Friday 20 March 2009

Bathroom at Zefferino Las Vegas May Just Be the World's Best -- It's That Good!

Zeffirino Las Vegas
The Venetian
3377 Las Vegas Blvd S, Ste 2095
Las Vegas, NV USA

Where is it?

This restaurant is located in the Canal Shoppes inside the Venetian Hotel and Casino, between the Ann Taylor store and Simayof jewelers.

The first floor is more of a two-tiered lounge area, with a ornate bar, piano, some bar tables and a counter with iced down shellfish and the like. Upstairs is the main dining room, which you can get to either by elevator or stairs.

To go to the bathroom, and if you're taking the stairs, got to the top of the stairs. This will deposit you in a small sitting area covered with framed pictures of famous people who have visited the establishment (either here or at one of its other locations around the world) since 1939, when it first opened in Genova. If taking the elevator: It will drop you off to the left of that sitting area.

In both cases, the main dining room will unfold to your right, so to get to the bathrooms you will need to head leftward -- away from the dining room. (The restaurant's website actually incorporates the establishment's floor plan into its navigation -- a good tool to use before visiting, if you're curious.)

Once going that way, snake back, down a twisting hallway coated with various framed articles about the restaurants and some joyous Medieval mosaics, until you reach the end, at which you'll find the bathroom. The men's is behind a rather dainty door, simply and manly looking. The women's is behind a very ornate door.

What's it like?

This famed Italian restaurant, as stated earlier, started in Genova, Italy in 1939 and one of its original chefs, Gian Paolo Belloni (who's father was Zefferino himself), is credited for making pesto a world-wide phenomenon. The restaurant itself celebrates the reputation of the kitchen, as many of the wall hangings here are framed newspaper and magazine articles from around the world which tout the chef's skill, including more than a few saying that the Gian Paolo has made his famous pesto and pasta for the Pope himself.

The design of the place brings to mind the spirit of a twisted Venetian walkway -- something the Grand Canal Shoppes intimate but don't actualize. The entrance, as stated earlier, is large, grand and old-feeling, with lots of small corridors, twists and turns, and angled rooms, overlooks, dark woods and chandeliers. Upstairs, the dining room literally unfolds before you, starting small and then twisting open around a large rectangular pivot to reveal an extensive stretch of white linen tables that follows the perimeter of the facade (which overlooks the Canal Shoppes) and recedes deep into the belly of the restaurant.

Dark woods and dim lighting dominate the place. The walls are covered with those framed articles and other pieces of Italian or Italian-inspired art -- think de Medici re-visited and you've got it.

The service is uppity and very accommodating but not necessarily warm -- it's very professional, as what you might get overseas. Although I have not eaten here outside of its famed Sunday champagne brunch, I will attest that this brunch is one of the best, if not the best, I've experienced.

It features a sprawling set of tables, each offering a different variety of food. There is both a hot and cold seafood area, including selections like marinated tuna and in-house smoked salmon, as well as a hot bar containing an assortment of chicken, meat and seafood dishes -- not to mention the house's special pesto and pasta, which is indeed divine. There is also a selection of world cheeses, a raw bar containing halved lobsters, shrimp and other shellfish, a carving station, a pasta station and an antipasto area, containing an assortment of fresh and marinated vegetables and cold cuts. Finally, there is a an extensive dessert table, containing a minimum of 20 cakes and petite fours -- all of which are worth trying. It's a very impressive buffet in a land of buffets, if you will. Definitely worth a visit, despite the steep price tag.

On the flip side, the bathrooms here are beyond the notion of impressive. Even beyond the impression of being heavenly. I've been here twice, the first two a few years back, and on that visit the bathroom I encountered a tasteful one-bagger that was comfortable but unspectacular.

In between that visit and this, it was rumored that the restaurant had spent more than $2 million on renovating its bathroom. I must attest that you can see the money spent in every facet of this room. It's a truly regal place in every regard -- something more associated with a Roman Emperor than an Italian place in a Vegas casino mall.

And miles better than any other bathroom found in the Venetian.

In fact, it's so impressive here that I actually believe this bathroom bests any other I've experienced in this town -- or anywhere else, including such wonderful places as Wynn Las Vegas, Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, Sensi, Okada and the Bellagio. It's even better than our vote for 2008's Best Toilet of the Year -- Mansion at Forsyth Park in Savannah, GA.

This is just an other worldly experience from start to finish.

