Americans have more dining choices than ever, making the restaurant market hyper-competitive.
By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor
Dining out is rarely just about the food. The ambiance and the sense of a special event are equally important, and a restaurant’s design undeniably contributes to those elements. Factors such as appealing furniture, finishes, and lighting can intensify the dining experience.
Restaurants have become destinations in their own right and can be a major hook in travel and trip planning. Diners increasingly expect an authentic event—a distinct experience that relates to the community and cuisine.
Social media is a significant a part of the changing restaurant scene, too. Many restaurateurs are conscious of creating opportunities for image sharing on social media, including Instagrammable plates. Just as important is the ability of customers to read reviews and search online for restaurants that meet their dining preferences. Technology has evolved that combines restaurant discovery and reservations. Even car services such as Uber have gotten into the act by creating lists of places for particular appetites and occasions.
Social media doesn’t stop at rating a restaurant’s food, ambiance, or service. Now a new app will allow diners to rate the noise levels at their favorite eatery. The iHEARu app (ihearu.co) recently launched in San Francisco, the first city in what promoters hope will become a global network to help consumers find “ear-friendly” public places. With the free app, users can measure decibel levels at all kinds of establishments, but restaurants will likely be a key target as a growing number of consumers seek out dining spots where they can carry on a conversation over a meal, said Kelly Tremblay, founder and CEO of Lend An Ear, a Seattle-based organization behind the iHEARu app.
Users can open the app in any restaurant and map it, then press a button to make a recording to determine sound levels, according to Lend An Ear. Users can also add comments about their own subjective experience and share it through Facebook or social media. As more data is collected, the app will be able to predict what times of day a restaurant is quieter, the developer promises.
Plant walls are another restaurant feature that is gaining popularity. The plants naturally absorb sound and are visually calming, a counterbalance to the hard industrial look that has characterized many dining establishments in recent years. Vida, in Indianapolis, takes greenery a step further; the plant wall houses rows of hydroponic lettuces and herbs that the chef incorporates into his dishes.
Old school is back in restaurant design, according to some industry observers, proving that culture is cyclical. Just as a certain segment of the population finds vinyl records and other “retro” artifacts appealing, French restaurants, that were once thought of as the height of sophistication but then were dismissed as stuffy and stodgy, are enjoying something of a resurgence, even if many are not overtly labeled “French.” They are also more casual and relaxed than their historical counterparts. Even steak houses are said to be back in fashion, perhaps as a reaction to social and political instability or nostalgia. Older people and hipsters are reported to equally appreciate classic vibes.
Not everything remains the same or harks back to simpler days, however. Sit-down restaurants face changing dining habits. Grocery stores, sometimes called grocerants, are increasingly offering in-store dining experiences. The variant is meals to go, either from grocery stores or table-service restaurants themselves—even the pricier ones. Some dine-in places will even bring your order to your car. Many accept online and mobile orders and allow electronic payment in advance.
Another dining option that competes with more traditional restaurants is the food hall—not to be confused with a food court. A food court may have a dozen fast-food restaurants sharing space, a common landlord, and a seating area. By contrast, the food hall is a hybrid of the food court and the old public market. Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, for example, is a classic public market.
A food hall generally features fresh food prepared as you watch. It tends to be a post-industrial space with high ceilings, hanging ductwork, and exposed wiring. It also tends to be noisy and seating runs toward the communal. Above all, food halls are described as “authentic”—the buzzword of a generation. The emphasis is on food. Forget service, reservations, or a private table.
Developers tend to love food halls as anchors or amenities for luxury rental towers or corporate office buildings.
Restaurants are a revitalizing force in urban life. Just look at any new urbanist development in any major city. Dining and entertainment are key factors in keeping the streets lively day and night and in attracting residents and businesses.
However, the restaurant business is hyper-competitive. Alternate dining options, such as take-outs, delivery, and food halls, all vie for the dining dollar. That’s all the more reason for restaurants to strive for the kind of ambiance and uniqueness that are still drawing cards.
Dining Destinations Express City’s Identity
Part of Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons, two street-level restaurants are a collaboration between McIntosh Poris Associates, Birmingham, MI (mcintoshporis.com), and Delaware North Sportservice, Buffalo, NY, a division of global hospitality and food service provider Delaware North (delawarenorth.com).
