Rio-born David Ponte has been successfully bringing Brasilian street food to cities across the UK with Brasilian Barbecue chain Cabana. We caught up with him ahead of the first Restaurant & Bar Design Talks in Cabana (Brixton) to find out more about Cabana and one of the men behind its success.
Cabana takes its cue from the barbecue restaurants popular all over Brazil: skewers of meat flame grilled to order on an open fire. However, as much as the restaurant is borne out of this tradition, it’s very much its own entity, so we have done away with the ‘all-you-can-eat’ functionality and rather limp-looking salad buffets we have found a bit underwhelming in traditional ‘churrascarias’ and ‘rodizios’ and replaced them with vibrant street foods; tasty marinated skewers cooked fresh to order and a variety of other sides and dishes which bring a bit of modern Brasilian flavour to a relaxed, casual dining environment.
How do you think great food and great interior design are linked?
At Cabana today (and at my first restaurant, Momo, back in 1997), we think that the food, service and design are the three most important pillars of a great restaurant experience. We are trying to make our customers forget that they are in, say, a shopping centre on a gloomy winter’s day, and transport them for just a couple of hours to sunny Brazil. The design plays a key role in that.
Which area(s) of the world do you see as the best for new F&B concepts?
I am really excited that my kids in London take it for granted that they can eat great food from Morocco, Brazil, Korea, Japan, Israel, Peru, Portugal, the list is constantly expanding, and I think we’ll start to see a real emphasis on more regional international concepts in casual dining this year. I’m happy to have played a very small part in that revolution with Momo, which was one of the first restaurants to introduce Moroccan restaurants to a mainstream (albeit London) UK audience.
What has been your most challenging project to date and why?
I built a very beautiful, high-end Brasilian restaurant in Knightsbridge in 2007, called Mocotó, but it was very much a second album: after the success of Momo, I thought I could do no wrong. I worked with a wonderful Brasilian architect called Isay Weinfeld, and every part of the restaurant came from Brazil: 1960’s Sergio Rodriguez chairs, ironwood floorboards, vintage Rio street lamps. But it was over-thought, over-budget and overdue. Definitely a case of putting the design before the food and service.
What challenges are unique to hospitality / food and beverage space design?
The ability to stretch the design to fit different buildings, uses and neighbourhoods is a unique challenge. As Cabana continues to grow outside London (Newcastle will soon join Manchester and Leeds), we see the restaurant being used in very different ways, and we try to adapt the design accordingly. Of course, we also want each Cabana to have its own identity whilst maintaining the overall brand identity. It’s really tough.
Where does your inspiration come from?
At first, I was adamant Cabana would avoid all the clichés of Brazil, however wonderful they are. So no Christ statue, no Girl from Ipanema, no portrait of Pelé. There is so much more to Brazil, especially today’s young designers and artists. I take Alex Michaelis, our architect (Michaelis Boyd Associates) to Brazil and try to show him some of the less well known but uniquely Brasilian elements. We are heading off to Rio next month to see what is happening in the build up to the Olympics this summer. There is a great tradition of ‘upcycling’ in Brazil: taking something which may be considered ‘junk’ and repurposing it to create something that is even better than the original, and this is constantly a source of inspiration for the Cabana sites.
The banquettes in Cabana are upholstered in old jeans patched together by a tiny collective in the Paraisopolis favela in São Paulo. The lambe-lambe posters on the walls are printed for us by a trio of octogenarians on a 1929 German letterpress in a shed. The kite lights are hand-printed and made by a group of kids in Rio.
How do you define Design Excellence?
You know it when you see it! And there are plenty of wonderful restaurants popping up all over the country to challenge everything we think we knew. I think if an interior can make you smile, or charm you in some small, memorable way, that is pretty “excellent” to me.
What do you think will be the most significant design trends in the near future for restaurant and bar design?
I personally hope we will see a move away from the pared back, industrial look that has swept the nation. Enough exposed light bulbs (we’re guilty too). We are trying at Cabana to move the design to a cleaner, more all-day environment, without reducing the great moody atmosphere we have at night.
What would be the biggest benefit to you in winning an award from the Restaurant & Bar Design Awards?
Never won it, despite a couple of nominations, but we will keep on trying to do our best.
This year’s first Restaurant & Bar Design Talks is to be held at Cabana (Brixton) on the 24th February 2016. Alex Michaelis and David Ponte (Co-founder, Cabana) discuss the brief, challenges and results of this amazing Brasilian themed restaurant in the heart of Brixton. This event is strictly RSVP only, for more information visit the event page.