So what's it like? After passing down the hallway leading to them, and marveling at the intricate mosaic work on the walls, you come to a modest-looking door, which in effect makes you think this will be nothing more than a humble toilet -- like the aforementioned one-bagger.

Step through the door and you're floored: This spacious environment boasts marble floors that look like they've been taken from a palace (I'm thinking the floors found in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, even though the bathrooms there are awful and not at all indicative of the beauty of the rest of the place.) The marble work has beige and white checkerboard pattern, with dark brown and black outlines and highlights. The lower walls have a beige/white marble pattern on the, with black trim, and the upper walls are made of plaster.

Along the far left of the back wall are three urinal stalls. Each has twisted columns at their head, as well as a sweeping red curtain blanketing them. The stalls themselves are deep, with long floor-to-ceiling divider walls. The urinals are small bell-shaped units with automatic flushes.

To their left, in the back right corner, are three toilet stalls. Like the urinals, these are deep chambers, with gray and white marble along the lower halves of their walls and wallpapered walls on the upper. They are white porcelain toilets in their very backs, with storage chambers overhead and bronze toilet paper holders to their side. A heavy wooden door with gold plated latch closes the place off from the rest of the room, creating a very private chamber indeed. Lighting is dim but not overly so. Some toilet paper is stacked atop the toilet itself -- something I find decided European in its charms.

Across from the urinals and toilets is a long vanity area, composed of a single stretch mirror framed in dark wood, three bronze-metal spigot faucets with matching manual knobs and accompanying standalone soap dispensers, and a single-piece, three-unit flat, square marble trough, which doubles as both the vanity and the sink. Quite a spectacle to behold.

To its right is a toiletries station, which features plush paper towels, tissues and a mouthwash dispenser, along with disposable single-use plastic cups. (This was the first time I've seen such an add-on since visiting Orlando's Citrus Club.)

I spent a lot of time here, I must admit, and after leaving it to return to my table I felt disappointed. As decorative and classy as the dining room was, it paled in comparison to the elegance of this bathroom.

Worse still: When I returned, I was told by my dining companion that the women's room was even more regal, with sitting stations, waiting areas, extensive vanities and more. Next time I'm here, I'm venturing inside to see what I'm missing.

Marks out of 10:

12. If I could go higher, I would.

Comments to the Management:

You are worthy of psalms. Could I rent a toilet stall for a week next time I'm in Vegas?

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Poetic Bathroom at Picasso Shows Value of Understatement

Bellagio Las Vegas
3600 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV USA

Where is it?

This restaurant is located in the middle of the Via Bellagio shopping mall that extends from the north side of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. Once you find the menu, which is posted in a small glass case in the middle of the shopping stretch, look beyond it, towards the escalators behind it. To get to the restaurant, you must take the escalators downward.

Once there, follow the signs to the entrance of the restaurant, and upon arriving, go through the wooden front doors and enter the dimly lit dining room. The far front end of the restaurant overlooks the Bellagio fountains. The bathrooms are located on the opposite end of the dining room, along the back wall, about two-thirds of the way back.

There, you'll find a small hallway leading to the restrooms.

What's it like?

The Bellagio itself comes packed with fine-dining restaurants, from Circo to Michael Mina, to name but a few. This establishment, headed by world-renown chef Julian Serrano, has been my favorite so far. (I've yet to visit the hotel's take on Le Cirque, it should be said.)

While the shopping plaza above the restaurant has an art nouveau feel to it, with its bevy of high-end stores, the restaurant itself feels miles away from that. A mix of old world and new, you step into this place via a castle-like hallway that's dimly lit and a bit cavernous, like a wine cellar. The main dining room, while also dimly lit, is open and wide, with high ceilings and wooden walls covered in decorative diamond patterns and artwork.

The artwork here, it should be said, is by Picasso himself -- a dozen or so original paintings by the master hang here, and the tables in the dining room, while all properly spaced, allow each person at the table the chance to spend some time gazing at one or more of these pieces, which in itself brings an automatic sense of contemplation to the dining experience.

That sense is further quantified by the magical food Mr. Serrano prepares here. The food here has traditional art nouveau French as its base, but its nuances and modern spirit raise it above the expected. Portions are small but rich and complex enough to satisfy the hungriest of palates -- more than worthy of its two Michelin stars.

