When Despana Restaurant wanted to expand from its home base in New York, where it has outlets in Soho and Queens, Princeton seemed like a logical choice. “I come from a university town in Spain, Salamanca, which is one of the oldest universities in Europe,” says co-owner Bruno Romero, partner and managing director for Despana. “Princeton has an old-world feel and always attracts people from all over the world, so that’s great.”
The restaurant’s owners soon found an excellent location — on Nassau Street between Chestnut and Olden — a multicultural crossroads that already offers Chinese, Middle Eastern, Thai, and Sushi. “It’s a great location that we have,” Romero says.
Then came the tricky part: Transforming the space at 235 Nassau Street, which had formerly housed the Palace of Asia, into a temple of tapas, paella, and other Spanish delicacies. “We asked the architects to make a space so people can feel like they are in Soho,” says Romero. “That’s why we used the white tiles, which are from Spain, and rustic iron and wood, which are Spanish style. The concept was well-done. When our customers walk into our locations in Soho or Princeton, they will see the same things.”
The firm responsible for the transformation: Joshua Zinder Architecture and Design of 20 Nassau Street. The firm will host a Princeton Chamber of Commerce “Business After Business” event at the new restaurant on Thursday, August 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. To register call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org.
Joshua Zinder started his firm in 2006 after spending six years with Michael Graves and Associates. A Long Island native who was educated at Syracuse (Class of 1991) and Columbia, Zinder lives in Princeton with his wife Advah, who is pastry chef at Jasna Polana. The have four children, one in college, and Zinder’s mother still resides on Long Island. Like everyone at his firm, he has a friendly, laid-back manner, yet is not afraid to drop a name like Denis Diderot, the French philosopher famous for his encyclopedia focusing on mechanical arts during the Enlightenment.
“I loved working for Michael,” Zinder says, “but it was the right time to go. When I started I was in a single office with no windows. Now there are 14 of us and we have windows.”
Marlyn Zucosky, director of interior design, became a partner in the firm this past January and played a lead role in the Despana project. A South Jersey native, she graduated from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and has lived in Princeton since 1990. She has three children, two in college, and her father is a retired FAA employee living in Florida.
Interior design wasn’t always in the cards for Zucosky, though. In fact, she said, until she took an aptitude test in high school, she expected to pursue a nursing career. But the test results suggested a future in design and she changed her plans.
As it happens so often, though, and especially in a small town like Princeton where decision-makers always have the chance to rub elbows, fortune played a role in Zucosky joining Zinder’s firm, and in the firm gaining the Despana contract.
A mutual acquaintance, Princeton architect J. Robert Hillier, set things in motion by suggesting that Zinder and Zucosky meet and discuss opportunities to work together.
Zucosky, in turn, was attending a New Jersey Restaurant Association event where she met a lawyer from Taylor, Colicchio & Silverman representing Despana. Within a matter of days she was getting down to brass tacks on how the Zinder firm and Despana would bring a new restaurant to Princeton.
She helped Despana representatives scout several potential locations in the Princeton area before the former Palace of Asia became available. It quickly went to the top of the list because it offered space that matched Despana’s needs: retail, takeout, outdoor dining, and table service.
Zinder estimates that designing and renovating the restaurant took the better part of a year to accomplish. Interior demolition opened up space, revealing the kitchen and exposing brick and ceiling joists that are in keeping with the appearance of the Despana locations in New York.
“We brought an industrial feel back with the structural elements,” he says, “and we changed the lighting, which was thematic to an Indian restaurant.”
Now a two-story space, air movement became an issue, so a large industrial-sized fan now occupies much of the ceiling. The upstairs seating area features a communal table along the railing where customers will be able to plug in their laptops, get a wi-fi connection, and look out onto Nassau Street if they want to. Some tables that are fitted with hand cranks that, Zinder said, would make a mechanical aficionado like Diderot proud, since they will allow disabled customer to raise and lower the surface.
Spain is noted for bullfighting as much as its bocadillos, and a large depiction of a bull’s head is mounted prominently in the stairway at Despana leading from the retail area where customers can choose from dozens of tempting comestibles up to the seating area upstairs.
“We knew they were going to have a bull as a feature so we spent a lot of time figuring out where the bull was going to go,” Zucosky says. “In Soho it’s sort of a destination spot. People like to have their picture taken with the bull.’
But in Princeton, Zucosky says, “we didn’t copy the Soho store’s design. There are similar features, but our place is unique.”
Says Zinder: “It was an interesting project because so much had to do with stripping space to its raw components. It was the perfect architectural and interior design fusion.”
That said, the Zinder architects are not likely to spend too much savoring the sangria on the Despana patio. Next on the work schedule is another Princeton restaurant, La Mezzaluna, on Witherspoon Street. The project, which once again involves opening up interior spaces, is scheduled for the coming days, since it is such a slow time for restaurants in general. The contractors and materials are all in place and, unlike the months it took to realize Despana, all the work is supposed to be finished in 10 days. Besides the structural elements, the centerpiece of the project will be a 26-foot mural by Princeton photographer Wendy Vroom, which will follow the contours, ups and downs, of the walls and ceiling.