Water Grill Dallas: Photo Credit: Kevin Marple

Water Grill Dallas. Photo Credit: Joey Stewart

It’s the time of the year when many of us flock to the edges of the country in search of sea and sand and warm weather. And when that salt air stimulates the appetite, a seafood restaurant is the next stop. But tourists looking for a special experience are likely not going to be impressed by a net tacked on the wall, a dirty fish tank, or nautical flags decorating a menu.

Those tired elements, not to mention plastic lobsters and bad tropical murals, are still all too common for seafood or other nautical-themed restaurants. Restaurants can pay homage to the sea without handing guests a fish-shaped pen with the check. To prove it, we chatted with three establishments–two of which are landlocked–to learn their decor secrets and provide inspiration for your next wave of interior inspiration.

The Darling. Photo Credit: Andrew Cebulka
The Darling. Photo Credit: Andrew Cebulka

Charleston, South Carolina is a design haven for its cobblestone streets and historic single houses, but it also has palmetto trees and plenty of salt air wafting in from the Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. At one of the most photogenic corners of Upper King Street sits The Darling Oyster Bar, a bustling restaurant that serves around 100 bushels of oysters alone per week in addition to its other entrees and snacks. Its cool interior of greens, white and glass, designed by Atlanta-based Smith Hanes Studio, beckons visitors inside and out of the often sweltering Charleston humidity. Inside, chairs reminiscent of those for boat captains swivel around the raw bar, seafoam green banquettes invite groups to sit and stay awhile, and a large bar is cool and inviting.

“It can be well thought out,” says Bobby Young, managing partner of the restaurant, of his nautical styling approach. “We wanted to garner inspiration from those classic seaside eateries, but really wanted to elevate that inspiration for this setting.”

For example, at the bar, the team went with hand blown light fixtures created by Janke Studios in Atlanta. “There are five of them, and they were designed with the intention of mimicking an oyster,” Young says.

Water Grill Dallas. Photo Credit: Kevin Marple
Water Grill Dallas. Photo Credit: Kevin Marple

A coastal vibe is alive and well in the heart of Texas, too, at The Water Grill in Dallas, an outpost of the popular California restaurant. Mark Augarten, vice president of operations for its parent company, King’s Seafood Company, stresses that each Water Grill is uniquely designed. They knew this one definitely had to dazzle in the land of Texas beef, so they focused on brass detailing, a design that incorporated oyster shells, and custom glass raw bar cases that show off the fresh seafood like jewels in a jewelry store.

“It was important to us that guests actually see a variety of oysters and shellfish packed on ice, prominently in the dining room,” Augarten explains. “The selection changes daily, and seafood is the star of the show, so we wanted to show it off.”

Using the food as a design element continues throughout the restaurant, including live tanks that are meticulously maintained by the kitchen staff and house a variety of exotic, edible creatures. Guests can even request a tour of the tanks by a staff member and learn more about the plethora of seafood available.

He points out, “Our chefs have extensive training and care of the product and environment of the live tanks, and as a restaurant, these provide another way for us to interact with our guests and provide hospitality.”

“Our objective was an opposite of a traditional nautical theme but with the essence of the sea. There are a lot of curves and soft angles that represent the sea moving, and for us, we wanted that feel without the obviousness.” -Greg Mohr

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Further north in Chicago, forget the live creatures. It’s all about the mythical ones at Leviathan Bar inside the Dana Hotel. Greg Mohr, co-owner of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group that developed the bar, said the idea came out of the “problem” of a bar tucked into an odd spot on the second floor of the hotel: “It felt disconnected from the seafood restaurant space downstairs, and we wanted it to be its own space. We kept referring to it as a ‘monster we couldn’t figure out,’ and as soon as we connected the dots with a sea monster, everything just fell into place.”

Leviathan Bar. Photo Credit: Leigh Loftus
Leviathan Bar. Photo Credit: Leigh Loftus

Imagination and whimsy became the driving force, with details such as custom lighting that has elements resembling dragon or sea monster nails; a bar program that uses different mugs, tankards, and glassware for each cocktail; and a bar with “scales resembling a monster” on its face. The menu is even fashioned after an old captain’s log and includes the Maelstrom (with tequila, mezcal, and smoked paprika) and the Siren Song (with Ketel One and candied kumquat).

“Our objective was an opposite of a traditional nautical theme but with the essence of the sea,” Bohr says. “There are a lot of curves and soft angles that represent the sea moving, and for us, we wanted that feel without the obviousness.”

Inspired to update or add to your nautical decor? Here are few simple ways to renew your restaurant’s decor without having to hire an interior designer: Add modern, ocean-inspired details to your restaurant to add to its maritime-inspired interior without overdoing it. Incorporating a glass case packed with ice and seafood options that are offered on your raw bar menu is a great way to add a nautical accent. It’s also an easy way to show off the fresh seafood your restaurant offers.

Another simple way to add subtle maritime inspired decor to your restaurant is using a muted color palette that is emblematic of the sea. Incorporating greens and blues into your restaurant can remind diners of the ocean without having to plaster anchors everywhere. These colors can be added as accents throughout your restaurant, tying the theme together from one end of your restaurant to the other.

An accent wall is also a great way to add nautical highlights to your restaurant. The best places for an accent wall at a restaurant are behind the bar or on a wall that your eyes are naturally drawn to. Your accent wall can just simply be painted a different color or have a maritime-inspired design.

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Stephanie Burt is the host of The Southern Fork podcast and a writer based in Charleston, SC. Her bylines regularly appear in The Post and Courier, Extra Crispy, Zagat, and Bake from Scratch, and she focuses on researching heirloom ingredients, interviewing passionate people creating good food, and in the kitchen, perfecting her roasted chicken recipe. (Photo Credit: Leslie McKellar)