We started with a lobster salad in apple-champagne vinaigrette -- a light, delicate starter course that was accentuated, most surprisingly, but the inclusion of two pieces of celery sitting alongside the main dish. Once blended, the celery brought new dimension to the salad.

Up next was a pan seared scallop atop the most buttery mashed potatoes I've ever had; it was topped with a rich jus de veau. It was followed by a steak of foi gras -- itself only a small piece, but it was expertly seared and melt-in-your-mouth succulent, paired with poached pairs and a creme fraiche gastriche.

For the fourth course, I had sauteed turbot matched with corona beans and Serrano ham; the fish was buttery, rich, flaky, the beans meaty and tender. My companion one-upped me by having a fillet of imported Kobe beef -- the real stuff from Japan, not the American-born imitator, wagyu. While I've been told many times by waiters that extra-high-quality steaks don't need a knife to be cut, I've never actually seen a steak before that literally melt like butter beneath a hot knife before -- that's how tender this guy was. Better still, unlike some fillet which can be tender but bland, this one was richer and meatier-tasting than any other steak I've had. It was a dish that rivaled the truffle-covered ravioli had at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, it was that good. Just spellbinding.

The meal closed with a selection of stately desserts, my favorite of which was a chai tea foam, which accentuated a chocolate cake. It was unbearably pricey, but the service was impeccable and the experience utterly memorable -- so good I don't mind spending the money again to experience it once more. One of the great dining experiences of my life.

Having said that, the bathrooms were fully in line with the dining experience surrounding it. Though there are no Picasso paintings in the bathroom, or even replicas (a bit disappointing), the environment alone carries the same classiness and austerity found in the dining room.

These are elegant one-baggers, but with entrance chambers. So you enter into a wash room and then proceed through another door to enter the water closet properly. (Similar to the set up at Montparnasse 1900, only on a smaller scale.)

Throughout the place, the walls are covered with the same diamond-decorated woodwork that covers the walls of the dining room. The lighting is brighter here though, allowing you the chance to admire the design better. The floor is covered in beige tile with brown accent tiles -- all patterned to mimic the patterns on the walls. The main door is heavy, wooden and covered in a similar diamond patterns; the door dividing the wash chamber with the toilet chamber is similar to the entrance door, only it has a frosted glass pane in it to differentiate one from the other (not exactly the place you want to make such a mistake, if you catch my drift).

Potted fake plants sit in most of the corners, and some generic, stately art hangs on the walls (panel pieces, really -- simple but nothing remarkable). It's an understated environment in every way, really. Because of the beige and browns everywhere, the lighting manages to throw a sort of golden hue over everything, further subduing in the environment.

The sink is white porcelain with gold-plated fixtures, including an automatic faucet and a dark wood-framed mirror overhead. The sink itself is unique in that it has elongated flaps on the side that work both as part of the sink and as a unified counter piece; on it sit a soap dispenser, paper towels and a box of tissues.

The toilet room itself is very roomy for a single-occupancy room. The urinal and toilet, both white porcelain, sit against the same back wall. The handicap support bars, toilet paper dispenser, and toilet seat cover dispenser box are gold plated, adding to the hue. Like the rest of the place, it's impeccably clean, odor-free and stately. Elegant without being showy -- a thinking person's bathroom, if you will.

Marks out of 10:


Comments to the Management:

There's a lot going on here -- and the place does it without much flash and dash. Not the more spellbinding place upon first glace, but spend a few minutes here, contemplating if you will, and it's wonders begin to reveal themselves.

Friday 13 March 2009

Hard As It Tries, Bathroom at Encore Las Vegas Doesn't Quite Match Grandeur of Bathroom at Neighboring Wynn

Encore Las Vegas
3131 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV USA

Where is it?

This bathroom is just past the Lobby Bar and is off the hotel's main drag. To reach it, enter the hotel through the main entrance, pass the check-in desk and walk onward, towards the hotel's casino. Along the way, you'll see the pool on your left (through windows) and the elevated Lobby Bar (a swanky cafe/bar environment filled with deep reds, plush patterned carpets and intricate glass work) on your right.

Pass the Lobby Bar, continuing in that direction (which leads to the hotel's Atrium). You will cross a pathway on your right that is just beyond the Lobby Bar; it leads to a sundries shop and the hotel's guest room elevators. Just past that is a sign for the restrooms.

At the sign, turn right and go down a hallway, about 50 feet. At the back, you'll find the bathrooms, men's to the right, women's to the left.

