Adelaide's well-known Africola has reopened not only with a new North African flavour courtesy of chef Duncan Welgemoed, but an entirely rethought design spearheaded by Mash Design's director and Africola co-owner James Brown. We talk to Brown about where he found inspiration for the playful, uncluttered refresh, and his current tile fetish.
Why the decision to redesign Africola, James?
We always had the idea to flip the place. Food- and space-wise, we always planned to ride the camel up to northern Africa and focus on the Maghreb, so we did, and in the process contemporised the fit-out into an Afro-Euro diner-eatery.
What exactly does that look like?
Think Pellegrini's meets Afro-MONA; the Maghreb has so many influences from Europe. I had the fantasy to paint the place bright blue - but apparently that's not good.
What are the key differences between the Africola former look and its new one?
Africola 1.0 was cultural appreciation, braai and shebeen. You were in Jo'berg with the click of your fingers and then you realised that actually you were in Adelaide and didn't need a bulletproof van and hired goons waiting out front. Africola 2.0 is cultural-contemporary, neighbourhood chain-restaurant chic.
What excites you most about Africola 2.0?
I love the vinyl tiles. There is this epic tea-house I went to in Chefchaouen in Morocco with blue and yellow vinyl tiles. All they sold was four types of couscous and mango hashish. I also love the "don't worry it's only a dream" lightbox and "we buy gold" sign on the door. Design details for me will never be some special detail in the joinery. It's more in the garnish, humour and personality of the place.
There's a lot of white in the new-look; why did you decided to strip it back?
It's off-white, actually. Ahem. I have a tile fetish at the moment, as you'll see in Hotel Jesus [a new Melbourne taqueria from the team behind Mamasita]. I'm also loving 1970s bathrooms - both Italy and Morocco had real flavour in that era. I've been making custom tiles, but less handmade-looking styles and more repeated graphic prints. Africola 2.0 is like a bathroom with art.
Is the staff happy with the makeover?
I think changing the fit-out is always good for morale. Most of the team thought we were crazy when we started changing the place because everyone had grown to love 1.0, but the new space has grown on everyone already. The off-white makes the features pop like Froot Loops in milk.
And what about the diners - has the vibe changed in the restaurant?
It has definitely brought a younger crowd. My opinion is that it's even more fun than before just because of the brightness. Having a bigger kitchen also makes the place work so much better. Duncan has a spring in his step. The energy of the place has lifted.
Are you happy with the result?
Africola 1.0 was done in three weeks so it was a real rush and always felt a little Motel Mexicola. Africola 2.0 was in the plans for a long time, so we wanted to make it feel like a more modern outfit. The whole place is more retail focused now. It's cleaner. I love the idea of an epic chain-restaurant done well, with an awesome chef and care. We're not a chain, but we might do some more. Who knows.