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Restaurant King Turns to Design Queen to Create Houston’s Most Beautiful New Restaurants — Ben Berg & Gail McCleese Team Up

Bringing the WOW Factor to Life

BY // 07.09.24

From the moment doors opened on Annabelle Brasserie in Autry Park, diners were swooning over the elaborate flourish of florals overhead, the high ceiling dressed in brightly colored swaths of silk flowers and pops of greenery. It was restaurateur Ben Berg’s vision for a European style bistro eliciting a soupçon of female energy. Berg had the vision and interior designer Gail McCleese brought it to life in this Houston restaurant.

Annabelle is just one of seven design-forward restaurants that the creative duo has collaborated on and there are five additional projects in the works. Recently completed restaurants include Benny Chows, Prime 131, Tavola, The Sylvie and Turner’s Cut (all in Houston) and Soy Cowboy in Arlington.

“Gail is not just a great designer but a great person as well,” Berg tells PaperCity. “She cares deeply for her projects and her clients. She understands my vision and quickly picks up on what I like, making the design process easier and much more fun.

“Gail’s creativity is endless. She transforms the simplest ideas into meticulously detailed plans, sourcing unique antiques and findings from all over the world and creating restaurants that consistently wow.”

Interior designer Gail McCleese at Annabelle Brasserie where she guided the fabulously riotous interior decor of this Ben Beg restaurant.
Interior designer Gail McCleese at Annabelle Brasserie where she guided the fabulously riotous interior decor of this Ben Beg restaurant.

And wow they do. Consider the dramatic decor of Benny Chows, Berg’s Chinese food restaurant in Houston. A massive sphere covered in hundreds of golden flowers centers the dining room while walls are dressed in red and gold de Gournay coverings depicting a historic Chinese landscape. Add Foo dogs, black lacquered shelves displaying Chinese artifacts, the private Cherry Blossom Room noted for the profusion of silk cherry blossoms overhead, and lanterns in gilded cages.

“It did not take long for Ben and I to realize how well we work together,” McCleese says. “We both have a passion for creating different types of sensory-driven experiences that can immerse you in a new region or different time period. The number of diverse concepts we’ve been able to collaborate on to enhance his visions has been extremely rewarding.”

Benny Chows ©JennDuncan-3-1
The elaborate decor of Benny Chows, Ben Berg’s vision come to life in the hands of interior designer Gail McCleese. (Photo by Jenn Duncan)

McCleese’s work with Berg merely adds to her serious hospitality design creds. Heading her own nationally recognized interior design firm called studioDW, she worked with Hilton Hotels, Hyatt Hotels, Landry’s Development, Omni Hotels, Doubletree Hotels, Embassy Suites Hotels and more. She played an integral role in developing interiors for Tilman Fertitta’s posh Post Oak Hotel in Houston.

In 2015, McCleese closed her office and joined Gensler as area leader of  its Global Hospitality practice. Under her leadership, both studioDW and Gensler received the Hospitality Industry Network’s NEWH’s Top Interior Design Firm honors eight times.

After departing Gensler in 2019, McCleese launched Sensitori, a boutique hospitality design firm named for her focus.

“It’s all about sensory for me,” she says. “Using different textures, design that touches all the senses. . . When you walk in through the door, you are transported to the concept.”

Interior designer Gail McCleese's work in Turner's Cut in Autry Park
Interior designer Gail McCleese’s work in Turner’s Cut in Autry Park

On the recent opening night of Turner’s Cut steakhouse in Autry Park, partygoers found themselves cosseted in a level of luxury designed to capture the posh ambience of New York’s Gilded Age. It was Berg’s vision brought to life in partnership with McCleese, who soaked up the oh-la-las as partygoers swooned over the lavish decor.

When asked which of her many projects are her favorite, McCleese demures.

“It’s challenging to pick a favorite because it would be like picking your favorite child. Each concept and experience is so different from the last,” she says. “Annabelle Brasserie is perfect for brunching with your girlfriends. Benny Chows will transport you to the Chinese countryside. Prime 131 is for those looking to escape to New York’s Meatpacking District for the night.

“Tavola will take you away to experience an upscale Italian getaway. Your family will enjoy escaping to Buttermilk Baby’s colorful aesthetic for a 1950s soda fountain experience. And for those looking to experience the ultimate evening of luxury, look no further than Turner’s Cut.”

No surprise then when McCleese says that restaurant design is her true passion.

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