What's it like?

Encore Las Vegas looks very much like its sister property, the Wynn Las Vegas: Although not as tall or wide as that establishment, it boasts a similar-looking exterior composed entirely of copper-colored glass. Inside, those thematic similarities continue, especially in the place’s emphasis on curved walls, lengthy esplanades and elegant chandeliers.

But where the Wynn Las Vegas' décor takes a modern approach to art nouveau, Encore’s design takes many cues from Eastern cultures, primarily China and Thailand. Stepping through the place, you stroll under intricately carved ceiling and chandeliers containing hundreds of pieces of sparkling colored glass. You walk over floors covered with plush carpets and mosaics of dragonflies and butterflies. You pass Siamese statues, modern art paintings and found art, which pack the corridors, corners and enclave of the place. Even the staff (dealers included) come dressed in Chinese-inspired uniforms.

Encore Las Vegas itself carries a sense of intimacy that most other Vegas mega-hotels seem to lack. This is best seen in the hotel’s casino. It’s smaller than most of the gambling floors in town (it houses approximately 65 tables and 860 slots) and has been designed with high ceilings, square spaces, straight lines and natural light (let in through windows and skylights) -- a far cry from the typical Strip casino, which usually features a maze-like design, low ceilings, dim lighting and loud noises.

As a result, walking through the casino to get to the hotel’s other hot spots becomes easier and feels less stressful than expected, which in turn lets you admire the design and artwork around you all the more.

Naturally, given that this is the upscale cousin of the already upscale Wynn Las Vegas, I expected to be blown away by the design-based wonders that would no doubt be found here. I mean, Wynn Las Vegas to this point has some of the best bathrooms I've ever stepped foot in.

But while Encore Las Vegas' restrooms do offer much elegance and sophistication, the "wow" factor here falls somewhat short. More than anything, these bathrooms seem like they've channelled
Wynn Las Vegas through Caesar's Palace. Pretty damn good in the scope of things, but still not earth shattering, as you might expect. The hotel itself is literally jaw dropping in its over-the-top-yet-elegant decor and design. The bathroom tries to exhibit those excesses to the same degree here, but a few missteps keep it from achieving that goal.

This is a good sized room. You enter, take a quick turn past a ceiling-high framed mirror in an entrance hallway, and find yourself facing the sink stations -- two-person vanities on each side of the room, which is long and rectangular. Think of what was at Amway Arena, scale it down to about 1/3 of the size, and you get the basic set-up of this place.

Beyond the sinks, in the main section of the bathroom, on the respective sides of the room, are lines of urinals and toilet stalls, about six or so of each. What's unique here is that the urinal stalls are floor to ceiling in height and as such provide maximum privacy. They, like the floor and walls and stall divider walls, are made of brick-red-colored granite with gold trim and are quite beautiful. A floor-to-ceiling length mirror, like the one in the room's entrance passageway, stands at the far end of the room, a sort of counterpoint to the entrance mirror. The toilets are your standard white porcelain but clean and new-looking. The urinals are also white porcelain but they also have that thick mesh in them to absorb urine and limit unintended splashing and spraying (like what was seen at the beautiful bathrooms at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare).

The stalls are roomy and secluding, though to a slightly lesser degree than the stalls at the Wynn Las Vegas. Those, set in a very noisy bathroom, made you feel like you had the world to yourself. These, set in a slightly less noisy bathroom, let in a touch of noise that isn't quite disruptive but also isn't quite expected.

The vanity is very nice but not show-stopping like the marble wonder at Wynn Las Vegas. While I liked the copper spigot-like faucets and the dark marble vanity counters, I found that by placing a box of tissues in the vanity itself (for the sake of convenience) made people want to use the tissues as towels instead of tissues, which of course causes them to disintegrate too fast and create a globby mess on the counter itself. The paper towels were located nearby to that, but at the same time the designers need to realize that people will almost always go for the easiest solution before them -- in this case, it's the tissues, not the towels. Sadly, it's one of the bathroom's major missteps -- a small little throwaway detail that seems nice at first but falls flat upon execution (reminded me a lot of the faucet SNAFU at J. Alexander's in Orlando).

The place's other big misstep is in the urinal stalls. While the dividers offer much privacy, the choice to place the automatic flush sensor on a reflective gold-chrome plate pretty much destroys that aspect. Sure it looks nice, but it's also like peeing while looking at a mirror focused entirely on your giblets -- and anyone who's walking behind you at that moment and decides to peek over can, at one angle or another, get a solid look at your goods. (You know this because you will be able to see them in the reflection off the plate.) It's a little uncomfortable, to be honest.

