who wants tacos?


once upon a time taco bell and i were born…

Have you noticed all the Taco Bell chatter lately? Makes me a bit nostalgic. There was a Taco Bell next to my dorm at San Diego State all those years ago. In the light of day you’d never catch me there, but after midnight all bets were off. Sometime around 1am, when I was done (ahem) studying, those greasy little tacos called my name.

tacos in college

It seems the same is true of today’s college students. My daughter, who avoids dairy and gluten due to digestive issues, succumbed to a Taco Bell burrito late one night recently. I’m sure it was after a long bout of (ahem) studying. Not a good move for her, but she was swept up in the college taco tide along with a group of friends.

And this seems to be the tide that Taco Bell continues to rely on for some pretty sustained recent growth. After graduation I lost track of Taco Bell, aside from noticing they teamed up with KFC in a few locations (an odd match I thought). And that was probably fine with them. Somehow, even with all of the cultural moves toward healthy eating, SLOW food and the like, Taco Bell has managed to maintain the interest of the ever hungry 18-22 year old set.

old taco style: al fresco

When Taco Bell popped up in my feed 3 times in the last month I sat up and took notice. While they have made some effort to offer some healthier options (um, Dorito taco anyone?), what Taco Bell seems to really be focusing on is image. Taco Bell’s original style (if you’re a child of the 70s you’ll recognize that photo at the top of the page) was unique. The brick facade, arches, tile roof and the ever present bell didn’t veer off theme for a couple of decades. If you wanted to sit you did so outside, usually next to a fire pit. Sometime in the 80s the iconic style changed to suburban strip mall and lost most of its charm.

new taco style: beer and wifi

Then last year there was the shipping container store introduced at SXSW. And now Taco Bell is introducing 4 new store styles with an end game, it seems, of getting customers to stay rather than go (slow food rather than SLOW food I presume). Their new concepts include wifi, lounge seating, some have fireplaces, there is natural wood, gray (the color du jour it seems), modern art, mid-century seating, Victorian light fixtures and they’re even testing alcohol in a few locations. According to FastCo, it’s a mashup of every current design trend.

Taco Bell seems to be holding on to just a tiny bit of their own visual history. There’s the occasional pop of fireclay orange. Some of the themes use the textured brick of decades past. But overall, this is a complete overthrow. It will be interesting to see how this generation of Taco Bell fares with the current generation of technology toting college student.

Keep in touch,

my favorite restaurant design competition winner is….

…not from the US. As a matter of fact, there was only one US winner this year in the Restaurant and Bar Design Awards 2015. Parq Restaurant, San Diego, won in the ‘colour’ (it’s a competition out of the UK) category. More on our one winner later.


In the meantime, let’s look at who else short listed. And if you play the bi-coastal best restaurant game, notice that there are 3 entries short-listed from New York and 3 entries short listed from California. And there are 4 entries that are located inside hotels….nice to see this trend continuing. And yes, I know I included a potty shot below. The whole of Mourad is beautiful, but the bathrooms have me swooning. Something else I noticed across the board….a lot of gold. Does this mean we are coming to the end of the reclaimed-from-an-old-barn look? Can we (hopefully) continue to use sustainable materials without having them look like we pulled them out of the basement?  Oh lordy, one can only hope.

lordy people we can be sustainable and still see an end to the reclaimed-from-an-old-barn look Click To Tweet

Short List

all photos courtesy Restaurant and Bar Design Awards and the design teams involved: Studio Munge, Meyer Davis Studio, Dawson Design Associates, Lundberg Design, nemaworkshop, Emporium Design, hOmE Studio and Bluarch.

The winner is…

And our one and only US winner is Parq Restaurant and Nightclub in the GasLamp District of San Diego. Congratulations to Davis Ink on their win! It is definitely a colour-ful space!

all photos courtesy Restaurant and Bar Design Awards and Davis Ink.

Enjoy the pretty pictures. I certainly do!

Keep in touch,

can you hear me now?


noise vs sound

NOISE: that would be the down side of sound. Restaurants generate an inordinate amount of it….kitchen pots, dishwashers, bus tubs, clinking silverware, conversation, ringing phones, music, etc. In restaurants some sound is sound and some sound is noise and all of it is part of the acoustics of your restaurant. Acoustics is one of the invisible design elements that many restaurateurs ignore until they start getting complaints. STOP IT! Ignoring the acoustics of your restaurant until after you open is more expensive than addressing acoustics during the design process. In both dollars and lost customers. And as we, your customers, continue to age, we get more and more sensitive to noise.

#2 customer complaint? noise!

