When Tony Foreman talks about restaurants, he talks about the movies. He imagines the dining room as set and diners as cast in the film he most wants to see. And designer Rita St. Clair listens. The latest Foreman-Wolf restaurant, Petit Louis in Columbia, says Foreman (whose business partner is chef Cindy Wolf), “is a Belle Époque, turn-of-the-century silent movie.”
“Not too silent,” interjects St. Clair. This is, after all, a restaurant. St. Clair and her associate, Brian Thim, reached back to what St. Clair calls “perhaps the most wonderful time in Europe,” a time without wars, when for the middle class and the nobility “life was a party.”
With 150 seats, a convivial bar area and an adjacent coffee, pastry and sandwich shop, Petit Louis on Lake Kittamaqundi is substantially larger than its St. Clair/Thim-designed 115-seat namesake, which opened in Baltimore’s Roland Park neighborhood in 2000. But it shares much of the same design vocabulary, from the Parisian style globe lamps to cozy vinyl-upholstered booths. Even so, the Columbia space is “a bit more gilded” than Roland Park, says St. Clair. “More brasserie than bistro,” Foreman adds—meaning, presumably, that it’s a bit fancier.
Indeed, there’s an elegant private dining room with a recessed tray ceiling lined in faux tin and lit by bowl-shaped chandeliers. Muralist Kelly Walker painted the walls and a sliding pocket door that divides the room in muted golds and greens depicting a fanciful view of Versailles—inspired by photographs Wolf brought back from a visit there. Foreman points to a monkey perched in a tree clutching a bouquet of delphiniums, a detail that Walker added in honor of his daughter, Delphinium, born in November.
The restaurant and the sunny “comptoir” are in a space once occupied by a Chinese restaurant. When the team began working, says Foreman, it was a dark warren of walls, with dropped acoustic tile ceilings and an enormous tropical fish tank as a centerpiece. “Terrifying” from a design perspective,
Now there are distinct seating areas, including banquettes along mirrored walls, tables near a fireplace—its surround sourced from a New England salvage outlet—and a massive marble-topped bar illuminated by art nouveau- style fixtures. St. Clair bought plaster cherubs in Italy and had them fashioned into lights for above the bar; a graceful period lamp depicts a woman in a flowing dress, with sprays of flower blossoms. The kitchen is large enough for a separate baking area, where Ashley Roop, the former executive pastry chef at Charleston, cranks out desserts and pastries for all the Foreman-Wolf operations.
The mahogany woodwork throughout the restaurant begins with the exterior. The design team replaced the plate glass storefront with paned windows in keeping with the period, and paneled the outside walls. In warm weather, seating (on Parisian-style faux wicker bistro chairs) will extend outdoors.
With a menu and wine list nearly identical to the Roland Park original, Petit Louis is part of a larger redevelopment of the Columbia lakefront, and sits on a plaza that reaches to the water. Across the way is a circa-1970s modernist stucco and glass building designed by Frank Gehry. Not exactly part of a Belle Époque screenplay, but as St. Clair says cheekily “it could be worse.”
Petit Louis bistro
10215 Wincopin Circle, Columbia.
Designers: Rita St. Clair and Brian Thim, Rita St. Clair Associates
Executive chef: James Lewandowski
Pastry chef: Ashley Roop