"Have you been to the bathroom here?" a slightly intoxicated young woman asked us as we sat sipping wine at Trois' bar. "They shouldn't do that to people who have been drinking! I was in there for 15 minutes looking for the flush! Then I gave up."
Trois' opening last year caused a lot of buzz, but the one thing customers kept coming back to in conversation was the bathrooms, and the apparent lack of a toilet flush. A sign next to the door reads, "Flush to the right," but which right? The right of the toilet? Of the door? Bewildered tinklers often failed to notice the tiny silver button on the side of the toilet bowl and surrendered in frustration.
There was a time when restaurant bathrooms were an afterthought to the dining experience: unremarkable, functional vestibules where the call of nature was obediently heeded. But like the ingenue who suddenly steals the leading lady's thunder, restaurant-bathroom design, through sheer moxie and cheekiness, has pushed its way to center stage.
In fact, restrooms have become such designer muscle-flexing destinations, such sources of awe and rolled-eye amusement, that New York Magazine now runs a regular "Restroom Report" cataloging the latest, greatest (and not so greatest) Manhattan powder rooms.
Like a visit to some high-design Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory, entering Atlanta's cutting-edge restaurant bathrooms offers untold sensory wonders: There is scented, coal-black toilet paper (Dolce), red-and-green lights warning when to stop and when to go (Trois and One Midtown Kitchen) and clear glass that blushes opaque (M!X) when the lock is turned.
Cheeky voyeuristic elements come into play and gender divisions are blurred. The bathroom ambiance can run from inspired moments of laying bare the designer device to utterly befuddling potties that make a once-routine trip into a boundary-testing safari, raising unexpected privacy and cleanliness issues.
Bathroom design is a small canvas on which designers can go a little crazy, says Atlanta-based Bill Johnson of the Johnson Studio, who has designed some of the most visible offerings for Nan, One Midtown Kitchen, Kyma and Bluepointe.
"I always thought that since the bathroom was someplace where you just spent a little bit of time, you could really go over the top with it and have fun with it," Johnson says. "Ideally, you want people to go back to the table and go, 'You gotta see the restroom. You just got to check it out.'"
For his soothing, spa-like bathroom in deep red and gold at Midtown's Nan, Johnson purposefully positioned his sinks without mirrors so people would instead focus on the experience of washing their hands, taking note of the raised stone platform inside the sink surrounded by ornamental pebbles.
But focusing on the decor can mean different things to different people. At Taurus, which otherwise boasts one of the most welcoming bathrooms in town, while you are washing your hands you might notice that the mirror is framed by a semitransparent portion of glass that allows you to peek into the men's room – and vice versa. That's not always the kind of insight into how the other half lives that customers will appreciate.
"I think it's OK to be a little risqué here and there," Johnson says of the larger trend of bathroom peekaboo. "People go out and you want them to have a good time." He cautions that there is a line in the sand of some sorts: "I don't think you want them to be challenged by the bathroom experience."
John Oetgen, who has performed restaurant design at Trois and City Grill, has had his own experiences with frustratingly conceptual high-design bathrooms at Paris' Pompidou Center.
"You go into the bathroom and you can't figure out how to turn on the water in the sink because it's so industrial and so contemporary," Oetgen says. "You get frustrated. So I think design in bathrooms is interesting as long as it doesn't frustrate you."
He laughs at some of the people who have visited the Trois bathrooms and then told him they found the flushing device on the Kohler Hatbox toilets difficult to locate.
"First of all, I did not pick out the toilets," Oetgen says. "But I love the toilets. The minute I saw them, I looked, I saw this little button: I pushed it. It flushed."
As for people who can't figure that out, well ...
"It's sort of like when you're driving down Peachtree and people are changing lanes and cutting in front of you; there's a lot of dodos in the world who can't figure something out," Oetgen laughs. "I'm sorry if I just insulted you!"
Below is a list of some of Atlanta's most interesting bathrooms, along with some observations after visiting each one.
One Midtown Kitchen
Designer: Bill Johnson
Overall restaurant vibe: Avant-garde bungalow
Gimmick: Red light bulb means bathroom is occupied
These unisex bathrooms tucked into a dark nook have a purposefully airplane scheme, though they also conjure the hard-edged, slightly sinister look of a set piece in a David Lynch film. A lounge area with a television and magazines invite bathroom-goers to hang out. Art featuring nude women abounds.
Designer: New York's Icrave Design Studio
Overall restaurant vibe: The kind of place you might bring a hot date. The Hunger sex-meets-Goth ambiance features dim lighting, cozy banquettes, lots of black-and-roaring plasma-screen "fireplaces."
Gimmick: Black toilet paper by Renova! Scented!
The vaguely vampy mood continues in the bathroom where a wad of black toilet paper floating in the toilet suggests a blood cot and the dim lighting continues the restaurant's ebony theme. While we are there, a waitress comes into the bathroom and admits that her sensitivity to scented products makes her allergic to the toilet paper. The manager tells our photographer that he gets more complaints about the toilet paper than anything else in the restaurant.
Designer: John Oetgen
Overall restaurant vibe: Fashion-forward chic for grown-ups
Gimmick: Where the hell do you flush?
The conundrum is the Kohler Hatbox toilet, the iMac of toilets: A sleek, white pod-like bowl has a small silver button on the side that you would never notice if you weren't looking. It's questionable how sanitary it is to have to touch the toilet bowl in order to flush. Eeew.
Designer: Owners Michel and Tonya Arnette
Overall restaurant vibe: Prominent bar allows singletons to mull over dating hell in the dining area.
Gimmick: Scary see-through doors that "fog" when locked to opaque. We've observed men who didn't know the trick and either didn't bother to lock the door or gave up when the lock was hard to handle.
These bathrooms will help you decide on which side of the voyeurism line you fall.
A lewd, sex-district pink light spotlights the toilet like the star performer in an East Village play. Rolls of toilet paper are stacked like set decoration on a shelf while the abattoir-style sink on a slope looks like the sacrificial animal blood would flow nicely into the drain.
Designer: Tony Akly of Restaurants Consulting Group
Overall restaurant vibe: Over-the-top, red-velvet bull-ring theme at this sexed-up chophouse.
Gimmick: Look into the mirror above the sink and you can see into the men's room – and vice versa.
One of the comeliest Atlanta bathrooms also offers more voyeuristic thrills. Men aren't likely to see anything in the women's room but a lady washing her hands. But stand in the right angle on the women's side and you can plainly see the urinal in the men's room.
Designer: Bill Johnson
Overall restaurant vibe: Gold-and-white Asian chic
Gimmick: Like a spa sanctuary with pebbles in the sculptural sink, individual towels, and lotus blossoms scattered about. Nothing off-putting; just soothing luxury. An example of how bathroom design can be arresting without compromising comfort or functionality. Primping and peeing the way it should be.
To check out our photos of all these Atlanta powder rooms, and tell us about your favorite Atlanta bathroom and most memorable high-design bathroom moment, click here.
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