Occupying primo real estate on the first floor of the recently revamped midcentury hotel in Downtown Dallas, Fine China is the jewel in the Statler Hotel’s crown.
From the beginning when the restaurateurs at Turn The Tables Hospitality tapped Dallas’s own Merriman Anderson Architects to design the space, the intention was to blend the hotel’s historic elements with details influenced by the Chinese-American cuisine on the menu. “The restaurant was a sort of fine-dining riff on Asian street food, and the operators wanted the space to reflect that juxtaposition between grittiness and sophistication,” says Merriman Anderson interior design lead Lee Fluker.
For inspiration, Fluker and the design team looked to restaurants they really loved in other cities, including Duck Duck Goat in Chicago and Tiny’s Tuxedo in New York City. Also heavily influential in the space’s design aesthetic was In The Mood For Love, a 2000 film released in Hong Kong about an extremely complicated romantic relationship. “It’s got a very midcentury kind of romantic vibe, and the whole thing is shot very beautifully in these deep, rich jewel tones,” Fluker says. “The color palette for Fine China was really inspired by that film.”
Before Fluker and the team at Merriman Anderson could really dig into the design, though, they had to contend with the fact that the Statler is on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a landmark by the Texas Historical Commission. “This is an historic building, so we had to comply with the regulations of the Texas Historical Commission,” says project lead Adam Jones. “It’s a midcentury building and putting in a restaurant that’s inspired by Asian culture, we really had to sell it to them and make sure that we maintained some of the space’s original elements.”
To even begin the project, the design team for Fine China had to draw up and submit plans to the Texas Historical Commission and National Parks Service for review to ensure that any changes to the Statler fit in to the hotel’s original design style. Built in 1956, the Statler was designed by architect William B. Tabler and is credited with influencing the proliferation of Modern architecture in Dallas. It reopened in 2017, after sitting empty for nearly 20 years and a $255 million revamp.
The Texas Historical Commission didn’t approve of all of Merriman Anderson’s plans, either. In a process that took about nine months from start to finish, Jones and the rest of the team had to meticulously document and draw up the plans for their changes, and some just didn’t work out. The firm originally wanted to install doors that would fold up and create a canopy for the entryway, but the Historical Commission declared those doors “inappropriate” for the building.
In the Statler’s original heyday, the space that is now Fine China once housed offices where travelers could purchase airline tickets from American Airlines and Pan Am. Taking inspiration from the former tenants — and the rise in air travel in the United States around the time that the Statler was built — made it easier to bring together the midcentury American elements and the Chinese-American cuisine that was planned for the restaurant. “Around the time that the hotel was built, Asian culture began permeating the American mainstream,” Jones says. “That culture was romanticized, travel was romanticized, and we tried to tie all of these elements back to that era.”
Unfortunately, it had been gutted by previous owners, which meant that any of those original elements were long gone. What remained, though, was a stretch of original terrazzo tile, and a pink marble wall, both of which were incorporated into the space. “This terrazzo blends into what might have been, at one point, a back-of-house space with the concrete floor, so we just left the historic flooring as-is,” Fluker says. “We paired that with the beautifully backlit screen element that’s made from the security gates you see in front of closed storefronts and sophisticated elements that spoke more to the cuisine. All of that works together to make a really interesting experience.”
Even more important than preserving the historic elements, though, was a commitment to ensuring that Fine China didn’t look like a basic Asian fusion restaurant. “The one thing we didn’t want to do was anything overtly kitschy or stereotypically ‘Asian,’” Fluker says. “We wanted to be subtle in the nods to the various Asian cultures being represented on the menu.” To do that, Fluker and the team looked to the jewel tones in their color palette and luxe floral-patterned fabrics.
The space’s most visually stunning feature is tucked into one of its private dining rooms. The collection of demitasse tea cups placed on individual platforms of varying heights is both a play on the restaurant’s name — it’s literally fine china — and a nod to the restaurant’s extensive list of teas. Each of the cups were painstakingly sourced by the restauranteurs, and Merriman Anderson’s team designed the installation.
The result is stunning, especially when paired with the space’s stark black walls and lush draperies. “We had to find a way to creatively display these teacups,” Fluker says. “In this installation, they’re front-and-center, projected from this metal framework that comes off the wall. Because of that, it really became a sculptural element and not just a bunch of teacups on display.”
This is the final installment in a series of features on Eater Dallas’s 2018 Eater Awards winners. Nominate your favorite restaurants of 2019 for this year’s awards here.