kitchen." The check average tells the designers how much space to allow between chairs, how much wine might be displayed, how high to ratchet the comfort factor for patrons who'll pay for atmosphere. "We want to provide interesting conversation pieces, whether it's a wine display, or how the artwork hits you, or just the views, so we look at all the sight lines," Perretz says.

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