Published Jul 4th, 2014

By Cory Haller

Potty Mouth

Restaurateurs transform the common restroom into a conversation piece

Illustration by Jeffrey Dekker.
Illustration by Jeffrey Dekker.

The room is brightly lit, illuminating the floor-to-ceiling pearl marble that flows from the walls to the countertops, along with shelving along the room’s perimeter. The clean, marble-filled room is complemented with a dark ornamental wood-lattice ceiling hanging from the concrete above.

And the room smells of fresh flowers. Not because of any air fresheners or some new-and-improved cleaning solution, but because live, fresh flowers are placed on a shelf directly beside the focal point of the room: A toilet.

“It’s beautiful,” says my girlfriend.

“The toilet?” 

“No. The room. But, yes, the toilet was nice too.” 

While “beautiful” isn’t a word I normally associate with anything human-waste related, my lady’s description of the washroom at the 104th Street wine and cheese bar, Cavern, has myself, and our dinner companions, interested. 

According to Cavern’s owners, Tricia Bell and Zoeb Dungarwalla, my girlfriend’s admiration of their restrooms is nothing new; they field compliments on them — both in person and on Twitter — on a regular basis.

Why? Dungarwalla, who designed Cavern, has the answer. “I think, in many restaurants, they spend so much time and money on the main space that the bathroom becomes secondary, whereas I wanted to make sure that our bathrooms were [aesthetically] part of the main space.” Bell adds, “We were very fussy — especially with the selection of the toilet. We wanted to find the perfect one.” 

The two are a part of a growing number of Edmonton’s restaurateurs and designers who have tapped into an area of great importance for some: There’s an unwritten rule that you can judge the cleanliness of a restaurant’s kitchen by the cleanliness of its restroom.

After all, if the restroom, a room in public view, is filthy and all-around inhospitable — what does that say about the places that patrons can’t see? And when a restaurant goes over and above a diner’s expectations, it does something more; it shows a special kind of consideration, not just at the table, but for your most intimate of restaurant experiences. 

The fully thought-through washrooms do something else as well; they’re supplying my dinner companions with an odd topic of conversation. The showstopper in this derailed dinner-convo is my friend’s Instagram photo of what he calls “the sarcophagus urinals” in Tavern 1903’s men’s room. 

In all their magnificent glory, the imposing porcelain receptacles stand at nearly five feet tall and two feet wide. They’re coloured in an aged beige hue accented by small, black, hairline cracks webbed throughout the surface. Standing in front of them, it’s hard to resist the urge to climb inside; they’re that big.

According to Larry Stewart, chef and owner of Tavern 1903, they attract all sorts of attention. Men rave about them, and the ladies — hearing of the monolithic urinals from their male dinner companions — often ask waitresses of the tavern if they can pop into the men’s room for a look. 

Gene Dub of Dub Architects, who designed the Tavern 1903 space, says that the design of the washrooms was meant to duplicate the original character of the building. In this case, it’s all about history. Much of the Alberta Hotel (where Tavern 1903 resides) was built using the original materials and design of the building’s previous 100-plus year-old incarnation.

While designing the washrooms, Dub called for vintage marble tile and urinals he’d saved from a previous project at the equally historic McLeod Building. “We were trying to keep the original character of the bar,” saysDub. “We had the plans of the original bar, but not the plans of the washroom. So when it came to the restrooms, we felt it best do use material of the same vintage to keep in tune with the building’s history.” 

Keeping the theme of a restaurant consistent, from the table to the washroom, makes perfect sense as far as my dinner companions are concerned. We’ve seen washrooms that raise some odd questions, like: Why do the heated toilet seats in the men’s restrooms at Izakaya Tomo light up? Are the mouth-shaped urinals at O2’s Tap House and Grill meant to be funny or offensive?

Even the ladies’ room at Jasper Avenue’s Cactus Club Cafe enters the conversation. With a comfortable lounging area, toilets that flush with casual steps on floor-mounted buttons, and a personal TV in each stall at the Cactus Club Cafe, the men at the table are a bit jealous. 

And while we consume our dinner, our toilet-talk leads to speculation on whether the elevated farmhouse-type décor of our current location, RGE RD, flows into its restroom, and if the ladies’ room is nicer than the men’s.

I’m nominated to investigate further. 

I make my way to the washrooms and try to discern which is the ladies’ room and which is the men’s. I can’t. As it turns out, RGE RD has done away with those distinctions (another growing trend among Edmonton restaurants such as Cavern, Corso 32 and Bar Bricco). I choose a washroom and enter.

RGE RD’s washroom doesn’t disappoint. The lighting is similar to that of the restaurant, and emanates from a caged light-fixture hanging from overhead. The beefy vessel sink sits upon what Caitlin Fulton, RGE RD’s co-owner and front-of-house-manager, later informs me is a custom-made wood vanity built from aged heavy-beam materials. What makes the room all the more distinctive is the way that the restaurateurs approached the plumbing. 

Polished copper pipes emerge from the ceiling to frame the restroom mirror. They join, centre-stage above the sink, to create a floating water tap, with ball valves on either side to release hot and cold water. The toilet paper is also cleverly hung, toilet-side, from a protruding copper pipe serving as a hanger. The washroom, on whole, feels elegant, despite its rustic charm.

And my assessment reaffirms Fulton’s idea of the space. “The idea that, even when you’re relieving yourself, you’re having a sensory experience consistent with the space is really important. Often [in other establishments] you feel like you’re leaving the space and entering the washroom that’s very sterile,” says Fulton, “I don’t want bright lighting and that takes you out of the experience. I like the idea of a continuing motif.” 

The continuing motif of our dinner conversation informs my dinner companions’ decision on where we’ll enjoy our after-dinner wines — they nominate Cavern. The owners of the wine and cheese bar would probably be happy their washrooms inspired us to visit. After all, both Dungarwalla and Bell were adamant that they not skimp when it came to their restrooms, so the duo designated 10 per cent of their design budget on the bar’s most intimate of spaces.

Aside from the toilets, says Dungarwalla, everything — the washrooms’ large wooden doors, their floors, their dark wood-lattice ceilings and immaculate marble walls and counters — is custom-made for the sole purpose of creating what he calls “an oasis retreat in the midst of a busy establishment.” 

When we arrive at Cavern for our after-dinner drinks, our impression of the room mirrors that of my girlfriend’s. And a test-run of Bell’s “perfect” toilet (a TOTO Ultramax Double Cyclone complete with an ergonomic seat and a powerful dual force flushing system) surprises us. With so much force, it cleans the bowl with every flush. “We wanted something that would flush away every unpleasant thing in one fell swoop, with very little noise,” says Bell. 

“And it took us about three months to find that toilet,” adds Dungarwalla. “We were kind of anal about it — no pun intended.”

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