The District Market (districtmarketdetroit.com) is a 7,600-sq.-ft. modern food hall, and Kid Rock’s Made in Detroit (kidrockrestaurant.com) is a 5,600-sq.-ft restaurant and bar with a stage for performances.
“We designed these adjoining destinations to express Detroit’s identity and have a positive impact on the arena and the surrounding neighborhood,” said architect Michael Poris, AIA, principal of McIntosh Poris Associates. “So many sports venues only come to life on game days. We made sure the restaurant and market draw customers on game days and non-game days alike, bringing life to this part of downtown at all hours of the day and night,” he said.
The new Little Caesars Arena is the centerpiece of The District Detroit, a 50-block, mixed-use area connecting Downtown and Midtown that includes eight theaters, three professional-sports venues, businesses, apartments, restaurants, retail, and planned development. Kid Rock’s Made in Detroit restaurant and bar, the District Market, and the shared kitchen located in between them are situated on the arena’s ground floor. Both the restaurant and market have a public entrance on Woodward Avenue as well as from inside the Little Caesars Arena concourse (called the Via).
Kid Rock’s Made In Detroit
Detroit’s native son Kid Rock (Robert James Ritchie) collaborated with McIntosh Poris Associates and Delaware North on the design of the 230-seat restaurant in the arena so it would express his personality and musical interests. The musician’s first restaurant concept is meant to draw fans, event goers, and people from outside the arena. A small performance stage for showcasing up-and-coming musical talents is part of the interior, along with various seating areas and a spacious bar.
“At first, we presented three different design concepts to Kid Rock—urban, street, and country—all based on his music, thinking he would pick one,” said Poris. “He liked all three, so we drew on what he called his ‘creatively confused’ identity and combined the different influences throughout the project. He wanted this to be a place he would be comfortable hanging out in.”
The centerpiece of the space is a wall designed to resemble the American flag with vintage speakers lining the red stripes, next to illuminated stars. This patriotic symbol serves as the backdrop to the stage. Kid Rock memorabilia, including photos and guitars, is displayed throughout the interior. Eclectic furnishings include leather Chesterfield sofas, faux-cowhide-upholstered seating, and vinyl flooring resembling worn wood to capture the feeling of what Kid Rock calls the “Redneck Plaza.” Delaware North chefs worked with Kid Rock to create a menu that mixes classic Detroit and Southern-influenced dishes, along with traditional comfort foods and bar fare.
Building on Detroit’s rich history of neighborhood markets, the District Market reinterprets the food hall for today through a sophisticated, contemporary design within Little Caesars Arena. Owner Olympia Development, Detroit (ilitchholdings.com), in conjunction with client Delaware North, charged Poris and the design team with creating the concept from branding to the station designs. In developing the market, architect Poris studied popular food halls throughout the country and consulted with food service expert Next Step Design, Annapolis, MD (nextstepdesign.com).
“Like the Kid Rock restaurant, District Market’s design is a hybrid of different elements,” said Poris. “We combined aspects of urban and farmers markets and food stalls into an upscale, gourmet destination for casual dining.”
Food stations offer everything from salads to hearty meals and cocktails. Customers can create their own meals or choose from handmade sandwiches, burritos, and pastries, which are baked by Zingerman’s of Ann Arbor, MI (zingermansdeli.com). The architects worked with the New York graphic-design firm Patricia Spencer Design (psdnyc.com) to give each station its own identity, while maintaining a cohesive look throughout the interior. Patrons can take their food to go or stay and eat in the market’s dining areas. The quick-service stations and seating areas throughout the open space are finished in materials drawn from Detroit’s industrial and Arts-and-Crafts-style heritage, including copper, concrete, tile, and metal mesh, to further connect the market to the city.
Coffee For Sasquatch
Dan Brunn Architecture, Los Angeles (danbrunn.com) transformed an existing bare space into the first Coffee For Sasquatch (coffeeforsasquatch.com) in Los Angeles by implementing a playful, modern design. The Melrose Avenue coffee shop creates a mystical environment evoking the forest where Sasquatch lives.
The front of the store features an outline of the hairy folkloric creature with surrounding real, living greenery to add depth and texture to the space. The service counter, finished in beechwood, extends from the plantings to symbolize a growing tree branch from the forest. A mix of materials and an abstract mural continue the essence of the wilderness and create a visually dynamic environment. Custom-designed built-in seating curves along the walls and coffee bar to provide comfortable spaces for eating, drinking, and socializing. These distinctive elements are clearly visible through the new storefront to create an iconic image for the shop along the street.
