Restaurant Briefing: Designing the Restaurant Experience

Promote Your Business Restaurant Industry By American Express January 23, 2015

Some recent data underscore the importance of restaurant ambiance, notably design, decor, and music/sound. The National Restaurant Association’s 2013 National Household Survey shows that 63% of customers list decor or atmosphere as the reason to choose a tableservice restaurant. Recent data from Technomic, Inc. finds that when customers like the way a restaurant looks and feels, they tend to be happy about the whole experience – 98% who rated a restaurant’s atmosphere/ambiance as very good also rated their overall visit as excellent or good. This is even more powerful considering a conclusion from a recent study by Rewards Network – a diner’s overall experience is more important than food when it comes to return visits. With the way a restaurant looks and feels such a key contributor to a good overall dining experience, design and decor take on increased importance.

There’s no question that restaurant design, especially in tableservice, has moved away from the trappings of tradition, reflecting a more casual approach to dining – from dress to meal structure. June Jo Lee, VP, Strategic Insights, The Hartman Group, observes that in addition to the dining experience becoming more casual, it’s also become more democratized and that this, too, is reflected in design trends. “Overall, we’ve seen a transition to a much more participatory culture in restaurants, less of a distance between chefs and diners. You see more consumers engaged with chefs, sourcing, etc. When we go out we want to connect – with each other and also with the food and the chefs.” David Darling, Partner, Aidlin Darling Design, agrees. “There’s an interest in watching food being prepared, and even, in some segments, being willing to go to a counter to pick it up.” Almost symbolic of these elements – casualization, democratization, and connection – is the continuing popularity, almost ubiquity, of the open kitchen. “It’s dramatic,” says Cass Calder Smith, President/CEO, CCS Architecture. “And it provides that connection for diners with the food. Most of the time, the kitchen and/or the chef is the centerpiece of the restaurant.”

The role of chefs is extending to having an impact on design direction. “In general, we are seeing more collaboration between the food vision and the design vision to create an overall cohesive experience. We collaborate a lot with chefs,” says David. Chefs commonly want a design that reflects who they are, their food, the business, reports Cass. “They want to create a consistency.” So it’s no surprise that chefs’ sensibilities toward local, authentic, sustainable, artisanal ingredients are having an influence in the front of the house. “We’re seeing restaurants focus on bringing in many local and natural elements, and if they gut the space, they’ll expose the original ceiling and leave it untouched – for example, a beautiful mosaic with pieces missing,” says Andrew Freeman, Founder, Andrew Freeman & Co., restaurant and hospitality consultants. David’s group used a local contractor, local sources, and local materials for a recent restaurant project. “There’s layers of local and a story behind the materials,” he says.

“When Corton became Bâtard, we had an incentive to casualize the experience. We wanted to deliver great value and charge less, so we sent that message with more contemporary design elements such as butcher-block tables, no tablecloths, and wood floors. Restaurants used to be called ‘white tablecloth’; it can still be fine dining without them.” –Drew Nieporent, Owner, Myriad Restaurant Group

Adam Farmerie, Partner, AvroKO, adds that – as with the food – simplicity, quality, and authenticity are important in restaurant design. “People want a thoughtful experience – a table should be made out of solid wood; if there’s a brick wall, keep it; have a really great chair with supple leather and quality joinery. It speaks to craft and reflects on the whole restaurant.” And authenticity extends to materials such as raw and blacked steel, cement, and concrete. “It’s nice to use materials that aren’t coated,” says Cass. “Their authenticity – that helps the experience.”

But all these local/sustainable/authentic elements in restaurant design may present a challenge. “I love the idea of exposing or bringing in natural elements – woods, metals, stone, etc. My only concern is that this strong trend is going to result in a lot of cookie-cutter restaurants taking on similar looks. The challenge will be how to keep the casual nature of restaurant environments going and still define their individual identities. How much stone, brick, and recycled wood can there be?” asks Andrew. David echoes the concern. “People crave memorable experiences and reclaimed wood can be part of that, but it’s not going to be so memorable if there’s too much of it.”

When we started our firm 16 years ago, we wrote a manifesto about how our practice should work. We wanted to design for all the senses, not just the visual. Spaces are not just about what they look like, but how they feel.” David Darling, Partner, Aidlin Darling Design

One thing that will never go out of fashion is careful design. “When you do a new restaurant you want to have a noticeable, strong design – whether it’s minimalist, glamorous, maybe even flashy, the design needs to make an impact. But the strongest designs may look tired the fastest. What’s challenging is to create an impact but make it timeless,” says Cass.