A restaurant operation spanning four floors challenges staff to work efficiently with equipment designed for restaurant and banquet service.
Located in the Center City area, the Comcast Center is Philadelphia's tallest building and the United States' fifteenth tallest building with 56 stories rising 975 feet from a tree-lined plaza. Designed by Robert Stern and built by Liberty Property Trust, Comcast Center is the tallest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certified building in the U.S. Its steel-and-aluminum exterior has a lightly tinted, non-reflective, low-emissivity glazing that reduces air conditioning and lighting costs by blocking 60 percent of the incoming solar heat while allowing in 70 percent of sunlight. The structure, 90-percent occupied by Comcast, uses 40 percent less water than a typical office building and incorporates additional LEED design and engineering initiatives.
The Comcast Center's entrance contains a 100-foot-tall winter garden that connects the building's elevator lobby with a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (Septa) subway concourse.
"Comcast asked the builders during lease negotiations to include a lobby-level, white-tablecloth restaurant because they hadn't made a decision to use the corporate dining facility Daroff Design designed for Comcast's 42nd-floor offices," says Karen Daroff, president and design principal of Daroff Design Inc. + DDI Architects, PC.
The restaurant, Table 31, a contemporary-Italian steakhouse, is leased by Chris Scarduzio with an investment group that includes Philadelphia Chef Georges Perrier. The two are partners in Signature Restaurants, operator of Le Bec-Fin in Center City Philadelphia, Georges' in Wayne, Pa., and Mia at Caesars Atlantic City. The initial plans for a lobby-level Table 31 were expanded to include an intimate mezzanine venue, two-story bar, second-floor conference-dining facility and the seasonally operated Plaza Café.
Located under a trellis in a half-acre landscaped area with a choreographed fountain, Plaza Café's kitchen measures only 450 square feet and contains just a few pieces of equipment. The dining area is open May to October and seats guests at tables covered by orange umbrellas.
"One of the highlights of Table 31 is its location, positioned right in the middle of the Philadelphia business district, which was in serious need of a high-quality restaurant," Scarduzio says, adding that Table 31 was "a bear" to build in this structure because the building's original design lacked the necessary components for a restaurant.
Daroff Design collaborated with the kitchen-design team of JEM Associates' President John Egnor and Project Manager Dan Pierson, and Jimmy Nolan, principal of J Nolan Kitchen Design, to identify the building's needs. "We had only 1,800 square feet on the first floor," Egnor says. "We had to add stairs and an elevator to tie the operations together. We modeled the operation with and without the elevator to prove to the builders the value of the elevators in order to transport food and supplies from floor to floor." In addition, Egnor says, construction teams had to cut holes in the floors to accommodate the drains.
"This project was one of the more challenging team efforts," Nolan says. "Everyone involved, including the architects and engineers, contributed to making the restaurant function very well on all four levels."
As part of the considerations for LEED certification, Pierson says, low cubic-feet-per-minute (CFM) hoods were specified to reduce the amount of conditioned air being pulled out of the space. "This is a relatively new technology," he says. "We also specified the hoods be ultraviolet to reduce the amount of grease in the ducts and the grease buildup on the filters in an ecology unit that was installed for cleaning air." In addition, the kitchen consultants specified high-efficiency equipment and Energy-Star rated certified equipment.
In order to meet city codes, ecology units were installed on both the third and second floors to remove most odors captured by the exhaust hoods. "This is basically a box above the hoods with three types of filter," Pierson says. "We also provided ultraviolet hoods to further break down the grease particles so staff will not have to change the filters too often. The ecology unit on the third floor is easy for the person changing filters to access, but on the second floor, a catwalk was needed above the ceiling."
Table 31's operation includes an 800-square-foot basement area for receiving, storage and offices. Staff move items from the basement to the third floor's 1,600- square-foot storage, prep and banquet kitchen. Staff transport garde manger, soups and stocks from the third floor to the second floor's 1,600-square-foot kitchen as needed. The second floor also includes 1,200 square feet of seating for a 70-seat dining room, two 12-seat private dining rooms, and the top floor of the mezzanine lounge and bar that extends from the first floor.
Inside the restaurant's voluminous dining spaces is a rich color palette that incorporates cherry red, mango orange, amber and gold. Lemon-yellow backlit resin panels add energy. "We selected soft, textured taupe wall-coverings and brushed stainless- steel accents to complement dark Wenge wood paneling and create a dramatic environment," Daroff says.
On the first floor and extending up to the second level, Table 31's 33-seat bar and lounge area is located between the restaurant's two entrances that allow access through both the and exterior Plaza. The 25-foot bar and lounge includes 22 stools, 22 high-tops and 12 seats at the window's drink rail ledge, and a 1,300-square-foot dining room that seats 70.
