For emerging restaurateurs Jack Leary and Tim Christensen, founders of the Alma Group, the Northern Beaches in Sydney is becoming a regular backdrop to their gastronomic ventures. Towards the pointy end of the peninsula, Alma, the duo’s debut Mexican restaurant, has well and truly settled into the village of Avalon since opening its doors in 2017. At the southern end, nearer to Manly and the gateway to Sydney Harbour, the second establishment to join the lineup is a newcomer in the seaside suburb of Freshwater.
When discussing the design for St. Alma, the name given to the new diner, Jack and Tim felt strongly about two key points. They believed “first impressions are everything” – a mantra adopted with the launch of their first restaurant. But they also recognised it was important for St. Alma to “stand her ground” rather than become a pure replication of the Avalon premises. “We are both relatively new to owning venues, so we wanted this space [in Freshwater] to be a reflection of our journey, and for our patrons to benefit from the lessons we have learned along the way,” Jack says.
St. Alma restaurant Freshwater by Five Foot One
To craft an impressive interior that meets the brief of “minimal Mexican modernism”, while also being site specific and complementary to the cuisine on offer, the duo called in the design team from Five Foot One. The creative process that followed carved an unexpected path, guided by a demolition phase that uncovered fascinating features from the site’s former life as a bank. “It was a process that evolved over time,” says Kat Thompson, the Sydney-based director of Five Foot One. “A number of original features were retained – even the original safe of the bank was incorporated and restyled into the new structure,” she explains.
But perhaps the greatest surprise – or curveball – was revealed when the old standard-height ceiling was removed. “We discovered a wonderful ceiling with tremendous height running through the centre of the restaurant,” Kat recalls. “We had to make the most of this,” she adds, highlighting the woven-fabric ceiling feature that now hangs within the void, offering movement overhead as it’s exposed to the gentle ocean breeze.
In planning the interior, the Five Foot One team dedicated great attention to layering texture, geometry and colour. “We channelled a fresh and light base palette as a response to the coastal setting and inserted vibrant colour blocking at key focal areas,” Kat says. “For example, striking burgundy has been used to highlight the front entrance as a way to draw guests in.” If that isn’t enough, the array of seafood displayed by the entrance of the venue should pull a crowd.
An appreciation for detail is seen in the eye-catching display shelving of the curved bar area. It also features in St. Alma’s collection of art – most notably a striking 4-meter-long sculpture that now takes pride of place in the middle of the restaurant. The artist responsible for the piece is Sam Leary, Jack’s mother, who collaborated closely with the design team to make sure her work resonated with the overarching vision for St. Alma.
Furniture was selected to reflect the restaurant’s relaxed ambience and seaside location, exampled by light timbers and woven materials, but it was also required to offer various sitting scenarios. “We wanted diners to be able to have a more intimate dining experience with stools at the bar and kitchen,” says Jack. “Here, guests can interact with the staff for a true Alma experience.” Conversely, the larger tables and booths along the walls and windows allow greater flexibility for big groups and special occasions.
Since opening in early January, the 100-seat restaurant has come alive, thanks to the Freshwater locals who bring vitality to the space and the staff who shape the uniquely “Alma” experience. It’s a place where diners can expect an eclectic mix of regional Mexican influences, given a delectable Australian spin through both flavour and design. “You could say we love to juxtapose a fun and engaging service style with a sophisticated dining experience and fit-out,” Jack says. “I’d sum it up as fresh and chic yet casual and soulful with an edgy twist.”
Since opening in early January, the 100-seat restaurant has come alive, thanks to the locals who bring vitality to the space and the staff who shape the uniquely “Alma” experience.