Yes, it's a beautiful bathroom, and very clean, spacious and elegant, but those few hold-ups keep it well short of what was experienced at Wynn Las Vegas. I was expecting a location that might equal, even top, that one, considering the brand positioning of this hotel. Sadly, I left greatly disappointed -- a real hard thing to admit considering how much I've championed Wynn Las Vegas.

Marks out of 10:

8. Missteps and all, it's a beautiful bathroom, but I just can't raise the score much higher than this, given those fallacies.

Comments to the Management:

Outside of putting a little more "WOW" into the design, and even some technology and showstopping design pieces, the least you can do is move the tissues away from the sink and replace those plates behind the toilets with something non-reflective.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Beautiful Bathroom at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in Wynn Las Vegas

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare
3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Wynn Las Vegas
Las Vegas, NV USA

Where is it?

Located in the Wynn Las Vegas shopping mall (which in itself has some outstanding public restrooms of their own), this beautiful restaurant flows over two distinct dining levels. To get to the bathroom, head down the main staircase to the lower-level dining room.

Once at the bottom, resist the urge to go left (towards the waiter stations there) and spin rightward around the staircase and head towards the right side (with your back to the end of the stairs), heading all the time towards the hallway tucked into the corner there. (The set up is very similar to the Daniel Boulud Brasserie, located in the same hotel.)

Go down that hallway, which like Daniel Boulud Brasserie is a bit on the dark side, and you'll come to an enclave containing the entrances to the bathrooms.

What's it like?

This is one of the best fish restaurants I've ever eaten at -- unbelievably good. And the whole experience made for one of the most memorable meals of my life.

The place itself is a decorative wonder. The top level, where you enter, is like an upscale tavern filled with dark woods and a sprawling mahogany bar on the far left. A circular staircase fills the center of the establishment. Taking it downstairs, you find yourself in a roomy, semi-circular main dining room filled with modernist seafaring decor: Shells on monotone painted walls. Elegant chandeliers. Large windows overlooking a man-made pond set in the center of the Wynn Las Vegas, which in itself has outdoor dining cabanas and circular orbs sitting in the water.

In a way, it's all a little overwhelming on the senses, and most people who have never been here before will feel a little disjointed when they sit down at the table. The service style is that of "in the know," as in those who have been here before know how it works and those new to the place must get their feet wet before proceeding. The menu isn't as self-explanatory as one would expect: There is an abundance of service options, from price fixe menus to fish ala carte to traditional pasta and meat dishes to specialty meals created specifically for you by the head waiter and chef. And each of those items can be broken down into sub-segments as well, if needed.

Really, like Las Vegas itself, the idea here is that the customer is in control -- but that the customer doesn't realize it at first. The sooner you come to that conclusion, the sooner your meal can begin.

So naturally, having never been here before, it took nearly 45 minutes for myself and my companion to sort through our options, get advice from our waiter, chef and sommelier, and begin our dining experience. We are glad we took the time, because next time we come here we know how to get things started quicker.

We opted for a price fixe menu consisting partly of menu-suggested items and partly of items created specifically for us. The menu consisted of a first course that was an assortment of grilled shellfish, including scallops, head-on prawns and octopus. The second course was a plate of pillow soft ricotta ravioli covered in seasonal white truffles from Alba. The third was a spaghetti in red sauce with spiny lobster. The fourth was a seafood risotto. The fifth was a whole roasted sea bream covered in a spicy red tomato and garlic sauce. The sixth was a dessert assortment consisting of various house-made chocolates, tarts, ice creams and more. We were very full when we left -- four hours later.

Now, I should say that I'm a major seafood fan and I know that freshness is key to great seafood. The seafood here, according to what we were told, all comes flown in directly from Italy itself, because the executive chef (Paul Bartolotta) insists that great seafood dishes cannot be made from fish from American waters. Not sure if that is true, but given the quality of the dishes served to us and pride in which they were prepared and served, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The grilled first course was filled with briny goodness, as well as a solid grill flavor, with hints of lemon and garlic to accentuate those flavors. The spiny lobster was soft and succulent -- yet meaty enough to be distinct within the strong tomato base. The risotto was the type I'd heard about all my life but never experienced firsthand -- a risotto where the fish flavor was blended so well into the rice that it captured the essence of its ingredients without the need to show them off; no large chunks of fish and shellfish here because ultimately that would have been cloying. The bream was delicate, soft, supple -- the best fish I've ever tasted.

