When planning a dining experience, the bathrooms likely aren’t a driving factor. If things go well, you won’t spend much time in a restaurant’s bathroom, and for the most part you won’t miss much. Often decorated seemingly as an afterthought, they are purely functional. In, do your business and get out, back to the dining room and back to spending cash. A generic, sterile restroom won’t give you pause and won’t give you something to tell your friends in horror or surprise (or both). On the flip, a disaster or a smartly designed lavatory will.
Everyone has a memory of some nightmare dive bar or restaurant bathroom. Broken toilets, questionable or complete absence of sanitation, lack of doors on stalls (or no stalls at all), amateur pornography “art” on the walls and mysterious odors can leave deep scars on a diner’s psyche. Of course, a shitty dive bar bathroom lends credence to its reputation and in a weird way, adds to the charm of those watering holes. What pairs better with snarky bartenders and cheap beer than outright disdain for your facilities?
Though many restaurants treat their restrooms as a purely functional necessity (faucet choice is not a huge revenue generator), there are restaurateurs that choose to prioritize them in their branding and design. Amy Pastre and Courtney Rowson, founders of Charleston’s Stitch Design Co., who have designed and branded restaurants near and far, think it’s part of a full experience and often a pleasant surprise:
Pastre: “Going out to a restaurant is going for the experience. It’s more and more about the space and the food and the complete package. So I think it’s an opportunity to continue to surprise and delight guests and it doesn’t have to be. But if you’ve taken the time to do it then it just makes that experience so much more meaningful and rich. We always like to think about it because it’s unexpected.”
Rowson: “I think it can be an exclamation point on an experience or sometimes something just totally different. I like the ones at Leon’s. It’s unexpected to go in there and see those pinup girls and the crazy toilet that flushes from the back. You’re thrown off, but then you come back and it’s a conversation topic. It’s just a really nice touch that doesn’t feel forced.”
Brooks Reitz, co-owner of Leon’s Oyster Shop, Little Jack’s Tavern, Melfi’s, and Monza Pizza Bar, all restaurants that carry their distinct styles into their restrooms, agrees that it is important.
“It is very important; we try our best to carry it over, just in a very simple way. We put all the lights on dimmers so that they also have a flattering light in the bathroom, not just in the dining room. And obviously, if you’ve been into any of our restrooms, we take the time to pick out design elements that we think will at least elevate the bathroom experience. A light touch with everything from the wacky stuff we have at Leon’s to a Douglas Balentine piece [at Melfi’s], which is a really incredible work by a local artist, to the boxing posters and stuff at the Little Jack’s. So yeah, I feel like it’s an important extension of the dining room.”
It would be hard to measure how much social media has led to increased attention on bathrooms from restaurateurs. However, the number of very public posts from the place where people do some of their most private business is telling. There are lists of the “Most Instagrammable Bathrooms,” replete with posts from beautiful people looking beautiful right there in front of the crapper. Keen restaurateurs looking for another draw to put more butts in seats are using their selfie-worthy loos as an attraction. With the rise of the social media influencer, establishments with a private place for the self-indulgent selfier to strike a duck lipped pose can be free advertising (unless of course, the influencer expects some quid pro quo because, hey, influencer.)
But not all Instagrammers are selfie-obsessed. Some just appreciate a good toilet. Charleston’s very own @chsbathrooms (name withheld to protect his anonymity) silently came onto the Instagram scene earlier this year and armed with his phone and a small army of “Pooper Scoopers,” minions that let him know of photo worthy bathrooms, has posted over 100 Charleston area WCs since.
A few trends run strong in many of the restrooms in Charleston: Unisex single stalls marked only as WC (for “Water Closet”) welcome all and tile blanketing every square inch increases the sophistication of the space. Attention to lighting, as a design aspect or as a draw for selfies and artwork beyond what is supplied from visiting customers build on the overall dining experience. But bathrooms do not have to embrace the design of the restaurant or bar to impress. Small details like the real cloth hand towels at Stems & Skins, the glass chandelier at Minero, the decoupage of old concert fliers on the walls at Home Team downtown, the herbal hand soap at Basic Kitchen, or the caricaturist Rolling Stones portraits at Paddock and Whisky provide highlights that people remember.
