The design for Di An Di — Greenpoint’s standout Vietnamese neighborhood restaurant and the winner of Eater NY’s Design of the Year award for 2018 — was a collaborative effort, explains designer Huy Bui, who served as the team’s captain in constructing the restaurant’s lush, alive look. For him, design should be experiential, emotional, a little subjective, and those elements all come into play in Di An Di’s meticulously crafted space.
Di An Di started getting attention on social media for its design even before it opened. Many of its striking features play into neighborhood restaurant trends, with its use of copper, pops of color among neutrals, neon signs, and hanging plants. But at Di An Di, these things come together for a look that is cohesive and thoughtful, and Bui has infused the space with brightness that makes it feel very much alive. Pulling inspiration from a hillside town in Vietnam, as well as from New York neighborhood restaurants, Di An Di’s look is dynamic and layered while still maintaining a sense of cohesiveness through repeated colors and shapes.
It helps, of course, that the restaurant is consistently packed, buzzing with a hip, young crowd. The restaurant’s food, along with its energetic vibe and photo-ready look, turned it into a quick hit. Below, see how Bui designed each room of the Greenpoint restaurant.
At the front of the restaurant, there’s the bar. The ceilings here are low, just nine feet. They’re lined with pressed tin and painted a muted, pastel green, a color repeated through much of Di An Di, along with a darker, more forest green.
This part of the restaurant is New York City, Bui says, explaining that it’s “extremely moody” and “seductive.” “The bar is what a bar should be,” he says. It’s romantic. The lighting is low, courtesy of his brother Tuan Bui, a co-owner of the restaurant.
Dates and solo diners sit at the bar, which is framed by copper piping sanded down with fine sandpaper so that it shines brightly. That little touch came from designer Michael Yarinsky, who Bui describes as the equivalent of a closer in baseball. “He comes into the ninth inning to save the game,” Bui says. “He came in there a little bit later, and he was just like ‘try this, try that, we can brush that copper with really fine sandpaper,’ and he just made it sing.”
Beyond the bar area, there’s the main dining room, lined with bright white walls, plants, ceiling fans. Bui compares walking beyond the bar into the restaurant’s main dining room as like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. Suddenly, the space opens up, the ceilings rising to 12 feet, skylights letting in the last remnants of sun at the very start of dinner service. When the restaurant finally rolls out brunch, Bui says, daylight will be a gamechanger for the space.
“It’s this transition from this New York, cool space to a sunny, luscious, tropical place,” he says. “Your pupils are kind of dilating when you walk in, and you’re like where am I?”
Twilight provides the perfect natural lighting, he says. When the sun sets at 8:30 p.m. on summer solstice this year, it will be a perfect night to be in the dining room, Bui says. (In 2019, it will be June 21.)
Then there’s the kitchen. It’s connected to the main dining room and isn’t a fully open kitchen, but it’s lined with windows that let diners look in. “We understood that the kitchen was the pulse of the space,” Bui says, adding that chef/co-owner Dennis Ngo got to design his dream kitchen.
The heart of Di An Di is ultimately the food, which was coming together at the same time as the look. The kitchen team was developing recipes while the space was being worked on, and those simultaneous processes allowing the whole project to feel connected.
“You can see them hustling and working, and I think it’s important for them to be seen,” Bui says. “I think there’s a layer of excitement in being watched. It’s a performance.”
Other design elements echo throughout Di An Di, like the aforementioned use of green and plants to give it a lush look. Bui says the team pulled inspiration specifically from Dalat, the capital of Vietnam’s Lâm Đồng Province. It’s a place surrounded by hills, and is full of lakes, waterfalls, and pines. Most importantly, Bui explains, it’s a rare area of Vietnam that is temperate enough to warrant jackets. (His father went there for summer camp and would talk about how they got to wear jackets and look cool in Dalat.) The town’s sky also inspired the space. Calico wallpaper that fades into a deep blue is supposed to evoke a summer skyline.
Curves were foundational to Di An Di’s look, and Bui admits he had to go against what he’s used to for that. Most often in his designs, he uses straight lines and sharp edges. But co-owner Kim Hoang really wanted a fluid seating arrangement, and while Bui didn’t end up making perfectly curved banquettes, he went with a hexagonal shape that has the same desired effect.
As Bui puts it, the collaborative approach to the architecture and design for the space yielded a “spontaneous, creative flavor.” The entire team played a role in creating the look. But once Di An Di opened, diners play an important role, too, Bui says. Design is about shaping an environment, he explains.
“Everything from the way things fit to scale to functionality to aesthetics to beauty, all those things really inspire the emotion of how we respond to an environment,” he says. “I may have had a lot of contribution at the beginning, but the space has a life of its own, and it’s really about the people that occupy the space.”