Tasting Room

Award-winning designer Jon de la Cruz reveals how all aspects of cuisine—from flavor to plating—inspire his restaurant interiors
An upscale restaurant dining room set for service.

Above Image: The main dining room at Protégé in Palo Alto. Tufted banquettes in Coraggio mohair through Hewn. Custom table tops in inset blind-tooled leather designed by de la Cruz. Photo by Douglas Friedman / Art Department.

By Alisa Carroll

White asparagus. Black trumpet mushroom. Brown-butter honey. This trio of ingredients from the seven-course tasting menu at Protégé is a reminder that palate and palette are inseparable in culinary experience. At Protégé Palo Alto, as chef Anthony Secviar distilled flavors into the menu, designer Jon de la Cruz extracted their essences and infused them into the environment. The designer of Che Fico—and, during his tenure with Ken Fulk, a James Beard nominee for best restaurant design for Leo’s Oyster Bar—de la Cruz worked with Protégé co-owners Secviar and master sommelier Dennis Kelly to create the interiors for the now Michelin-starred destination. “The narrative stems from how they taste, cook, and serve,” notes de la Cruz. “How the chef cooks and assembles the plate—I couldn’t pick a paint color without it.”

What was the first cue you took from Chef Secviar’s cuisine?  

Chef’s food is described as New American cuisine. There is strong technique and tradition in his dishes, yet they are made approachable and familiar through his contemporary point of view. For example, the pithivier looks like a pot pie, but it’s made with red wine short rib. It’s refined comfort food. My process is much the same: Use technique and tradition to visualize the concept, then rigorously refine the aesthetic for comfort. The wood paneling throughout, for example, speaks of a luxe supper club, but by veering away from stuffy dark mahogany and using a lighter-toned, oiled California walnut instead, we made the space more relaxed.

Chef and wait staff posed behind counter for photo.

Chef Anthony Secviar and team.

What was your artistic collaboration like with Chef Secviar?

Chef Secviar is very calm and almost brooding, but in a friendly way—like your favorite uncle. He sat in every chair, touched every fabric. His approach was “Let’s listen to the whole story, consider, then opine.” Master sommelier and co-owner Dennis Kelly was also an encyclopedia of information.

What was their vision for the space?

They understood how important the interiors and furnishings were, but never wanted the design to distract from the product. From the outset, the food and wine were always the principals.

Three images displaying different aspects of the restaurant dining area: the first one of the booths. The second of a banquette seating area. The third of a cozy private dining area.

(Images clockwise from left) Under the kitchen observation window, a custom dessert cart awaits guests. Pendants by Arteriors through Witford. Tables set with custom ceramic chargers handmade for Protégé. An intimate nook featuring San Francisco artist Windy Chien’s rope installation, Redwood Trunks (2016), suspended over tufted banquettes in Coraggio linen through Hewn. Sconces by Arteriors through Witford. Photo by Douglas Friedman / Art Department.

And how did you translate that into the design?

We made subtle but deliberate choices, enough for guests to notice between bites and sips. For example, in the dining room we chose a distressed, oyster-color leather for the dining banquettes and did custom diamond-tufted bench backs that are evocative of an English chesterfield. In the bar and lounge we chose a sumptuous, shadow-striped linen epingle for the banquettes to give them a plush but relaxed texture.

Private dining room with round wood table and modern, eclectic chandelier.

You’ve shared that your design was also inspired by the natural landscape of Palo Alto.

Palo Alto is surrounded by redwoods, so we created a faux bois narrative: We selected art pieces featuring trees, there are touches in the carpet, and a Windy Chien macramé piece—she knotted a forest, a Banyan tree chandelier!

Two images: First of the wine cellar/storage area. The second is of the curved bar.

You’ve shared that you prefer to work with spaces that are chef owned and operated. Why is that?

There’s no design by panel, and a chef is also a creative. There’s so much to tap into that it can inform other decisions. At Che Fico, for example, everything was made in-house with his hands, with love. Durable and heartfelt, the interiors recall a home-cooked meal. For example, we hand-drew the wallpaper and then had it made.

Can you walk us through what it felt like for you to dine at Che Fico and Protégé for the first time?

The food, decor, and crowd all come together when the doors open to the public for the first time.  At Che Fico, color and pattern announce that it will be a lively, fun dinner before you even make your way up the stairs to the dining room. When I ate there for the first time, friends and I had a boisterous dinner and hearty laughs, curled up on a big red leather banquet.

Protégé is of course a different restaurant—it’s inviting and calm without being stuffy. When I ate there for the first time, the restaurant was buzzing, but in an intimate way. I sat at the bar with a glass of white burgundy, chatting with the bartender in between courses, and watched people stop to gaze at Windy’s rope room dividers as they arrived. 

There’s also a sweet little quiet time before people come in, when you push all the chairs into place—before it becomes that convivial Degas painting.

Two Henry Adams Street, Suite 2M-33
San Francisco, CA 94103