Restaurant designers John and Vivian Bencich call their handiwork at Watchman’s Seafood & Spirits a “labor of love,” mostly due to their friendship with owners Bryan Rackley, Miles Macquarrie, Jesse Smith, and Matt Christison. The Square Feet Studio owners first met the Watchman’s partners while working on the design for their other restaurant, Kimball House in Decatur.
The subtle charm of the design at Watchman’s, the 2018 Eater Award winner for Restaurant Design of the Year, isn’t so much in its clean lines and crisp and breezy color scheme, but in the personal touches found throughout the space. Rackley, Macquarrie, Smith, and Christison wanted to create a more accessible and casual restaurant — a convivial space to gather for dinner and drinks any day of the week.
“The guys really wanted to lighten up the restaurant from the heavier, more serious design of The Luminary [at Krog Street Market] and provide distinct spaces, but have it flow together seamlessly,” John says.
The demarcation line can be seen between the dining room and the bar. Reclaimed wood floors come from Authentic Reclaims in Locust Grove, Georgia; the same company that provided floors for Kimball House. The warm wood flows into custom tiles in the bar, designed by Grow House Grow in Brooklyn.
Rackley introduced the Bencichs to both companies. He built the shelves above the booths in the dining room, now home to Watchman’s nearly two dozen succulents, and combed through stain samples at the local hardware store to find just what he wanted for Watchman’s oyster bar.
It’s difficult to ignore the pops of green from the lush ferns and other plants trailing from baskets hung throughout the dining room. Another element, the couple says, was important to the partners, especially Christison, in charge of Watchman’s “plant program.” The restaurant’s living design doubles as artwork. Christison carefully tends to the plants, watering and pruning them, and even dusting the few which happen to be faux.
“Matt and I placed and hung each individual plant along the ceiling, and some of the baskets are strung together with macrame made by Jesse’s mother Karen,” Vivian explains. “Karen set up an assembly line at the restaurant. Everyone helped put the baskets together. She even made the macrame tie-backs for the curtains on the porch.”
Many of the planters contain hidden sound-proof foam to help soften the noise level within the restaurant’s dining room.
Watchman’s color scheme — white dove, greenwood green, pacific blue, and mint green — draws inspiration from the changing hues of the ocean and shorelines filled with quaint seaside beach homes. The continuity of these colors allows for that seamless flow the partners were after, but still affords for distinct spaces in the restaurant.
To the right of the oyster bar and set back from the rest of the dining room, an alcove containing a round wooden table with a lazy susan creates space for more intimate dining. Custom, hand silkscreened wallpaper — the “eyes” of Watchman’s — from Grow House Grow covers the back wall. Rackley is friends with Grow House Grow owner Katie Deedy. The upholstered chairs surrounding the table were left behind from The Luminary and simply repurposed.
People now enter the restaurant from the outside door at Krog Street or from inside the market via a side door in the bar. Relocating the door from its original location in front of the bar and adding drapes along the banks of windows are key to keeping the noise and visual distractions of the bustling food hall beyond out of Watchman’s.
Dim lighting and warm woods and soft seashore tones from the tiles provide the intimate setting Macquarrie wanted for Watchman’s bar. A skylight cut into the ceiling above still allows light to filter in throughout the day. Christison has even added a few plants, which creep over the skylight.
Succulents, potted plants, a crane, and various other coastal souvenirs sit amongst the bottles on the backbar.
Christison and Rackley just returned from an Oyster South event in the Panhandle. The couple know the pair brought back a few more items for the bar. They plan to head in for oysters and dinner soon to scope out Watchman’s newest residents.
“In the end, these guys really, really care about every single element of their restaurants, right down to those very personal details,” John says. “That attitude and their strong friendship, it makes it so easy to work with them. It’s what really gets us up in the morning.”