Chef Ken Oringer’s calm demeanor was almost unnerving. His flagship restaurant Clio looked more like a sawdust-coated workshop than an award-winning French eatery as construction workers installed a new bar. During a tour of the mess, Oringer casually mentioned that the space would be reopening - in two days.
“It will be ready,’’ he said nonchalantly. Two days later, his prediction proved correct. Clio reopened on schedule with its first renovation in 15 years, overseen once again by designer Peter Niemitz.
“The idea was that we wanted to take it from this hidden little gem to a space that jumps out from the street,’’ says the chef, who owns several other restaurants in Boston, including Toro and Coppa. “We wanted something more contemporary and modern.’’
The biggest change at Clio, which sits inside the Eliot Hotel on Commonwealth Ave., is the bar. The once petite and homey area has been expanded into a bleached oak bar that feels more Danish modern than French bistro. It is also nearly double its original size.
“Before the renovation, the bar very much felt like a standard hotel bar,’’ says Niemitz, who conceived the look of Clio 15 years ago and is responsible for the redesign. “The idea was to inject some more energy and life into the bar.’’
Niemitz, the well-known restaurant designer who dreamed up the looks of the masculine Union Bar and Grille, the enormous Asian-themed Red Lantern, as well as many other boites, says that as restaurant meals evolve from languid, evening-long affairs to quicker bites, diners want a more energetic setting. That often means sitting at the bar to see the increasingly intricate cocktails that bartenders craft.
Overall, Niemitz wanted to give Clio a more modern atmosphere. When the restaurant opened in 1997, Oringer told Niemitz that the cuisine would be modern French, a novel concept at the time. Niemitz translated that menu into a design resembling a mid-century Parisian bistro. But for this renovation, Niemitz “de-Francophiled’’ the space, eliminating all signs of wrought iron and brass and made Clio more visible from the street.
The space not only looks more modern (goodbye elaborate flower arrangements), but the waitstaff now dresses in a more contemporary fashion, too. Gone are ties. Instead they wear vests and fitted pants. The bartenders are now in jeans and boots.
“Even when we opened 15 years ago, I wanted the feeling to be like dining at somebody’s house,’’ Oringer says. “But it was just a little too old-school French. Now it will be more like you’re eating in the living room rather than the dining room.’’
One of the most dramatic changes will take place in Uni, the sushi bar that is attached to Clio (Uni is still under renovation, opening later this month). For years, the sushi restaurant was a stylistic afterthought tacked onto Clio. But after the renovation, Oringer said that Uni will have “it’s own funky Japanese basement look.’’ Chefs and servers in the space will also wear custom-designed uniforms.
“It’s going to be all distressed oak panels and some pretty edgy artwork going on down there,’’ he said.
Back at Clio, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the leopard-print carpet.
“When we first put it in 15 years ago, it was pretty novel,’’ Oringer says. “Now you can find animal print everywhere. But I wanted to have one attachment to the past that links us to who we are and what we do.’’