Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Dinner theater may be dead, but the notion of dinner as theater—the baroquely sauced plates; the hushed, sacramental presentations; the transformation of the communal table from peasant necessity to status symbol of the moment—is alive and thriving.

These days, of course, high-end restaurants eager to generate buzz know that it’s not enough to focus only on what customers put in their mouths, or even on where they do that putting—the inviting and/or dazzling atmosphere in which a meal unfolds. According to the style calculus by which many restaurants now operate, survival in an increasingly competitive dining scene demands that the back of the house, where customers go to relieve themselves of all those carefully wrought eats and drinks, be just as interesting and well-appointed as the front.

We are talking about bathrooms, yes.

No longer an afterthought for many owners and designers but increasingly a conscious and even self-conscious thought, the restaurant bathroom is becoming fetishized. And it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that as that lowly realm of bodily function and human vulnerability has gone upscale, the most interesting restrooms in the city should also be the most voyeuristic.

At Zola, David Greggory, Zaytinya, Charlie Palmer Steak, and Cafe Asia, going to the bathroom goes beyond mere biological necessity. It’s an event-within-the-event; you go even if you don’t have to go. At Zola and Zaytinya, you can eavesdrop on the other sex as you stand at the sink. At Cafe Asia, there’s no need, even, for eavesdropping—men and women, emerging from private stalls, meet up at the communal wash basin in the single, unisex bathroom. At Charlie Palmer Steak, you can take a peek at what’s going on in the adjoining bathroom through a convenient peephole. And if you’re sitting in the stall in David Greggory’s men’s room, you can get a shadowy glimpse of somebody in the outer room performing a slightly different function.

By Washington standards, this is bold, boundary-pushing stuff, unthinkable a decade ago. Theo Adamstein, whose firm, Adamstein & Demetriou, did the designs for both Zola and Zaytinya, notes that it was not so long ago that his new clients all wanted pretty much the same thing from him: dark wood, heavy interiors—everything that bespeaks sobriety and dignity. Now, playfulness reigns. Lightness, airiness, whimsy. And as the front of the house has opened up, designers such as Adamstein have extended their newfound freedom to take a few risks at the back of the house, too.

A few. Our brand of voyeuristic bathroom, it should be pointed out, seems almost tame when compared with riskier variations to be found in New York and Las Vegas—which included bathrooms whose exterior glass doors afford a clear view of everything inside (until they’re locked, at which point an electrical charge kicks in and the glass turns milky and opaque) to, most memorably, Philippe Starck’s design at the Royalton, in New York, in which the traditional bank of urinals has given way to an uninterrupted expanse of cascading water.

Still, according to Martin Vahtra, the New Yorker who did the design for Charlie Palmer Steak, if the conservatism of the city’s dining culture limited the degree to which he could experiment on the assignment, it didn’t stop him altogether from having fun. Vahtra placed frosted glass panels behind the sinks in both the men’s and women’s room and between the two restrooms. A simple touch—which produced startling effects. For one thing, the sexes can hear one another as they wash their hands. For men, says Vahtra, it’s a chance to “hear some of that fabled female chatter.” The designer’s cleverest touch can be found in the panel that divides the two rooms: a transparent, fist-sized keyhole.

“The private stuff is private,” insists Vahtra, noting that no one can see into the stalls.

Not that people haven’t tried. In fact, the peephole has become something of a pain for the cleaning crew—thanks, says Vahtra, to “all those lip marks and breath marks.” The image of pinstriped, cigar-smoking fat cats with their noses pressed to the glass for a glimpse of something fleshy and forbidden in the room next door is almost as delicious as chef Bryan Voltaggio’s octopus with bouillabaisse gêlée.

Nobody has pushed against the perceived constraints quite like David Hagedorn, who, with his partner, Greggory Hill, owns and operates David Greggory, a restaurant that exudes a quiet confidence in the viability of its gay-urban-chic aesthetic. Hagedorn did not simply renovate the old, dowdy space, formerly occupied by Shelly’s West End—he gave it a complete style makeover. The new interior melds ’70s retro decor with contemporary colors—imagine an upscale bar and lounge done by the Fab Five. The painting above the table in the chef’s dining room—Asparagus Triptych, the stalks hard and proud and thrusting—sets the tone.

Though Hagedorn claims to have exercised a bit of restraint where the back of the house is concerned—the original design called for a unisex bathroom—the voyeuristic element is unmistakable, particularly in the men’s room. Thanks to a conveniently placed column of etched glass at the back of the stall, toilet-sitters have only to look over their shoulders to get a blurry peek at what’s doing at the urinals. (The women’s stalls are afforded a view of—yawn—the sinks.) Originally, the space was occupied by a copper-colored curtain, which could be pulled back for a direct glimpse—a sort of winking bathhouse reference.

“It’s a little hint of naughtiness,” Hagedorn says. “I don’t think it crosses over from being fun to being vulgar.”

Of course, as more and more restaurants in the city strive to deliver not just a great meal but a Total Experience, we might just get some crossing of the line, some more vulgar bit of daring. More likely, though, we should gird ourselves for more of the same—a proliferation of wink-winkery that will begin to seem reflexive and stale for being so trendy and widespread. There is another line, after all. And what looks, initially, like the tweaking of our notions of privacy and the playing with our collective fantasies and fears may in time turn out to seem like nothing so much as a lot of cheap toilet humor. —Todd Kliman

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.