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Chow House

Berkeley Architect Kava Massih is a master of tasteful design


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Even in a quiet moment before the lunchtime rush, the bar and kitchen at Berkeley’s T-Rex Barbecue command center stage with their eye-catching design.

A kaleidoscope of colorful bottles sits dramatically behind the bar, backlit by a window wall overlooking the intersection of Gilman and 10th streets. Beyond the bar’s red mariachi marble countertop loom an impressive set of stainless steel smokers and a grill in the kitchen where the action will soon begin in earnest. The back of the house is open for all to see—exactly the way architect Kava Massih wants it.

“There’s no place to hide,” Massih says. “We make a conscious effort to put the kitchen as the focal point of the space.”

Massih, principal of Kava Massih Architects, is well known for his firm’s multifamily housing, health-care projects, commercial and public buildings, and educational centers, such as Bentley School in Lafayette. The firm has also designed many restaurants, including upscale spots in Berkeley and Albany such as T-Rex and Fonda, the new gourmet food court Epicurious Garden, and the recently renovated Nation’s Giant Hamburgers on University Avenue.

In fact, Massih’s firm came into existence when Seattle-based Pyramid Breweries recruited him to build its west Berkeley alehouse in 1996—on the condition that he start his own company. So he broke away from a larger firm and founded Kava Massih Architects to take on the project. Pyramid Alehouse’s industrial-chic design, which was cutting edge at the time, was enthusiastically received and catapulted Massih into the public eye.

Over the past 10 years, Massih has developed a recipe for success when it comes to restaurant design. Each of his unique projects is developed in collaboration with his clients, but a few key ingredients show up repeatedly.

As at T-Rex, the kitchen always takes center stage in Massih’s restaurants. All of his designs feature open kitchens—after all, that’s where the action is. Massih puts the hustle and bustle on prominent display, creating excitement and allowing diners to observe the food preparation.

“People love to watch the fire and people bumping into each other back here,” says Miles Kline, chef de cuisine at T-Rex, with a chuckle. “This is the widest, most open kitchen I’ve ever worked in. There’s no room for error.”

Adding to the excitement, Massih weaves new and unusual materials into his designs. Diners at a restaurant designed by Massih will probably see at least one or two materials that are new to them, such as bamboo flooring, stained concrete, high-quality laminate countertops, synthetic stone surfaces, glass partitions embedded with natural reeds, under-lit translucent glass countertops, slatted, drop-down wooden ceilings, ipe (a sustainable, tropical hardwood) decking, or something else unexpected.

Massih usually juxtaposes these contemporary architectural flourishes with the original brick, wood, concrete foundation, or steel girders of the buildings he remodels. Authentic materials that have been used over the ages add immeasurable warmth to the spaces, creating an atmosphere that’s sleekly modern and somewhat gritty at the same time.

“Going to a restaurant is the whole experience,” Massih explains. “It’s not just about taste. It’s your eyes and ears. It’s a full sensory experience.”

Massih seeks to create spaces that are exciting and entertaining. He also takes great pains to maintain intimacy and comfort.

“There’s a more intimate feeling in his restaurants than a lot of others,” says David Meckel, a founding dean of the California College of the Arts architecture program. “He knows about the scale of human comfort that you find in a home, and I think that in his restaurants, he’s able to translate that scale.”

Massih accentuates the diner’s comfort in several ways. He frequently uses a combination of dramatically high ceilings and lower ones, a mixture that creates pockets within the dining spaces for both large and small groups. Other cozy touches include plush upholstered furniture, conversation nooks, area rugs, and quality art for the walls.

 “There’s a comfort zone at T-Rex that was brought together by the design,” agrees owner Haig Krikorian. “We can cater to kids crawling on the floor and twentysomethings holding hands. That was the idea—to do both. And Kava pulled it off.” 

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