Upon entry, customers are welcomed by an 11-ft.-tall representation of the brand’s Sasquatch logo made of brown powder-coated steel and set within a 7-in.-deep living plant wall. Sasquatch, known for being predominately frightening, serves as the shop’s friendly mascot to greet and intrigue patrons. The living green wall, designed in collaboration with Habitat Horticulture, Los Angeles (habitathorticulture.com) features a range of plant species inspired by the natural forest, such as Velvet Leaf philodendron, male fern, Blue Star polypodium, southern maiden-hair fern, button fern, and Norfolk Island pine.
From the entrance, customers are drawn in by a central axis accentuated by light and volume. This catwalk-like path ignites a feeling of movement and appears to elongate the space. A Barrisol, Kembs, France (barrisol.com), ceiling stretches over LED lights to create an ethereal glow above the pathway. The ceiling is designed as an inverted pitched roof to create a sense of endless height. Flowing artificial vines hang from the light coves in the coffee shop, as well as in the bathrooms, for additional greenery and mystery in the space.
The beechwood service counter represents a tree branch emerging from the forest and seamlessly extends through merchandise and food display cases to an integral bench where coffee purveyors can relax while waiting for their orders. DBA designed this bench and bar area to encourage employee interaction and engagement with customers. Rather than hide baristas from view, the scale and form of the coffee bar serve to invite dialogue. A variety of materials have been used to add texture to the space, such as the natural beechwood counter, terrazzo floors and seating areas, and “Calacatta Nuvo” Caesarstone, Northridge, CA (caesarstoneus.com), on the coffee bar, backsplash, and menu board. Custom-designed menu graphics provide easy visibility on both sides of the board.
In contrast to the sharp lines of the path, the built-in seating areas at the heart of the coffee shop are defined by flowing, curved surfaces of poured-in-place terrazzo. Curved-wood chairs designed and manufactured by the Swedish company Hem (us.hem.com) in European beech extend the forest theme. DBA custom-designed beechwood tables with soft angles to tie the curves of the chairs and seating built-ins together.
On the wall opposite the Sasquatch vertical garden, a site-specific, hand-painted abstract mural created by Oakland-based artist Hueman (huemannature.com) evokes the mystery of the forest. Titled “The Mist,” the image features gray cloud forms, along with geometric shapes, to represent the unknown and secretive world inhabited by the giant creature. The light-colored walls and ceiling form a pale envelope to showcase the mural, living wall, wood furniture, and surfaces within the interior.
Traditional And Contemporary Mix In Osteria
Architect Fabio Ferrillo, founder of the Milanese studio OFF Arch (offarch.it), has created a surprising shop-restaurant that balances traditional echoes with a contemporary mood. A warm and sophisticated ambience recalls the tradition of the region and reinterprets its DNA with up-to-date accents. The space incorporates a small shop and cocktail bar, a technically advanced kitchen, and a dining room decorated with a statement “carpet,” but in marble.
Campamac, a high-end osteria established by Michelin-starred chef Emilio Garola and international manager Paolo Dalla Mora, is located in Barbaresco, province of Cuneo, in the heart of Italy’s Langhe region.
Ferrillo describes the restaurant as a complex challenge, an ambitious and exciting project. “I followed some English vibes,” he said, “though remaining strongly connected to the land and to the view to the valley and Monviso mountain. I designed every single detail, from lighting to furniture, establishing a dialogue between the concrete walls and the town of Barbaresco, but filtering the view to the outside through a green, tropical scenery.”
An almost-hidden staircase leads to the cellar, the second heart of the Campamac experience besides the kitchen. Here the wine is stored in the infernòt—a typical underground space carved in tuff, a type of rock made of volcanic ash. A scenographic central table in marble and iron, conceived by the architect, highlights the space.
Campamac is not just a restaurant, but also a high-end osteria where everything is for sale. In the small shop, fresh bread and pasta, the local meat cuts, and sauces and jams are available for purchase. Also available are plates, appropriate glasses for Nebbiolo wine, and artworks, such as Another View, a video installation of a window overlooking the Venetian Carnival from Palazzo Pisani, or Sweeper’s Clock by Danish designer Maarten Baas.