In the early 1980s Colorado designer Dianna Lynn was living and working in Tokyo. Seeking tranquility one day in one of the city’s beautiful parks, she witnessed something that became a life-changing moment for her, something that would dramatically change the way she thought.
She was startled by riders carrying bows who were galloping on horses across the open space. Turning to their side in the saddle, the riders deftly launched an arrow that precisely hit a target placed in the field. “It was just amazing,” Lynn says. She was so fascinated that she did some research and found out the riders were practicing a traditional form of Japanese archery known as Kyudo. Sometimes referred to as the Zen art of archery practiced by Samurai warriors, Kyudo is a kind of meditation in action.
Lynn, who initially went to Japan on a six-month corporate training assignment in 1982, wound up living there and in Hong Kong for a dozen years, developing her own consulting business and immersing herself in Asian culture. Her study of Kyudo brought her to a broader appreciation of Asian culture which has translated into her design work in Colorado and elsewhere.
The End Result
Much of her work in the last decade has been designing restaurants for Boulder-based Concept Restaurants, owner of several Denver-area restaurants, including Ignite!, Via Baci, Rialto Café, Table Mountain Inn, Woody’s Wood-Fired Pizza and the Walrus. Concept Restaurants is headed by one of Colorado’s premier restaurateurs, Frank Day, whose empire began in 1976 with the first Old Chicago restaurant in Boulder and, later, the Rock Bottom chain.
Last year, Concept Restaurants acquired the former Strings location at 17th and Humboldt in Denver, founded by the late Noel Cunningham. Concept remodeled the building and opened it last October as Humboldt Farm Fish Wine. Lynn says the transformation of Strings into Humboldt began, as with the company’s other restaurants, with an Asian-influenced concept.
“In Japan, they focus on the ‘what,’ whereas in America we focus on the ‘how-to.’ It’s like ‘How am I going to make a million dollars,’ or ‘How am I going to open a restaurant.’ It’s very activity-based. We run through trial-and-error until we figure out what works. In Japan it is completely different. They spend the majority of their time on the ‘what.’ ‘What is the end result that you want? What does it look like; what is its function, what does it produce?’ You ask all these ‘what’ questions and once you get that clearly defined, then you move to the how-to because you are very clear about what you’re doing.”
So, what happened at the new 180-seat Humboldt restaurant? Lynn and the other Concept principals, including Frank Day, Gina Day, Kevin Brown (her husband), and Director of Operations Sean Huggard decided to give the restaurant more transparency, which is noticeable in the many changes they made. That included opening up the kitchen, installing see-through awnings on the windows, using transparent materials inside and booths and banquette seating that enhance the openness.
One of the most notable changes to people who frequented Strings was the removal of the former mezzanine and staircase, which now gives the restaurant an airy, open feel. Also eliminated was a wall that separated the original bar from the dining room. A community table was added.
“Transparency is the theme,” Lynn says. “We wanted people to see the quality of what we are doing. It goes all the way through to talking about where we get our meat and produce. It began as a concept and we built it throughout.”
All the Concept brands are distinct. When the company wants to open a new brand it begins by searching for locations and then for what’s missing in that location. “It’s about what is missing, not how to make money,” Lynn says. “What are people missing and how can we make it at a price value that they will want to come back?” She cites the example of the Rialto Café on the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver, which Day and Brown opened 17 years ago as a white-table-linen upscale steak house. About 10 ye
ars ago they realized they had missed the market and hired Lynn to help redesign it. “People wanted quality but casual,” she says, and that’s what Rialto became, although staying true to its locale, with the nearby Convention Center and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The same kind of theme is expressed in Ignite! restaurant, although its location near Coors Field and its roof-top bar was designed for a younger and sometimes more boisterous crowd. Lynn says Ignite!, at 22nd and Larimer, also has become a neighborhood restaurant serving the ballpark area.
Lynn says Coloradoans are fortunate to have so much variety and quality in restaurants.“We’ve got people in the industry bringing and introducing new foods and ways of preparing them,” she says. “I don’t know where else there might be so much energy. We are so fortunate.”
Lynn became involved with Concept Restaurants after returning to the United States in 1994. She had designed homes in Castle Pines and Aspen in the ‘80s and commuted between Colorado and Asia while running her consulting and training business. She moved fulltime to New York City in 1994, where she consulted for companies like Bloomberg Media and J.P. Morgan. She returned to Colorado in 2003. Among the companies she consulted with was Concept Restaurants, which became a full-time job and also led to her marriage with Brown.
“When I went to consult for Concept I thought, Wow, they are committed to being the best,” she says.
Bio: Brad Smith is a longtime Colorado journalist whose works have been published in Colorado and national magazines and newspapers.