Designers work to appeal to changing dining tastes.
By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor
Authenticity, the theater of food, classic materials, close attention to lighting details, and the location of bars and eateries in retail food environments are just a few of the trends in evidence in restaurant design today.
“Restaurant design is about the authenticity of materials as an expression of the authenticity of food,” said Clay Aurell, AIA, Principal, AB design studio, Santa Barbara, CA.
“Many restaurants are also trying to capture the theater of food making,” he continued. “Likely due to the rising amount of cooking shows on television today, this idea of theater in restaurant design seems to be of high interest to restaurateurs and speaks to the authentic vibe.”
In addition, operational shifts are taking place. “The restaurateurs of yesterday are moving toward a more fast-casual type scene during the day while adding more table service at night. This cuts down dramatically on staffing needs and helps a newer restaurant survive and adapt. I see adaptation as a strong concept that helps start-up food joints get through their beginning phase and into longevity,” Aurell said.
Josh Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP B+C, founding principal of Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), Princeton, NJ, echoed Aurell’s observation about authenticity. “Whether the venue is casual or formal, quick-service or high-end dining—and no matter the cuisine—a growing number of designs are showcasing exposed and raw materials. It has become not only acceptable to see concrete and steel, but even fashionable, where just a few years ago the focus on design had been all about transporting patrons into a curated atmosphere. This trend appears to be linked to an emphasis on authenticity in the menu: patrons want to be able to taste the ingredients, especially when they are paying a premium for farm-to-table or for imports. Now it seems they also want to see the architectural ingredients,” Zinder said.
This trend, he hypothesized, could have begun as a response to the economic downturn from a few years ago—exposed materials are typically a lower-cost approach to design—and was likely supported by the increase in the population of diners who are millennials. “That demographic,” he explained, “tends to prefer authentic approaches to design, food, and more.”
Another trend observed by Deborah Leigh English, IIDA, CCID, D L English Design, Pasadena, CA, is the addition of bars and eateries, sometimes multiple locations, within new and existing retail environments.
Differentiated food and beverage spaces, branded independently from the greater retail store, provide the retailer and the community several distinct benefits, English noted. “For the retailer, they act as additional revenue sources from a captive audience who comes to the location with food on their mind already, expand brand reach, and make the store more alive by providing a gathering place for the community. These spaces expand and redefine food stores from just being where locals shop for groceries to becoming where the community goes for sustenance, regardless of the delivery form,” she said.
Relaxed, casual dining in lively, well-crafted social spaces and upscale environments is increasing the preference for today’s customer. “Even in the sophisticated gastronomical mecca of Paris, dining is becoming more casual and fun, less stuffy and refined,” English observed.
“Young chefs all over are discarding fussy, formal service and rigid rules of the past and re-creating more convivial, relaxed eating and drinking places, where the food is of the highest quality, while the atmosphere is more friendly. These new chefs, in Paris, in LA with the recent food truck scene, and elsewhere around the world, are leading this rapid shift to restaurants that are more relevant to today’s rapidly changing culture—food and otherwise. What we see is a wide variety of restaurant types that fit a multitude of desires around the type of experience a diner wants to have at that given time,” she said.
Restaurant environments are reflecting that same change and becoming more in-tune with these rapidly new social norms. “Our recent projects have included designs that are a mashup of modern, fresh décor that also stays true to the historical design origins and voice of each community. We work with a relevant definition of ‘local’ and of spaces that form a vital connection to the food offerings,” English said.
“Just one of the ways this is showing up in design is the way seating is being approached,” she continued. “There is a new, heightened emphasis on creating multiple areas of experience within the same space by transforming sections into furnishing configurations that enable whatever interaction patrons are in the mood for. You can go to the same restaurant and have any social experience you want at the time: an intimate conversation with a pal eating at the bar or a lively, loud dinner party with friends. From banquettes and benches to counters and bar stools, to private rooms, outdoor patios, high tables, low tables, and community tables, we are meeting the public where they want to be, not trying to force them into a restaurateur’s preconceived notion of the experience they should have,” English said.
“When it comes to dining, variety seems to be the key. Community tables often get a bad rap from certain patrons despite their rising popularity, but depending on the concept, they can be wildly successful. However, other seating choices seem to dot the dining landscape as well. From banquet seating to creative pods, the dining experience now tries to capture a something-for-everyone modality,” Aurell commented.
Classic materials are increasingly being used in low- and high-end restaurant design, Clay Aurell related. “For example, materials such as marble and brass seem to appear more frequently, often juxtaposed with raw industrial materials, such as cold rolled steel and concrete. I’ve noticed a mix of differing styles coming together to create a singular expression that reflects not only the food, but also the restaurateur and/or chef. I find that successful restaurants will marry these ideas together for a dining experience that appears seamless to the customer,” he said.
“Just as jeans are out in the fashion world, the industrial look, characterized by salvaged wood and metals, is out in restaurant design,” commented Branko Potocnik, NCIDQ, associate principal, CetraRuddy, New York. “The replacement is sustainable design, to the exclusion of salvaged materials, and a more elegant and refined look.”
Deborah English likewise thinks the reclaimed wood, filament lamps, rustic, mercantile, barn, or farm look has played itself out. “The use of natural or tactile materials and finishes is still a major trend, however, as it connects directly with natural/organic, farm-to-table food sources—a long-term trend that shows no sign of abating,” she said. “Fast-casual restaurants are finding that a more-authentic, less-corporate visual voice is achievable and desirable to enhance the perception of their brand’s food quality. Even a small amount of hand-crafted, authentic surfaces can shift the overall feeling of the place.”
