Situated in the center of downtown Music City and historic Printers Alley, Sea Salt Nashville opened last spring in a location once occupied by the Boots (“Yakety Sax”) Randolph supper club.
At Sea Salt, the décor’s unusual touches – walls made of real pink sea salt bricks and objects of personal relevance from a family farm – are just as praise-worthy as the cuisine.
Sea Salt is the first restaurant hospitality veteran Keith Zust has undertaken on his own, with the assistance of business partner and Executive Chef Mike Haggerty, as well as business partner and manager Chris Funk. Of importance to the founders was finding a region with an abundance of local farms convenient for sourcing the ingredients needed. They relocated from the Chicago area to make their premium seafood restaurant a success.
Inspired by the traditional farm-to-table approach in France as well as French cuisine itself, restaurateur Zust and Executive Chef Haggerty deliberately infuse their dishes with regional American flair. The bar, under the guidance of James Beard nominee Jeret Peña, features regional craft beer, a curated wine list, and specialty cocktails that underscore the Sea Salt theme.
The motif is showcased throughout the space, with its softly glowing sea salt bricks in the bar and by offering sea salt scrubs in the restrooms.
Susan Furmanski, a co-designer and investor at Sea Salt Nashville, reveals that the lighting scheme and the choice of fixtures help provide a cohesive dining experience.
“The lighting plays such a huge role in the concept of the restaurant. Keith had the idea to use sea salt bricks, and the natural elements of sea salt [plus the] reclaimed wood highlight the idea of the earthy, locally sourced, farm-to-table approach we take to the food,” Furmanski explains. “We carried that idea throughout the restaurant with smaller accents like the sea salt base that supports one of the lamps from my family’s farm.”
The backlit sea salt bar and illuminated sea salt bricks were custom-made and developed to allow for flexibility in setting the mood of the space. “The bricks are Himalayan salt bricks that are backlit with LED light tubing, so it’s supposed to last more than 30 years. We had to consider the accessibility to change the lighting when we designed the bar,” Furmanski recounts. “Because we’re in hospitality, we put them on dimmers so we can control the brightness depending on the time of day and the mood we want to set.”
The team found an online resource that sold bricks of sea salt and bought crushed salt from that company as well. Surprisingly, Furmanski says that the lighting didn’t take long to install. “I think the horseshoe [border] took about three days. The grout was our biggest challenge because when illuminated, the color of the grout appears to be about three to four times darker,” she notes. “That’s something to consider for [anyone] looking to use this type of installation. It’s also costly to install. Too much of such a bold lighting feature is overwhelming, so we decided to use it at the bar as a focal point rather than incorporating it throughout the restaurant.”
To help the illuminated bricks stand out, the team selected understated recessed lighting overhead and copper pendants. “When we originally took over the space, we weren’t allowed to take out the bar so we wrapped it in copper because it didn’t compete with the sea salt lighting,” Furmanski states. “In my designs, I tend to pick three main colors and use them in a 60/30/10 ratio. We have the rust, coral, and salmon family of colors dominating about 60 percent of the space. Then I have greige paint in about 30 percent, and black iron accents at 10 percent.”
In addition to the element of sea salt, there were other design ideas that inspired and influenced the team. “Throughout the process, we wanted to emulate a fresh, authentic, and natural feel. Our original concept was one of a family-farm restaurant, or a salt-of-the-Earth-type of place. The name of the restaurant came next, followed by the design,” Furmanski remarks. “We used repurposed items and locally sourced accents. The lantern we have upstairs was originally a gas lamp from Keith’s wife’s family farm from 1824. It was hanging on a lamppost at the end of the lane on Windy Hill Farm, but after it was converted to an electric lamp it was struck by lightning. They repaired the lantern and brought it to the restaurant as well as one of the wooden stools.”
The illuminated sea salt bricks are flanked with barn wood from the family farm as well as barn wood from a friend in Asheville. “The lighting and décor are meant to evoke the feeling of going from the farm to the table,” Furmanski affirms. The painstakingly assembled wood flooring and reclaimed wood tables in this two-story historic building add the natural beauty and “farm” feel.
“Walking into the restaurant, you’re met with the barn wood, and the hostess stand is built from copper to give a rustic feel,” she adds. “The large piece of wood at the entrance is actually from the fireplace mantle at Windy Hill Farm. As you go further into the restaurant, you’ll find crisper elements like the white tablecloths you’d find in a typical French bistro.”
Furmanski is a firm believer in the critical role lighting plays in creating ambiance. “Lighting is huge in the restaurant industry because it sets the tone of your meal,” she explains. “In our restaurant in particular, it gives us a literal expression of our name, but it also gives off that earthy farm vibe we’re looking for.”
While Furmanski isn’t a big follower of trends, she concedes the farm-to-table concept is still popular with many hospitality venues. “Farm-to-table is trending right now, so people are using natural elements,” she says. “But rather than being trendy, we made sure to stay true to our mission of authenticity by locally sourcing things like the lantern and reclaimed wood.”
As far as future endeavors for Furmanski and the team, additional restaurants may be on the horizon with varying themes that set them apart to keep the innovation flowing. “We originally started the company Farm2Table with the intention of opening four restaurants [with] four styles of cuisine. We’re a small, but ambitious, group. Keith tends to steer the ship, and Chef Mike is one of the most amazing young chefs in the industry,” she concludes. “I met them when my son had his wedding rehearsal dinner at the restaurant where Chef Mike was the general manager [in Chicago]. At the time, I’d been talking about opening a wedding venue myself, so when they approached me, my caveat before investing was that we had to look at wedding venues in the Chicago area [first]; but Nashville has so much untapped talent, we’re excited to expand there.”