Intimate New Hideaway Mirrors Art of Japanese Transitions


Drawing inspiration from its palindrome moniker meaning “a gathering spot fueled with fire and energy,” new San Francisco restaurant Roka Akor’s interior design likewise mirrors Japanese architecture and features reclaimed Bay Area materials that create a theatrical, mysterious, and intimate dining experience.

I met Anthony Fish, Principal at Arcanum Architecture and mastermind behind Roka Akor’s exquisite aesthetic, at the new west coast location for a behind-the-scenes tour. Fish explained that his experience living in the Gamble House in Pasadena was the jumping off point for the restaurant’s initial blueprints, as the expansive arbors and gardens of the arts and crafts bungalow-style home was heavily influenced by traditional Japanese architecture. He envisioned marrying the juxtaposition of urban and rural qualities of San Francisco with these unique oriental elements. Fascinated by the art of Japanese spatial transitions, Fish crafted a floor plan that would visually guide guests from the exterior to the interior of the restaurant. In traditional Japanese architecture, one would enter a home from the street and enter though a gate, walk past the trellis (traditionally, the public space) to the inside, or heart, of the home: the courtyard garden (the private space).

Walk past the trellis to cross from the public to the private space.

To visually represent the theme of public vs. private at Roka Akor, Fish created similar transitional spaces. Guests first open the front door (the gate) and find themselves in a lobby lined with air plants and a trellis. This public space allows guests to mingle with strangers, meet up with their party, and converse with the host(ess). After socializing, guests make their way over a “bridge” that transitions them from the public space to a more intimate, private dining destination.

Taking the simple and making it special was Fish’s design philosophy for Roka Akor. The name itself was slightly modified from Roka to Roka Akor to set the San Francisco location apart from its London counterpart. The bright interior of this main dining area is light-washed from the expansive floor-length windows and bright Monterey Cypress wood tables. The aberrations in the reclaimed wood slabs that comprise the tables were purposefully not filled in to embrace the imperfections of nature. Every crack of wood and nick of plaster was celebrated and incorporated into the design.

A glass-walled dining room gives guests privacy while still being a part of the public space.

Multiple seating options allow for a different dining experience every visit. The long communal table is complete with wooden benches and caters to large groups as well as the just-dropped-by crowd. If you haven’t made reservations in advance, you can take a seat at the table and strike up a conversation with a nearby couple. Small groups can cozy up in luxe leather chairs of an orange-apricot hue, or sit front row, center, at the counter where the robata grill plays the starring role. Pairs have the option of sitting side by side at the counter, a seating arrangement that encourages the sharing of food, a close and intimate experience in itself.

Reservations can be made for the glass dining room, which offers enough privacy for important conversations or meetings. However, its glass walls still allow guests to feel part of the communal dining experience. Air plants dance along the wall in a cozy corner of the restaurant, bridging the outside and inside elements.

The color-changing Robata hood takes center stage.

Executive Chef Roman Petry makes meal preparation a theatrical spectacle at Roka Akor; guests sit front and center at the robata grill counter (robata is the Japanese process of slow-grilling over hot charcoal) and are given what is seemingly a personal performance by these talented chefs while the robata hood glows overhead, changing from lime green to deep orange, and wine red to bright coral.

Backlit Poplar tree staircase winds past the concrete Starry Night wall installation.

Once guests have enjoyed the personal theatre show of food preparation and presentation, they can make their way down to an even more intimate venue. Still keeping with the theme of Japanese spatial transitions, guests walk down stairs crafted from Poplar trees, backlit with a gorgeous amber filter, that lead to the romantic and moody Roka Bar.  On your way down, the exquisite staircase is surrounded by a concrete wall art installation, “Starry Night,” by Oakland-based Concreteworks

Once merely the basement of a previous restaurant, the Roka Bar is a swanky, dimly lit lounge where couples and friends can hang out in luxury. Just as the robata counter and the rainbow hood are the main events on the first floor, the round-table bar and backlit multi-colored ice block serves as the theatrical stage downstairs. Texture is found all around you; the artisan plaster of the walls was mixed with straw and mica to create a tactile backdrop that quite literally sparkles from every angle. A three-dimensional bamboo wall installation represents the rolling hills of San Francisco and is also backlit to highlight the curves. Fish opted to construct this art piece out of bamboo, the walls out of straw and mica, and the bar counter out of a Sonoma Claro Walnut tree found in a river in order to embrace local, available resources in true Japanese style.

Beautiful, jagged imperfections make this reclaimed wood counter one of a kind.

One of the intrigues of the Roka Bar is in its Vegas-esque aesthetic. The afternoon sun might be out in full force and you wouldn’t know the difference; you’ll be too busy exploring all the hidden corners of the downstairs lounge. When you sit at one end of the room, the expansive bar shields you from the people on the other side, effectively creating your own intimate entertaining space. Live in the lap of luxury for the night, especially when bartender Daniel Hyatt (formerly of Alembic Bar) is swirling up a Crimson Tide expertly mixed with bitters and lavender and garnished with fresh berries.

Roka Akor offers a beautiful space for communal gatherings as well as smaller alcoves for an intimate dining experience. The nod to the Japanese art of spatial transitions provides a creative journey that will keep guests endlessly in awe of Fish and his team’s architectural and design brilliance.

What happens in Roka Akor stays in Roka Akor, because, quite frankly, you will never want to leave. Open Monday – Sunday, view times here. 801 Montgomery Street, San Francisco.

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