How designer Karin Bohn helped transform a lovable hole-in-the-wall into the hottest Vietnamese resto-lounge in Vancouver.
We all know how pho goes. You walk in, you order your favourite number (maybe a side of spring rolls today?), you eat inhale, and then you’re out. There isn’t a lot of looking around or chitchat between noodle slurps, and so naturally things like aesthetics, experience and atmosphere fall right off the restaurateur’s priority list. High table turnover is a legitimate business plan geared to move orders—and it works. Until very recently, the pho place at Main Street and 18th Avenue in Vancouver was one such quick stop, which kept a loyal following of diners despite its equally long-term commitment to the sea-foam green carpet, plastic tables, glass breeze blocks and other trappings left untouched since its inception in the early 1980s. Not only did new-ish owners (the daughter and son of the previous owners) want a contemporary overhaul, but the brother-sister duo envisioned an entirely different type of Vietnamese restaurant. Instead of a lovable hole-in-the-wall, they wanted a modern lounge, where authentic Vietnamese dishes could be leisurely enjoyed with a craft brew or carefully made cocktail. “That didn’t exist in Vancouver,” says interior designer Karin Bohn, who was called in to create Anh and Chi. “So, immediately I was so drawn to the idea of doing a really cool Vietnamese lounge or restaurant—something that isn’t just your regular takeout joint.” A new lounge-forward ethos meant the bar should be front and centre. This novel concept would be the jumping off point for a design ethos that centres around authentic Vietnam and its historical French influences—but with mid-century modern touches to add that contemporary twist. The iconic stepped rice fields of Vietnam served as the main inspiration for a space Bohn wanted to be equally layered: mixed materials like wood, stone, metal and tile intermingle at every turn. At the expansive bar that greets guests on their way in, her team alternated different coloured woods into a bold graphic pattern that stands out from any seat. The walnut strips in the bar and the walnut stools add a touch of mid-century also mirrored in the gold rod light fixtures (the latter from New York's Cedar and Moss). Her team found concrete beneath the sea-foam green carpet that needed nothing more than a good polish. The designer kept the space bright in white, but layered in a backdrop of wood panelling and imported Vietnamese tile under custom-made floating tables; more geometric detailing on the vertical tabletop extensions draw attention to the perfect, vintage Vietnamese lanterns sitting pretty at the centre. Brush brass and gold metallic accents were used throughout the space give it that rich, vintage feel. Thanks to an oddly shaped footprint, Bohn and her team went through a number of iterations before they found a spaceplan that really worked for them. This included turning a secluded corner off to the right of the room into a chef's table with a curved banquette and retro-chic cushions in forest green tweed and orange vinyl (we love the '70s vibe!). The brushed brass light fixture above was a custom-designed piece her team created to reference traditional straw hats, another great example of how her team evokes a beautiful and refined Vietnam without getting too themey. "That's always a challenge," shares the designer. "When you’re trying to do something that is authentic, you still want to bring in elements, but to do it in a way that's subtle and refined." To draw even further attention to the bar, the designer updated an existing window with a bright palm leaf and bamboo scene depicted in stained glass. On either side of the window, custom-made wood panels were outfitted with a radial design of chopsticks, some even accented in gold—a subtle nod to Vietnamese fans. Palm leafs on the stained glass bar were just foreshadowing for the full palm treatment that awaits in the bathroom. Floor-to-ceiling panels of giant, leafy wallpaper transport you to a distant jungle, while ornately detailed doors and striking yellow-brass faucets on a long communal trough sink channel pure luxury. Anh and Chi (which means brother and sister in Vietnamese) may not look anything like the pho place their parents (both Vietnamese immigrants) opened decades before, but it was important to the duo to honour them with little touches here and there in the design. Inside the chef's table remains a small metal leg from one of the restaurant's old tables, and the radial design of chopsticks on the door numerically relates each of their parents' birthdays. And Karin Bohn's favourite thing on the menu? "Their spring rolls are fricking amazing."