And the raviolis, filled with a semi-sweet sheep's milk ricotta made in house and covered with an abundance of truffles, was other-worldly. A dish so rich and refined that it left we speechless. After eating it, I could absorb nothing more than the flavors it left lingering on my tongue -- the sort of dish that tells you, "All right, you can stop eating now, there's no reason to try anything else because nothing else will get better than that."

The desserts were outstanding too, I should add, but by the time they arrived I was so full (and drunk from the wonderful wines the sommelier selected to accompany our meal) that I could barely shovel them down. Note to self: Pace yourself better next time.

Given that, you can imagine how wonderful the bathrooms are. And like the meal itself they are tops -- one of the best I've been to.

Once going down that semi-dark hallway leading to them, I thought (as said earlier) that I might be stepping into an environment similar to
Daniel Boulud Brasserie. But then once I got in I was reminded of where I was -- in the glorious Wynn Las Vegas, home to some of the best bathroom's I've visited -- and realized that these toilets were more than up to par with the rest of this establishment's fine toilets. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bathrooms are more the creation of Wynn Las Vegas than Bartolotta.

Like the dining room, these toilets work in a modern tropical feel, one that is both decorative but understated. The room itself is not large but never feels small. After entering, you'll see a two-sink vanity in the far right corner. Opposite them, to the left of the door, are two white porcelain urinals, and opposite them, against the back left wall, are two toilet stalls, both with floor to ceiling full-wall dividers (like what was seen recently at J. Alexander's in Orlando) and full wooden stall doors (a modernist spin on what was seen at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino).

The floor is covered with tiles of that look like a mix of marble pattern and pool patio surfaces -- and with thin grout lines in between to give the allusion that the entire floor is one surface. The walls have a sheer marble tile on the lower parts and brown-maroon paint on the upper parts. Combined, it gives the place a stately yet homey feel -- like a pool bath if it were in a museum, so to speak.

The urinals are standard but have elegant marble dividers between them and framed mosaics of butterflies overhead (further proof of the Wynn's influence, I think, since the hotel is filled with butterflies). The urinals themselves have a thick mesh within them, that absorbs pee and ensures there's no splatter.

The stalls are reminiscent to the look and feel of the stalls at Wynn Las Vegas and the aforementioned Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, in that they are completely isolating and provide much privacy and good lighting.

The vanity is something special. The sinks are square shaped and short (similar to what was seen at Whole Foods South Orlando) and have automatic spigot-shaped faucets. There are two intricately framed mirrors (with frames made of medium-stained wood and colorful mosaics) hanging over each sink, with some modern metallic box-shaped lanterns in between. Paper towels and soap dispensers sit between the two.

The tile work merits special mention, as it forms both the dividing trim around the perimeter of the bathroom as well as in between the sink stations. It's festive, intricate -- almost like a modern spin on Tiffany glass, if you will. Because much of the tile work around the bathroom is stately and monotonous, the highlights here extend much personality to the place. Classy yet playful -- capturing the spirit of the restaurant outside -- yet because it forms the boundaries of the bathroom it's also functional.

As you can imagine, the place was spotless and odor free. Lighting was soft but also bright -- thanks to the chandelier overhead and those box lights. If I had to quibble about anything, it would be that the trash hole in the vanity was too full -- but I came by later for a second stop before leaving for the evening and that problem was fixed. What a place!

Marks out of 10:

11. Clearly better than perfect.

Comments to the Management:

This is heavenly -- what more can I say than that?

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Bathroom at Whole Foods in Winter Park Offers True Oasis -- A Hidden Gem

Whole Foods Market
1989 Aloma Ave
Winter Park, FL

Where is it?

The easiest way to find the bathroom here is to head to the cheese department. Once there, walk along the back wall of the place, westward, until you find the dividing line between the milk cooler and the wine racks (which are at the far left of the cheese department).

There, you'll see a service door leading to the storage area behind the coolers; on it is a sign reading, "RESTROOMS. Enter here and turn right."

Do that. Go in and you'll find yourself surrounded by shelves housing the various dry goods sold in the store. Slink past a few shelves until you come to a small hallway opening on your right. Down that hallway are the bathrooms, in an area that looks more like it's a place to shower down factor workers after a hard shift than an entrance to a bathroom.

