Foundation in Aesthetics: Pasquals Cantina

Pasquals bar area
Photograph by Eric Tadsen

When it comes to designing within any existing structure, the limitations can feel inhibiting. But in July 2016, Benjamin Roberts didn’t just find a way to make his newest Pasqual’s Cantina work in a tan-bricked historical building on East Washington, he created a restaurant that feels both fresh and familiar with key elements lending themselves to efficiency.

And it’s that quality of efficiency that provides a base layer on which style can be created. “I like to design them [his restaurants] so that they’ve got a general restaurant feel without making them too specific of a concept,” says Ben. “So that if in the future we were to change, we can.” The first exposure to that restaurant feel happens when a customer arrives through the columned neoclassical entryway to the host stand.

To the left is a long dining room with the original brick floor. Bordered by white walls showcasing photography and a large painting at the end, I felt as though I were in an outdoor gallery space somewhere in western Europe. A long, tufted vinyl booth stretches along the north wall, and each thin, tall window along the south wall has a table of thick Russian pine and a set of four chairs. Waitstaff are able to get to their tables efficiently via an entrance from the kitchen to the middle of the room. When it’s cold outside, hanging barn doors on rollers are closed, providing literal and figurative warmth.

As charming as the dining room is, I found myself more at home in the area to the right of the host stand: the bar. The amount of effort Ben put into creating this space manifested into something industrial and contemporary that confidently carries the spirit of cantina. A southwestern-designed bar skirt contains a large round bar prominently displaying 150 tequilas on dark bookshelves under studio lighting. The shape of the bar allows for more seating and is quite functional, allowing bartenders to go all the way around without hitting a wall. The ease at which bartenders can access everything, the cool look of the bar, and the fact that patrons can easily interact with one another speaks to the harmony between conceptual planning and design.

Ben also says that in all the Pasqual’s, regardless of whether the day’s customers are individuals or families, the bars fill up first. Is this a trend in today’s dining scene or the result of making the bar a point of interest with conscientious design decisions? I cannot say, but it’s apparent that a part of Ben went into the way reclaimed items and aging elements of the building are incorporated with the new aspects. “We’ve got these tin ceiling tiles, which came out of the old opera house building in Middleton.” Looking up at the floral-patterned tiles leads onlookers to consider the sealed bare-wood ceiling, with some support beams replaced for structural reasons. Low-hanging lights, encased in red and clear glass, link the bar top to the ceiling and really fit the feel of the wood.

The building itself was erected in 1885. Over that time, a few additions were made, which leads to what might be my favorite aspect of the barroom. A portion of the wall by the host stand that was once the outside of the building has the weathered bricks on full display, highlighted by a painting and studio lighting to ensure it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Outside, a large, two-level patio fills up part of the parking lot. “We would not open a restaurant without a patio,” Ben says. “People in Madison—the demand for patios the minute it gets above 48 degrees is very high.” Where the upper level, with a dark composite-board floor, feels a bit like sitting on the back porch, the lower level carries the air of a café on concrete slabs enclosed by a knee-high brick wall.

Since everything at Pasqual’s is made from scratch, the functional design decision had to be made to expand the kitchen. Having plenty of room for ovens, grills, and a big soup kettle is nothing short of essential. It’s one of those design elements that won’t be noted by the eyes, but by the taste buds.

From the layout and zoned flow to the character and décor, Pasqual’s on East Washington builds on being a restaurant first and foremost to become something adaptable and thematic. Ben’s choices result in a place families, groups, and individuals will appreciate.

Kyle Jacobson is exploring how well his background writing beer articles for Madison Essentials lends itself to understanding the intricacies of design.

Photographs by Eric Tadsen.

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Pasqual’s Cantina
1344 E. Washington Avenue
Madison, WI 53703