The bar features internally illuminated, flame-colored textured panels and a chestnut-brown granite bar top with brushed stainless-steel trim. Canted, dark Wenge wood paneling extends 27 feet vertically behind the bar and across the ceiling and frames a 9-foot by 15-foot colorful Mondrian inspired backlit art feature on the opposite wall. "This feature is comprised of orthogonal planes of red, orange, amber and yellow textured translucent panels, internally illuminated with randomly flickering LED candle lights. Seven 12-foot-tall marigold-colored, rectangular pendants are suspended from the two-story ceiling over the bar, mediating the scale of the space," Daroff says.
Lining the bar and lounge on two sides are backlit fabric sheers. The mahogany-stained solid-wood tabletops stand out against cream-colored chair upholstery and textured dark brown banquette upholstery. "A continuous, suspended, 60-foot-long wood ceiling grid defines the center seating portion of the dining room," Daroff adds. "Glowing, pendant light fixtures highlight generous table seating that runs along the curtain-wall side of the space."
The basement holds food and supply deliveries until staff transport the items by elevator to the third-floor kitchen. Here, staff receive food and supplies and place them into a walk-in cooler-freezer or dry storage space. Staff use a range, kettle, fryer, flat-top skillet and combi-oven to prepare stocks and soups and to roast meats. A large, free-floating prep table sits in the center of the kitchen, which staff use for garde manger prep and banquet plating.
Also on the third floor, two waitstaff areas, one in the kitchen and the other at the far side of the large banquet room support beverage service. The third floor includes a dish- and pot-wash area, too.
A chief design feature on all floors is windows that allow natural light. "This amount of light is unusual for a kitchen in a large building, which can oftentimes be very dreary," Egnor says. "I love the size of the windows because it brings life into the kitchen," Scarduzio adds.
While pleasing, the windows presented a challenge. "We had to position the equipment and shelving so it could be functional and not interrupt the flow of products," Pierson says. Egnor adds, "We had to be clever with placing equipment that lined the exterior glass wall so the equipment would not be a visible obstruction when viewed from the outside."
Food prepped on the third floor is taken to the second floor turnout kitchen as needed. JEM designed several custom pieces of equipment used throughout the space to meet Scarduzio's requests for production flow and to fit within the space. "The chef's counter was originally meant to be a very high-end, custom, stainless steel unit with remote refrigeration," Pierson says. "During the value-engineering sessions we found a foodservice equipment manufacturer who could make this L-shaped counter out of their stock refrigeration components. The entire counter is unitized, meaning the top is one continuous piece of stainless steel. There are no gaps for food particles to fall into. This was one of the most-discussed pieces on the project since it is in the heart and soul of the turnout kitchen."
The counter serves the hot appetizers line, as well as the main meat, vegetable and fish lines. The second-floor line contains a plancha for salmon, bronzino and other fish; broilers for New York strip, ribeyes and sirloin burgers; a pasta cooker for cavatelli, potato gnocchi and spaghetti alla Carbonara, and a countertop freezer for ice cream served from the pastry turnout station. "This is the first time I've had a plancha in my restaurants," Scarduzio says. "It helps us cut down on the number of pans we have to use."
The counter also contains a built-in circuit-breaker box and three refrigerated bain marie units, two hot wells, two soup wells and six side-mounted heat lamps in the dish cabinets on the waitstaff side.
Another challenging piece of equipment to design was the overshelf, with three double-heat lamps and a microwave/steamer. "Because it hangs from the chef's counter, it gives more access to the chefs and waitstaff," Egnor says.
"The 'L'- shaped double-overshelf had to match the chef's counter exactly to be useful," Pierson says. "We also built utility chases into each end of the overshelf through which we ran the wiring. The chases also are used to help stabilize the overshelf." Point-of-service printers hang from the overshelf at each station.
Plates are kept on the line and heated in undercounter plate- and top-plate warmers.
A pizza oven and double stacked convection oven sit nearby for pizza pies and baked goods. The second floor kitchen also contains a dish- and potwashing area.
This kitchen also contains a bakery with mixers, a central wood-top table and a marble-topped stainless-steel counter for chocolate prep. "Keeping the clean- prep, bake shop and pastry room separate from the main turnout kitchen's cook lines is welcomed by the entire staff," Nolan says. "They don't get in one another's way and can work independently."
Featured desserts include milk-chocolate hazelnut cake with orange marmellata, chocolate, pistachio and cherry cluster, warm chocolate cake, biscotti, dark-chocolate dipped strawberries and milk-chocolate hazelnut mousse. Dark- chocolate- and-peppermint gelato sandwiches and a wide selection of other gelatos and sorbets are available.
Food prepared in the second-floor kitchen is taken down to the first-floor dining room—a challenge, Scarduzio says, because the food can cool off. "To keep food hot, we hire enough runners and make sure plates and food are extra hot when they leave the kitchen," he says.
Since its opening nearly two years ago, Table 31 and Plaza Café continue to attract local business people and tourists. Scarduzio believes that just as the building's design difficulties brought together the design teams, the operation's location on four floors is a unifying factor that helps build staff dedication and commitment.