3307 Washington Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63103
2019 – American Institute of Architects – St. Louis Distinguished Award for Interiors – Bulrush
The bulrush — a wetland grass, sometimes referred to as a cattail — is an apt metaphor for spring: lining lakes and rivers, the bulrush purifies and renews the waterlogged marsh. What was once dormant, the bulrush can reinvigorate and give new life. So it’s appropriate that St. Louis’s Bulrush, the long-awaited restaurant from James Beard Award-nominated chef Rob Connoley, is emerging this time of year. Not only is this the beginning of a restaurant, but Bulrush endeavors to revive and reinterpret cuisine that is closely attuned with nature: the food of the Ozarks, a fare that has roots in the rolling forested hills of southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and parts of Oklahoma and Kansas.
Connoley is a forager, bringing the bounty of the land directly to your table. In addition to game and greens, you may indulge in delicate mushrooms, pastries made of acorn flour, or a gimlet featuring paw paw puree instead of the traditional lime (a fruit that grows hundreds of miles away). Dining at Bulrush offers you a rediscovery, and the architecture embodies this spirit of revival through visual cues of the Ozarks and the experience of dining face-to-face with the people who both picked and prepared your food.
Formerly an art gallery, the reenvisioned space embodies the juxtaposition of night and day. The light and airy entry features a square, graciously-scaled bar. This is where you may try a selection of homemade bar snacks if you don’t have time for the full tasting menu in the dining room. The bar and all of the tables are topped in walnut, and the die wall of the bar is covered in a durable woven material, which references the bulrush, whose stems are woven into baskets and textiles. The walls are simple and white, with walnut shelves displaying a sample of Connoley’s vast cookbook collection. Simple fixtures with cattail-shaped lamps hover over the bar.
One of the signature elements of the space is a 90-foot long mural that stretches from the front door to the back of the public space. Originally slated to be painted a “persimmon” color, Connoley knew this wasn’t simply one color; depending on the time of year and ripeness, persimmons — a versatile foraged ingredient — can be orange, but they are also red, pink, and purple. Connoley developed a strategy using all of these persimmon colors, horse syringes, his staff, and a few of our architects to paint the wall in a careful scheme that is lighter by the front door, and gradually darkens as you walk deeper into the darker, more dramatic parts of the restaurant.
Behind the bar is an arrangement of lounge furniture: modern highback settees to reference the lines of traditional wingback chairs that surround a live-edge sycamore table. If you look closely, there are six holes in the top of the table. Connoley uses this space for special after-dinner experiences: he will present you with more handmade morsels on top of staggered-height platters on stems that sink into the holes to create an unexpected presentation. Next to the furniture is a niche in the wall, made specifically to house Connoley’s fermentation vessels. Birch fins behind the lounge tease the bar guests with glimpses of the dining room on the other side.
To enter the dining room, guests walk down a long hallway to build a sense of anticipation. The darkening persimmon mural is on your right, and the left is a series of wood slats of varying lengths, softly undulating, offering more peeks into the dining room. The slats evoke a wooded forest following the hilly terrain of the Ozark mountains. At the end of the forest, the dining room is revealed: 24 guests sit around Connoley and Sous Chef Justin Bell in a style reminiscent of a campfire as they prepare, present, and talk to you about your meal. The room is dark and quiet compared to the bar: charcoal-colored carpet is under foot, and you sit under a dark 18-foot high ceiling with elongated pendants illuminating your meal. The three-foot-long pendants reinforce the symbolic journey through the woods because they share the same sculptural verticality as the adjacent wood slats. Although you cannot see the ceiling through the darkness, the space feels high and vast, while the light of the pendants bring an intimate scale to the space at your seat. The large hood is in the center of the room, evoking the campfire around which Connoley and Bell efficiently work. The east wall was left as we found it, with the original brick and stone exposed to give texture and richness to the space.
Down the hall beyond the dining rooms are chic bathrooms that feature some unexpected surprises. (We don’t want to spoil the fun for you.) The prep kitchens in back feature a special low-temperature room for Connoley’s chocolate-making wizardry. If the dining room is the dark yin to the bar’s light yang, the SPACE-fabricated two-sided exterior signage captures this as well: one side is the positive waterjet-cut steel image, the reverse is the negative, using the offal from the other side.
“Bulrush doesn’t look or feel like a period piece. The design by SPACE is strikingly modern.”