Eating in restaurants is a phenomenological, sensory experience that renews itself over and again. Endless combinations of cuisine, chefs, location, décor, and the friends and family with whom we dine means that we’ll never tire of enjoying a meal from beyond our own kitchens, and we’ll never stop agonizing as to where we’ll go. The decision making process can start with cuisine, unless there’s a particular chef the party has in mind, or else location needs to be the prime factor to accommodate busy schedules. Maybe price will dictate the restaurant. But what about that quiet underdog of a restaurant’s make-up: design? We’ve all seen it listed at the bottom of the review: “ambience,” or “décor” followed by a rating, and the sort of sensual words (cozy, warm, or cold, sterile) you’d be pressed to find under other amenities like “accepts credit cards.” A restaurant’s atmosphere can make or break date night, and heartily contributes to the mood, comfort, and overall experience of an evening out.
Even the most fluorescently lit, linoleum-lined take out joints have been designed. When we crave food that’s fast and cheap, often we’re craving something beyond just the means to fulfill our appetites. The take out joint’s whitewashed walls and fingerprinted counters have the power to satisfy our cravings as much as the grease smeared chicken for which there is never enough tissue-thin napkins. We crave the entire experience of particular places, not just their food. It’s the job of restaurant designers to instill a desire for more than just what the chef serves, and to curate an experience for diners that both complements and elevates the meal.
At restaurants where the food itself is designed (artfully transformed from raw ingredients to dishes to visual feasts via plate presentation), diners expect the quality of décor to match the caliber of ingredients and their unique combinations. Designers have a lengthy list of considerations. Everything from menu design to furniture selection to lighting to artwork to staff uniforms comprise a restaurant’s complete image; to be a brand, all these elements in combination with the food must be complementary. Designers and restaurant owners set out to create a brand that will have impact enough on patrons that they return again and again. Such an image demands cohesiveness. But cohesive is a blanket term, meaning only “whole.” How designers round out the whole can involve innovative and unique play with visuals, sounds, and tactile materials.
Restaurant designers look to the particular neighborhood, the typical customers, and the restaurant’s menu for inspiration. At Graffiato in Chicago, designers chose to use large, bold artworks by a local artist. Not only was it an economical choice, but also it complets a young, quirky vibe that suits the chef’s personality and the restaurant’s demographic. At Asselina in New York, designers chose materials like wood and earthy-toned, naturally textured fabrics for a natural, warm feel that complemented the rustic cuisine. The idea is for a restaurant not merely decorated, but whose construct has meaning in light of the establishment’s brand.
Designers also have an obligation to retain and forward the image of a restaurant. For the remodeling of Le Bernardin, which needed an update a its closed-off design holding on from decades ago, the designers at Bentel & Bentel used lighting techniques to open the space, a waterfall to fill in dead acoustics, and played with seating and table settings to create a more dynamic, welcoming environment without doing away with Le Bernardin’s classy midtown ambience. To ensure that the brand remained consistent despite modern design changes, the firm retained Le Bernardin’s original ceiling. It’s choices like these, ones that shape and modernize a restaurant’s image without damaging its iconicity, that are the benchmarks of successful restaurant design.
Design shapes restaurants and the way we enjoy them. Through seating arrangements we can be encouraged to engage with neighbors, making the experience about food and community. Through physical materials and furniture, we can be lulled into a mood that allows us to better appreciate particular elements of the food. Through artwork and sound we can better understand the personality of those behind our plates’ inspirations. We will be drawn back to those places where all these elements come together, because not even the most impressive menu offerings can sate our appetite for the complete experience of a night out.