What's it like?

This Whole Foods, the first built in the Orlando area, is a considerably smaller store than its South Orlando brother. That store is large, with wide aisles, plenty of roomy display areas and lots of bright lighting.

This one is about half the size of that one, if not smaller, and feels very crammed the minute you arrive (comparatively speaking, of course) -- including the parking lot, which doesn't seem well-equipped to handle the traffic load the place demands.

Still, this store offers many of the same items as its South Orlando brother. It's got a modestly sized produce with many fresh offerings (coincidentally, I think this location handles its produce better than the South Orlando store), a string of small counters selling fresh fish, meat and poultry, an assortment of freezers and a slew of aisles containing organic or gourmet dry and canned goods.

Unlike the South Orlando store, the aisles here are much tighter -- and often it's a struggle to get two carts past one another if they meet half way. Also, the lighting in some areas is a bit too dim - especially in the cheese and wine areas, for one. There are also fewer ready-to-eat options -- unlike the South Orlando store, this place doesn't have a grill or BBQ bar, just a small assortment of hot and cold food buffet tables, nothing more. (Though, if my last visit to the South Orlando store is indicative, it seems that location is phasing out those options as well -- apparently the regular clientele there doesn't make use of these facilities enough to keep them around for much longer.)

As a whole, this location packs a lot of punch into its tight quarters but at the same time it has a slight industrial air about it as well -- probably because the building it's housed in is much older than the one housing the South Orlando store, which is brand new.

Thus, when you head for the bathrooms and find yourself having to pass through a storage area, you expect the toilets here to be rather industrial in look and feel, like what was seen at Laurenzo's in North Miami Beach.

So imagine my surprise when I stepped into this luxurious locale -- which works more like a subdued version of the hip bathrooms at the South Orlando store than anything else.

This is a long and thin cavern, with large off-white tile on the floor and smaller beige tile on the walls. A tile trim line has been set to highlight the walls.

A two-station vanity is set at the front, with a counter made of marble and two individually framed mirrors set above each sink. Faucets are a bit of a letdown -- both in terms of their antiquated design (reminiscent of what was seen at the Delta Crown Room in the JFK International terminal) and their poor water flow (it kind of spits out in all directions instead of straight down -- no doubt, the low-flow blocker has to be cleaned or adjusted).

Beyond that are two white porcelain urinals, which are bordered by black metal toilet stall walls and offer wonderful privacy, like the toilets at Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville and the Central Florida Zoo.

In the back are two toilet stalls, a normal-sized one and a handicap one in the very back. Both contain standard white porcelain toilets.

The place itself was sparkling clean and fresh smelling -- another surprise. Though it should be said that I did manage to find a couple of wear-and-tear dings in the design, like a hole in the tile near where a urinal's pipe entered the wall (smaller than what was seen at the Venetian in Las Vegas, though).

Another amusing note is the sign I found hanging above one of the wall-mounted soap dispensers: "All Team Members Must Remove Aprons & Chef Coats Before Entering Restrooms." Quite a difference from the usual "All Employees Must Wash Hands Before Leaving" you usually see. Of course, the former is a sign I would expect to see -- but didn't -- in Laurenzo's in North Miami Beach. That wasn't the case there, though. Instead, that place had actual drawings showing what an employee must do to wash his or her hands.

Marks out of 10:

8. Really a 7, but I was expecting something so much worse and then found this oasis, so I had to raise the score a notch.

Comments to the Management:

This is a real hidden gem -- and worthy of commendation. Truly an unexpected find. Just touch up on a few things -- fix the faucet flow, the holes in the tile here and there -- and you may just have one of the best hidden gem bathrooms in Central Florida.

Friday 6 March 2009

Stonewood Grill Bathroom Features Dim Lighting, Sensor-Driven Automatic Door

Stonewood Grill
5248 Red Bug Lake Rd
Winter Springs, FL USA

Where is it?

Think of the interior of this place as a large U. At the entrance, you find yourself at the back of the U and facing the hostess station. The dining room is to your left and sprawls backward a good distance, housing in all about 30 to 40 tables. To the left is a bar area -- not as large area-wise as the dining room but still quite sizable, and with an elegant wooden bar taking up the center of it.