English continued, “Restaurant interiors are lightening up in terms of finishes and finishing, as well as with natural and artificial lighting, but in a way that still preserves the character of a space and doesn’t contribute to a generic, sterile atmosphere. Within that lightening, more stories are being told—the creation of visceral, dynamic physical personas for the places.”
Josh Zinder of JZA+D agreed. “A trend toward minimalist decor has been accompanied by a trend toward brighter dining rooms. Dark rooms with illumination focused on the plate seems to be a relic of the past. Again, this seems to be part of the movement toward authenticity. The minimalist decor, however, will often be broken up with a spare pop of color or, increasingly, large-scale graphics covering swaths of walls, floors, or ceilings.”
“Lighting these days is all about LED,” Zinder added. “The technology has progressed, offering more natural colors and good approximations of daylight with less cool or blue tones.”
Getting design right
What constitutes good restaurant design? “It’s important to understand the end user as well as the focus of the food. Success comes when a designer invests in the owner’s vision and goals, including who their ideal patron is. It is critical to create a team including the restaurateur, chef, and designer. An understanding of both the stated and unstated goals can only be achieved through collaboration and communication. The real excitement shows up when the visions from all parties begin to meld and transform into an aesthetic that is highly reflective of the chef’s vision and the guest experience. Successful design deals with comfort and lighting in a way that serves aesthetic and function. It is also critical in today’s environment to design for sound. With harder materials being used today, many designers overlook the overall noise generation aspects of the dining experience, such as people eating, conversing, and clanking silverware,” said Clay Aurell of AB design studio.
“Restaurant design should foster the enjoyment of one’s food and company. They should not be overpowering and take away from that experience. Visitors should feel comfortable and at ease when they enter a restaurant but no know why,” said Potocnik.
“The most important aspect, always, is to listen to the client and design to support their goals. It’s amazing how often this simple rule is broken, and the results can cause a restaurant to close its doors before it’s had a chance to find its place in the market,” Zinder said.
Finding relevance to the community and type, menu, and service level of the restaurant are the most critical aspects to creating successful projects, according to Deborah English. “We do this through purpose, story, and style—the meaningful integration of local culture into the restaurant, connecting the brand story with the community story, either literal or attitudinally. Finding common ground between the core values and goals of the brand and the community gives a visual voice to those values inside the physical space.”
Culinary tastes and the preference for fresh restaurant experiences continue to evolve. Successful restaurateurs and the designers they engage to fulfill their visions necessarily are keenly attuned to the ever-changing inclinations of patrons.
Shuffle Bar, Pasadena
Whole Foods Market hired long-time collaborators D L English Design to create a 1,200-sq.-ft. bar and restaurant with a sidewalk patio in an underused retail location in its Pasadena, CA, store. Shuffle Bar offers a modern take on the old-world pub and sports bar to appeal to local customers who have few entertainment options close to home. Through a variety of seating areas and finishes, the environment exudes the comfortable feeling of a neighborhood hangout. The game of shuffleboard is referenced in the bar logo and signage, and triangular and geometric shapes on the ceiling, windows, and floors. A regulation-length shuffleboard table allows patrons to play the game inside the space.
A friendly invitation to “Drink & Play” is called out in neon-yellow text emblazoning the ceiling and floor. Wood surfaces throughout the space add warmth. They include tabletops and bar counters, reclaimed teak applied to the walls, and porcelain tile resembling parquet. The back of a banquette appears to be weathered wood, but it turns out to be covered in wood patterned, tufted upholstery. Dark green walls recall billiard cloth and introduce a sporty ambiance. Flat-screen TVs show live games or news coverage, reflecting a growing trend among restaurants to blend food and entertainment.
110 & Bellevue, Pasadena
Located on the second level of the Whole Foods Market in Pasadena, this 1,500-sq.-ft. bar and restaurant transforms an underperforming area into a premium draw for customers from both inside and outside the store. Highly visible from within the Whole Foods Market, this sophisticated environment was created by D L English Design and the Whole Foods Market Southern Pacific Regional Design Team as an intimate place for hanging out. Open and airy, the venue is treated as a modern glass-enclosed pavilion with visual connections to the “outdoor” area of the store. Seating at the bar, cozy elliptically shaped booths, and tall tables for communal dining cater to variously sized groups.
A vaulted Lamella ceiling canopy made of crisscrossing fir trusses defines the main seating area and provides a framework for ceiling and pendant light fixtures. This atmospheric lighting is intended to be in distinct contrast to the bright retail space beyond. Downlights at the bar and ceiling have a soothing glow. Rose and bronze glass globes over tables and booths sparkle and shimmer with warmth, creating a moody space for lingering.
At the core of this project was the concept of place making—bringing renewed life to an all-but-abandoned area of Santa Barbara’s (CA) Waterfront District. AB Design Studio was tasked with converting a rundown block in the former warehouse district into a center for food, wine, community, and relaxation on a $3.6-million budget. The renewed area along the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail is dubbed “The Funk Zone.”
The existing fish warehouse and processing buildings were reconceived into three separate buildings with new parking areas, courtyards, and landscape that connect them. The old brick warehouse was maintained and re-purposed to house new restaurants and bars, as well as both an active wine maker and craft-beer brewery. The smaller building was converted into a take-out restaurant able to also serve other tenants on the site. Along the street front, a large nondescript building was given a complete overhaul with new windows and doors providing access to new tenants within the shell.
A custom-designed rusted rebar fence encloses the property and allows occasional private events. Materials used are raw, galvanized, and Cor-ten steel, corrugated roofing and siding, and large roll-up doors that help open tenant spaces to the exterior. The site includes several thousand square feet of outdoor patio space and new hardscape zones that reflect the time when this was a railroad-centric district.