Ramen Bar Fuses Traditional And Modern

Japanese restaurant delivers destination for casual dining and drinking.

The Jinya Ramen Bar location in midtown Houston is part of a vibrant mixed-use community populated with bars, restaurants, and shops. Photos courtesy YNL.

The first Jinya restaurant opened in Tokyo in 2000. Its success convinced Jinya CEO Tomonori Takahashi to bring the ramen bar experience to the U.S., opening its first location in California. Franchise locations have spread to other major cities.

As part of that expansion, YNL Architects Inc., Los Angeles, was commissioned to design the Jinya Ramen Bar location in midtown Houston. YNL also designed the first Texas Jinya franchise, Jinya-NASA, also in Houston.

The midtown location is described by YNL principal Yu-Ngok Lo, AIA, CDT, LEED AP, NCARB, as a “very vibrant mixed-use community populated with bars, restaurants, and shops. Jinya CEO Takahashi believes that the Jinya izakaya concept will be welcomed by young working professionals in Houston as a new destination for casual late-night dining and drinking.”

The space is 2,600 sq. ft. and previously a fitness center that was part of a mixed-use development. One of the challenges was to transform that space to a food-service establishment that blends into the existing district, which is rich in nightlife.

The communal-table dining concept celebrates the unique Japanese way of enjoying ramen and the spirit of collective dining found in many Asian cultures.

The design concept is to offer customers a modern, yet comfortable, environment that embodies the Japanese dining experience. The use of a variety of wood species was a primary element in the design, coupled with a warm color scheme meant to express a rustic and traditional atmosphere. The wall-mounted light fixtures, bar counter decoration, brick veneer, and wood furniture were carefully selected to express the design intent.

Dull stainless-steel flashing was replaced and the open ramen bar kitchen was clad with rustic stone tiles. In lieu of bland drywall, traditional Japanese stucco finishes create a more authentic dining experience. To further reinforce the sense of authenticity, the architect collaborated with Jinya Tokyo and incorporated a traditional artwork installation above the ramen bar area. The light fixtures and the white stones symbolizing burnt coal were also shipped directly from Japan.

The communal-table dining concept, something not typically seen in western-style restaurants in the U.S., celebrates the unique Japanese way of enjoying ramen and the spirit of collective dining found in many Asian cultures that encourage conversation. The architect infused the design with modern dining elements. A bar that serves traditional Japanese beer and sake and wine is incorporated into the restaurant near the entrance. It serves as part of the waiting area and also a place for casual social gathering and watching sport events.

The restaurant is meant to be functional and efficient, according to the architect. Modern construction material and methods, such as sealed and polished concrete and an open ceilings concept, were introduced. “These design strategies help dramatically reduce construction and maintenance cost and create an aesthetic quality that complements the more traditional design elements in the space. The ceiling was painted black to draw less attention as customers approach the main dining area. The mirrors above the booth seating further enhance the visual effect and facilitate the perception of a larger space,” he said.

“Although we were hired by the franchisee, we worked closely with corporate Jinya to make sure that the design works with corporate guidelines. The process was highly interactive. We held numerous meetings with Mr. Takahashi to discuss expectations. We also carefully coordinated with Jinya’s master chef to understand the restaurant’s daily operation and the requirements of the kitchen space,” Yu-Ngok Lo said.

The design concept is to offer customers a modern and yet comfortable environment that embodies the Japanese dining experience.

The corporate Jinya design guideline includes standards ranging from company logo to color of the ramen bowl, he explained. “It was an interesting collaboration, incorporating Jinya’s guidelines ideas into our design. Jinya’s belief that enjoying ramen is a ritual rather than merely a necessity inspired us tremendously throughout the design process. As a result, we were able to push the boundary and create a space where traditional Japanese culinary and modern dining experience interweave.”

Yu-Ngok Lo noted that the delivery method of the project was a challenge since it was the firm’s first out-of-state project. “Although the design documents we produced were very close to the construction document level, we worked closely with the local design team, HC Architect & Associates, Houston, during the permitting and construction phase,” he said. “Adjustments had to be made during the process due to local code issues and product availability. We also worked directly with the contractor and corporate Jinya to make sure the design intent was being met during construction. Many of the materials selected for the project and the conceptual renderings we produced during the design phase were later incorporated into the Jinya design guideline as an example for future franchise restaurants.”

Constructed within budget, the successful project has become a new anchor point in the midtown Houston district.

— YNL Architects website.

— Jinya Ramen Bar website.

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