By JOHN T. WARD
Will it generate the economic oomph to match the dollars not to mention the expectations of nearby merchants that have been poured into it? Restaurateur Matteo Ingrao is betting on it: he’s rumored to have dropped $2 million on renovations to the former Ashes Cigar Bar space with hopes of creating a dining mecca.
But also clutching his Sharpie on the sidelines is Jeff Cahill, a soft-spoken, self-taught interior designer who’s gradually transforming the look and feel of dining out on the Green, one dazzling location at a time.
Woody’s Ocean Grille in Sea Bright? Cahill designed everything in it, down to the surfboard-themed tables. He also conceived the looks for the storm-shuttered Elements Lounge in Sea Bright; Yo Mon Yogurt, in Red Bank; Pasta Fresca, in the Grove at Shrewsbury; Windansea and the Sugar Shack in Highlands; McLoone’s Pier House in Long Branch and Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park.
For Rumson resident Cahill, 50, owner of Cahill Studio in Tinton Falls, Char is a test of his skills, first and foremost, as a “restaurant brander.” What all his clients have in common, he told redbankgreen, is an exacting attention to atmospheric details that he believes make or break the business.
“There’s too many people in the restaurant industry doing paint-and-paper makeovers, instead of committing to rebranding,” he said. “Those are the ones that are opened and closed within a year, and they’re the reason the industry has a 50-percent failure rate. Our firm has an over 90-percent success rate.”
At Char, the details include a glittering waterwall that creates the illusion of pencil-thin jets of water falling without a splash; giant puck-shaped lamps that appear to float in space; ample use of hot orange lighting; and a bar with a pair of floor-to-ceiling windows that dial up the sense of urbanity both inside and out.
All of it, from the real flickering-flame accents to the buff orange waveform awning out front, came from Cahill’s head and had to be custom-made.
“We went over budget,” is all Ingrao will say about the cost of the 200-seat eatery. Still, he considers Cahill “a great designer.”
“He kind of feels what my ultimate goal is,” Ingrao said. Cahill and his small team, which includes interior designer Joanie Del Sordi and Cahill’s son, Sean, a graphic designer, “are fantastic as far as being visionaries,” he said.
Cahill, who said he first looks at things “in terms of volumes and shapes as opposed to colors and textures,” started out as a graphic artist, and had no formal education in interior design or architecture when he landed his first gig.
“And oddly enough, I started right here ,” he said. “I designed Ashes. This was my first job.”
That was banck in the mid-1990s. Len Martelli, the architect who was transitioning the space from Jack’s Music Shoppe to Ashes, encouraged Cahill to give it a try, given his interest in natural finishes and fixtures. Cahill got the job.
Later, when Ashes began falling into disrepair, the effect was “heartbreaking,” Cahill said.
“All these are like my children, so this is like my oldest child,” he said.
Somewhere in between, though, at Ashes, Cahill met Ingrao, who then owned an Italian restaurant called Aqua in n Raritan Township, in Somerset County. Cahill helped persuade Ingrao to reorient the business into a steakhouse, and redesigned the place. The new Char has deep roots in the design for its predecessor, also called Char.
Though Cahill’s fingerpints are all over the local dining scene, only a fraction of his firm’s work is in Monmouth County, he said. For a number of years, before Charley Brown’s went bankrupt, he was working on sprucing up the look of the chain, which accounted for about 60 of the 100 or so restaurants in his portfolio. He’s working on projects from Connecticut to Baltimore.
And in every stop, he said, he’s as concerned about return-on-investment as he is on the “return,” or depth front-to-back, of seating.
“That’s a generous seat return,” he says of bench seating he designed for Woody’s. “I often say the seat you sit in reflects the car you drove up in. If [owner Chris Wood] is looking to get an upper-middle-class clientele, you’ve got to give them an upper-middle-class seat.”
Taking the former Ichabod’s, contractors sandblasted the interior of what “looked like a prison” and brightened it up to a “California coastal” vibe, complete with center-stripe tables that resemble old wooden surfboards. Cahill designed the tables, the chairs, the bar and more.
It’s all a product, he said, of starting a job “with no preconceived notions at all” and listening to his clients.
“We had a vision, and Jeff basically put it to paper, and the builder made it a reality,” said Wood.
Enroute, Cahill persuaded Wood to spend thousands of dollars on a fish-themed chandelier, and hundreds more on distinctive hand driers in the rest rooms. Though he first balked, Wood said he doesn’t regret either decision.
“We hear customers talking about them both all the time,” Wood said.