To get to the bathroom, go into the bar and wrap around it to the very back. Once there, you'll see a small enclave that houses the bathrooms. (Go past the enclave and you end up in the back of the kitchen.) The men's room is on the right when you enter the enclave, the women's on the left.

What's it like?

This upscale chain is one of many places these days that offers a modern, sophisticated environment and an upscale menu -- the sort of place that is a cut above the standard family restaurant chain (Friday's, Chili's, Ale House, etc.) in terms of ambiance and menu offerings.

The decor here is similar to other places of its ilk, like J. Alexander's and McCormick & Schmick's -- with its abundance of dark woods, pieces of modern art on the wall, dim lighting, sleekly dressed waiters and waitresses and an overall air of sophistication.

The food is decent -- especially for what is essentially medium-priced dishes (about $5 or so less per plate, give or take, than what's at J. Alexander's, for example) but the food is also a little less inspired than what you'll find at some of its like-minded locales. Not that it's bad (though there are a few hit and miss items), but the emphasis is on the oak grilling technique used here, not (to bring up J. Alexander's again) making contemporary extensions of comfort food. The food here is a bit simpler and more tested and less experimental and unpredictable than what you'll find at its contemporaries. Still good, especially the grilled items, but a little less original.

Service is good but like at Avanzare (which I feel is a better overall restaurant but which also has an inferior bathroom) it's also a bit too gregarious on the front end. Following the rapport between me and my waitress, it seemed like I was expected to get the blue cheese chips (which are just french-fried potatoes with blue cheese and balsamic reduction). While I didn't want them, that didn't prevent her from continuing to pus them on me -- and when the rest of the table agreed and we got them, they ended up being too vinegary and soggy. So the key here is to stick to your guns, no matter what (though really you shouldn't have to find yourself in that predicament)

Given the decor, you expect the bathrooms to be similar to what was found at either the aforementioned J. Alexander's and McCormick & Schmick's, in that they either would be very modernistic or modern interpretations of traditional setups. These sort of fell into the latter, with a setup that reminded me -- at least at its most basic -- of what I found at Texas de Brazil. It's a long environment, with a two-station vanity in the main drag (to your immediate left after entering), with two urinals beyond that and two stalls beyond that, in the back of the room.

More than anything, it was the place's dim lighting (as evident in our dark photographs) that proved most characteristic of the facilities. We're talking dark like Shari Sushi, Le Castagne and the aforementioned Avanzare. Only I think this place was even darker than those.

The floor is covered in gray tile with an ornate highlight trim. The walls are dark (and I can't recall if they are tile or dry wall, though I'm leaning towards the latter). The vanity is lit by two dimly lighted lamps, and the rest of the place is lit by soft bulbs placed in the ceiling (a la the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris).

Like those other places I've mentioned so far, the vanity here has plush paper towels and free standing soap dispensers. The sinks are manual though -- no automatic stream. The stretch mirror overhead is flush with the wall and has no frame. In all, it's nice but not quite on par with the elegance seen in similar places.

The urinals are white porcelain and set behind thick heavy wooden privacy barriers -- a nice touch. The toilets, also white porcelain, are fitted into stalls with thick wall-to-ceiling barriers -- not quite as isolating as, say, what you'd find at the wonderful Mansion at Forsyth Park, but not too far off either. Of course, the heaviness of the stall walls is also felt while inside, which makes the stall feel a little smaller than it actually is, but for the sake of privacy it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

The other highlight here is the Sani-Door mechanism employed on the main door. What this is, simply put, is a sensor that lets you not have to worry about opening the door on your way out and getting your hands in contact with whatever germs someone who hasn't washed his hands has put on the door handle. Of course, it's not a foolproof plan -- there are still other ways you can contract germs (like turning off the faucet -- hence a good case for automatic faucets here) but it's a nice touch. I'm curious to see how it would perform in a high-traffic situation though -- since the door opens a bit quicker than you expect and I can see someone getting bopped coming in or out in the process.

Otherwise, it's a clean place and odor free and pleasant. Just very dark.

Marks out of 10:

7. Almost an 8, but the darkness keeps that score in check.

Comments to the Management:

First off, please increase the lighting here, making it more bright inside. It's a little too dark for a bathroom, I think. Second, get some automatic faucets and soap dispensers -- this will fulfill the promise imparted by the Sani-Door system you've installed. Adding a piece or two of modern art to the walls couldn't hurt either -- it extends the design of the dining room better into the bathroom.