DOWNTOWN RESTAURANT Lupi & Iris has quickly become the city’s “It” spot, encapsulating a feeling that this isn’t like any other place in town.
And it really isn’t. The bar-lounge, which you pass through to get to the dining room, feels elevated, convivial, vital – spacious and airy, too, the focal, horseshoe-shaped bar with glowing brass accents driving home the idea that this is the place to be. The dining room beyond smacks of sophisticated fine dining but without an air of stuffiness.
“We wanted it to be modern, and also wanted to create a big-city feel,” says Michael DeMichele, a developer and architect who owns the restaurant with Adam Siegel, former executive chef of The Bartolotta Restaurants. Siegel and DeMichele knew they could make a statement with the space – the ground level of the 7Seventy7 building at 777 N. Van Buren St. – the moment they laid eyes on it. “When we first talked about it, we thought it was the ideal location,” Siegel says, referencing the size (10,500 square feet) and generous floor-to-ceiling windows.
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The pair worked with the Deerfield, Illinois, design firm Knauer Inc. to achieve their goals, one of which was to fashion distinct areas within the floor plan, each setting a different tone but unified in being both urbane and approachable. Central to the whole project was the lighting. Creating a warm, incandescent evening glow requires sophisticated LED warm-dimming technology, calibrated to happen so gradually, the diner doesn’t notice.
For DeMichele, getting the right feeling – the romantic quality to the dining room – became his passion. While it may appear that the curved chandeliers are responsible for that warmth, in fact they “act like jewelry,” creating “sparkles of light,” according to DeMichele. Most of the lighting actually comes from down-pointed cans hidden between the ceiling’s wave-like sound baffles. “[They create] a flood light reflection down on the tables, but it’s key [that] you don’t really see the source unless you’re looking for it,” says DeMichele.
Walnut paneling and upholstered walls, along with dark wood flooring, could have turned the dining room’s vibe to “masculine steakhouse.” This is where color comes in – and a bit of disagreement. DeMichele pushed for the chairs to be blue. “I felt we needed a splash of color,” he says. With all that wood, “I was nervous about a sea of brown.” Siegel says that while he initially “struggled” with some color choices, “[DeMichele] pushed me and ultimately we couldn’t be happier.”
While the design speaks to refinement, Siegel was adamant about keeping at least one thing informal – the tabletops. “We’re in Milwaukee. We want people to feel relaxed,” says DeMichele of nixing the white tablecloths. They eventually decided on custom-made leather surfaces.
For other aesthetic details, the partners enlisted talent from close to home. The collagraph prints on the walls were made by DeMichele’s wife, Margaret. “We thought it was important that the narrative of the artwork fit the space, [and bring] softness and color,” says DeMichele. The art works in tandem with the modern direction of the floral arrangements, which are created by Siegel’s spouse, Daria.
Balancing the big-city energy with a modicum of that relaxed Milwaukee vibe was the challenge. The steady flow of diners and imbibers suggests Lupi & Iris is exactly what Milwaukeeans want now.