Max Masa’s: Orlando Diaz-Azcuy brings out a San Francisco restaurant’s best

AFTER MASATAKI KOBAYASHI opened Masa’s, the San Francisco restaurant became legendary first for the groundbreaking cuisine that has continued to thrill Californians for two decades and next for the unsolved 1984 murder of its founding chef. At that rime, the food clearly outshone the English country-manor decor, designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy recollects. When former sous chef Julian Serrano took over at the stove in 1987, a refurbishment ensued. The walls and ceiling were covered in padded red silk, and heavy red damask drapery divided the room. “Cheap bordello,” is the way Diaz-Azcuy describes the effect.

The widely esteemed Diaz-Azcuy had never designed a stand-alone restaurant before, but the Kimpton Group, which owns Masa’s, turned to him as part of efforts to expand its clientele beyond an already loyal following. It was the summer of 2000, and the owners hoped to attract dot-commers with money to burn on big-ticket wines. Says Kimpton Group chairman and CEO Thomas LaTour, “We knew Orlando could capture a look that appealed to a younger generation.” It didn’t hurt that the office of Orlando Diaz-Azcuy Designs was two blocks from Masa’s Nob Hill location.

Nob Hill (source
Nob Hill (source

Aided by firm principal Greg R. Stewart, Diaz-Azcuy’s challenge was to create a space in which thirty something guests would feel comfortable and established patrons wouldn’t be alienated–all on a modest $450,000 budget in a two-week construction window. Though he first presented two alternate color schemes, he ultimately convinced his client that chocolate brown, red, and off-white were the way to go. A very clean, white contemporary entry and bar would invite the younger crowd, while a cozy and dark dining room would soothe the older following.

The new mood becomes apparent right at the entry. The old painted red doors have been replaced by a frameless frosted glass one with Masa’s original M logo in gold leaf. “You walk into the foyer, and it’s all white so, no matter what color your dress, you’re going to shine,” says Diaz-Azcuy. The three steps down to the bar area draw attention to guests’ arrival, and the custom red lacquer armoire lends a more personal touch than the former brass coatrack. The whiteness of the limestone-honed Zodiaq bar and floor finds a glowing counterpart in the drapery–two layers of parachute nylon illuminated from above and below–that separates the bar from the dining room.

Enlarging the 75-seat, 1,400-square-foot restaurant wasn’t a possibility, nor was changing the table layout, which looked “too diner” for Diaz-Azcuy. To convey residence more than restaurant, he designed four plush banquettes, backed by mirrors that afford views of the room to those facing the wall. The banquettes also increase seating capacity to 85 in a pinch.

The big and famous restaurant
The big and famous restaurant

Another challenge was a case of too much of a good thing: the room’s excess of sound absorption. “Only a couple in love would want such a quiet table,” says Diaz-Azcuy. So he pulled all the fabric from the walls (adding an acoustic fabric ceiling treatment as a partial compensation). Recessed fixtures in the ceiling softly illuminate the tables, and Diaz-Azcuy, who prefers the ambient quality typical of residential lighting, added four lanterns in red Chinese silk. Multiplied to eight in the mirrors, they resemble fat lamp shades with an added value, casting a flattering pink tinge on customers’ faces.

Budget restraints prevented Diaz-Azcuy from using new McGuire chairs of his own design. Instead, he upholstered existing seating entirely in toile de Jouy, inexpensively reinforcing the Gallic side of the California-French menu. Off-white Frette table linens and small, understated arrangements of roses in shades of pink accent the tables. Finally, with white Bernardaud plates judiciously trimmed in gold, new chef Ron Siegel’s inspired cooking finds its perfect setting.

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