The repurposed corner store-turned-restaurant boasts a rustic cabin chic. The restroom mixes the vibe with steampunk design of bent pipes, pressure valves, and Edison bulbs with a woodsy aspen tree wallpaper. The same motif continues with the sink, a natural wood slab with a washbowl and antique-style faucet.
Leon’s Oyster Shop
Occupying an old garage, Reitz and business partner Tim Mink wanted to pay homage to its legacy in the design, but not be too literal with it. They bought an old Snap-On tool chest to use for the host stand.
“I think we said, ‘We should find the old Snap-On tool calendars and plaster the walls in the restrooms with those calendars.’ And so it really started with the Snap-On tool chest. And that led us into the Snap-On calendar.”
Citrus Club / The Dewberry
The Dewberry and its reservation-only rooftop tiki bar, the Citrus Club, carry the mid-century air of opulence of the hotel’s décor into their restrooms. Polished white, gray-flecked marble tile covers the walls and floor and is offset by large dark-wood stall doors and brass fixtures. You get the feeling of a century-old NYC or Chicago hotel. The women’s room outside the Citrus Club has floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the Ravenel Bridge and Charleston Harbor.
Taco Boy — Folly Beach
Communal concrete sinks with river rocks sit outside unisex stalls. Green doors enclose the spaces, each with a complementary red sign that reads simply, “toilet.” Each stall’s walls are plastered with decoupage of old Time, People, Mad, and other legacy magazines with the masked Taco Boy mascot head imposed on many of the cover photos.
Babas on Cannon
Styled after continental cafes of Europe, Babas is part coffee shop, part patisserie, and part tapas bar. A sign on the barn door makes clear that “This is a sliding door,” hoping to fend off those who’ve had a few too many glasses of Champagne from pushing their way in. Neatly appointed with a table and dried flowers and a single framed photo. Simple details.
Named “Most Beautifully Designed Bar” in South Carolina by Architectural Digest last year, Vintage recreates a Parisian café feel with “borrowed inspiration from the Casablanca film and the ambiance of a French cafe.” Black, brass, and gold leaf details abound in the neatly distressed barroom. The restrooms are single stalls with black doors and frosted glass bearing gold large block WC designation only. Head high, jet-black subway tile covers the walls and brass sink fixtures, soap dispenser, mirror frames, and small bank vault locks provide highlights and complete the barroom color scheme.
A black and white pastoral scene mural, white subway tile, and dark wood-and-metal framed mirrors and stalls extend the restaurant’s contemporary, Medieval-inspired design into Edmund’s Oast’s bathroom. Amy Pastre of SDCO on the design choice: “The mural and the illustrations were just a way I think visually to continue that theme there. Illustrations were a big part of the web presence and they were a little bit on the menus but then we wanted to bring that to life.”
If you follow the collective “Charleston Instagram,” you’ve probably seen Tu’s bathroom. Plenty of ‘grams of neatly dressed beautiful somethings, phones in hand, lit by the big round ring light of a mirror cast against pastel-pink tile walls. “Glory light,” as George Costanza once said: “I love the mirror in that bathroom. I don’t know what in the hell it is, I look terrific in that mirror. I don’t know if it’s the tile or the lighting … I feel like Robert Wagner in there.”
Little Jack’s Tavern
Boxing, political cartoons, and horse racing photos dominate the décor at this ode to New York neighborhood restaurants. This continues in the restrooms with boxing fliers in the men’s room and early 20th century political posters in the women’s. Vintage Boraxo soap dispensers, mirrors, and cut-glass light fixtures add nice details.