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Why do restaurants see the need for luxe loos?

The throne room, no joke. The toilets in higher-end eateries have become seriously designed conceptual comfort stations, with restaurants attempting to outdo one another. Relieve yourself at The Federalist in the XV Beacon hotel on Beacon Hill, and you'll find a grotto atmosphere of cobblestones, discreet stalls with floor-to-ceiling doors, and white porcelain sinks raised off the counter so no spills dampen clothing or purses. With two-ply toilet paper rolling freely and waffled-cloth hand towels amusingly stacked like mini Mayan temples, the Fed has got to be Boston's poshest public powder room, followed by The Four Seasons, with new restaurant Sibling Rivalry in the running.

These spaces are luscious enough to eat in, with accessories tempting enough to take out. And lavatory luxuries often do go home with the doggie bags. "People like to take things from the bathroom as souvenirs," says Bruno Marini, general manager of The Federalist. Many restaurateurs offer flourishes - cloth towels, hand lotion, and hair spray - and know the items will probably vanish with a spritz of good will.

"Amenities are far more critical for women," says Bob Kinkead, co-owner with brother David of Sibling Rivalry in the South End. "Women decide where everybody's going to eat anyway. If mom's not happy, then nobody's happy."

While these attitude lounges are basically designed for the ladies, guys notice the extras even if they don't quite understand them. I sneaked into the famous men's room at Mantra near Downtown Crossing and found a stainless-steel cube the size of a home furnace, with two receptacles filled with crushed ice and two basins with motion-control faucets. A man describes the metal john assemblage: "It looks like something out of a Stanley Kubrick movie," says Dan Andelman, executive producer of the Phantom Gourmet, the restaurant-review program on WSBK-TV (Channel 38) and CBS4 (Channel 4). "I still don't know whether to urinate or make a martini." Mantra waiter Sashu Magondi clears up the confusion: "You have to pee on the ice. The other two spaces are for [washing] your hands."

If the crushed-ice cube is supposed to lure guys to Mantra, the women's room is a chilly turnoff. The ladies' looks like a surgical scrub area, all stainless steel and white industrial tile, with disconcerting oneway mirrors inside the stalls.

Does all this matter, really? When you gotta go, you gotta go. A trendy WC can't flush away a restaurant's true flavors or clean up after an indolent waiter. "From my perspective, I really don't think guys care at all," says Andelman. "When I'm in the bathroom, I want to get in there and get out as soon as I can." Still, this restaurant authority eats his words when he lavishly describes his favorite luxe loos, which he describes "as an extension of the dining room." Andelman praises Meze Estiatorio in Charlestown for its flat-screen TVs streaming sports highlights at each urinal. And Jasper White's Summer Shack in Cambridge has "the best upbeat music in the bathroom, just what I want to hear, not Enya or depressing gangster rap."

"I think the bathroom tells you what the owner thinks about you as a guest," says Wendy Prellwitz, the architect who designed Sibling Rivalry, with special attention to the restrooms. Her clients were clear about the priorities: The open kitchen is the star of the show; the toilets are pampered cameo players. "A lot of people judge how good a restaurant is by how clean and how elegant the bathrooms are," says Bob Kinkead. "They don't even care necessarily if the food is good or if the service is. If the restrooms are clean and sexy, they like the restaurant.

"There's a trend now toward just plain oddness, you know, the be-as-weird-as-you-can-be bathroom. I'm not like that about the food, and I didn't want the bathroom to be like that. You go in there, and what you expect to see, you see." In this case, rouge walls, flattering amber lighting, and a basket of accouterments, although no item enticed me enough to pinch.

Collins writes biweekly. E-mail her at

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