This year’s Zagat survey puts noise as the #2 complaint of restaurant goers (service was #1….and we’ve already talked about that). I’ve gotta agree. Hubby and I ate at a local restaurant a couple of weeks ago, one that we really enjoy most of the time, and nearly had to walk out. It was early and the restaurant wasn’t very crowded. So the large table of women at the front of the restaurant, who were apparently having a very good time, were painfully audible. Their shrill laughter bounced off the brick walls, ricocheted off the very high plaster ceiling, and reverberated with deafening clarity in our eardrums. The server kept apologizing, or at least that’s what it looked like she was doing since we couldn’t actually hear her. Once the dining room filled with more diners, the sound level evened out and, while this table of women didn’t quiet, the ambient sound of the room backfilled the sound of their laughter. Those in the world of acoustics call this masking.

don’t wait till noise is a problem

So, would you have known that what was needed was more sound to ease our pain? Guessing probably not. One restaurateur had the good sense to realize that what he knows is food and service, and he hired the experts to deal with noise BEFORE he opened his restaurant. During the design process John Paluska, of Berkeley’s Comal, hired engineers to create a system to dampen, move and adjust the sound of his restaurant. While this is a very sophisticated system and may not be necessary in your restaurant, you do still need to address your room’s acoustics. That is if you want me, or anyone like me, to eat there more than once.

Back to our local eatery, as a designer I would recommend the owner hire an acoustical engineer to work with a designer (yes, me) to create something to ease the acoustical pain. If even that is too big an order, then at the very least hire a designer who has done restaurant work (again, me) to at the very least put some bandaids on the pain. We can add acoustical panels and sound absorbing materials to dampen and separate some of the sound. And do it soon….because you have some of the most delicious green chile stew I’ve ever had!

good acoustics is part of good design

When you open your next restaurant, be a hero. Hire whoever you need to get your acoustics right…this may be an invisible design element, but your customers care about their auditory comfort. They may not compliment you on your acoustical brilliance, but they’ll certainly complain if you ignore their ears. And we all hate whiny customers, right?

Keep in touch,

ps….you can totally ignore my blatant self promotion, but please don’t ignore my message. You are an amazing restaurateur, hire someone with amazing acoustical chops to deal with the sound of your restaurant.

design isn’t pretty…sometimes it’s angry


Every so often I become the angry designer. Especially when I hear things like ‘I know what I want it to look like….I can design it myself’. Or ‘it doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to be good’. One local restaurateur, whose restaurants I no longer frequent, had the incredible lack of class to tell me that all west coast designers are unimaginative and their restaurant designs all look the same. And he and I have never worked together, so I know first hand that he hasn’t experienced ‘all west coast designers’. Beside which what we do is only minimally about what it looks like. Can you hear me growling?

Steve Jobs said it best.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

You don’t need me, or someone like me, to make your restaurant pretty or your website flashy. You don’t need us to use the ‘in’ colors or the latest coolest fonts. You don’t need us to tell you how to be hip and trendy and current.

Design Solves Problems

You need a designer to help you create business solutions so that your business can fly. You need us to have the knowledge to put all of the pieces of your business puzzle together and tell your business story, allowing you to do what you do best: run your amazing business!

Designers know that if you are designing a restaurant you need to consider equipment, acoustics, lighting, style of service, furnishings, ventilation, codes, budget and so much more. We bring expertise in all of these areas and we have relationships with the people who will do much of this work….we don’t just show up at the end and make it pretty!

And designers know that if you are designing a website you need to consider hosts and domains and content management systems and landing pages, CTAs and KPIs and CSS. This knowledge is what we bring. And if we’re talking about a designer who also creates content (like yours truly), we also bring an innate ability to listen and synthesize and build the story of your business. We don’t just make your site flashy!

You don't need me to make it pretty. You need me to make it work. #partinotes Click To Tweet

You Can Do It Yourself

But if you do, understand what you are taking on. Your business needs to work well and look good. So when you are done, and you need to hire a designer to fix what isn’t working, please have the courtesy to treat us with respect. We studied for years before we took our first jobs, and the knowledge that we have amassed to help you build your business was hard won. So next time you are in conversation with a designer, please don’t mention pretty. We are so much more than that.

an abundance of tufting

My favorite design contest, Restaurant and Bar Design Awards is gearing up with entries due before April 19. Out of only 37 entries to date here are the 5 from the US. I’m seeing a lot of tufting and nailheads this year. And an abundance of wood finishes. Check these out and get your entry in if you’ve got one this year…let’s show the world how brilliant we US designers are!

Hootan & Associates Design Studio (Southern CA) created Bosscat Kitchen and Libations featuring whiskey and southern style cooking in Newport Beach, CA.

Heitler Houstoun Architects (NYC) created Gypsy Kitchen featuring Spanish cuisine with a dose of Moroccan influence in Atlanta, GA.

AvroKO (NYC) created Momotaro featuring a collision of Japanese cuisine and mid century American style in Chicago, IL.

CCS Architecture (SF and NYC) created TAP (415), an upscale burger bar with a wall of, you guessed it, taps for beer wine and cocktails in San Francisco’s Westfield Mall.

And finally, another entry from Heitler Houstoun Architects (NYC). The Southern Gentleman is a gastropub that features a modern take on southern hospitality in Atlanta, GA.

Keep in touch,

about restaurant lighting

You’ve been out to eat, right? So you know the difference between eating at the local fast food joint and that fancy white tablecloth place downtown. Aside from the food, the furnishings are different, the colors, the art and probably most significantly the lighting. Restaurant is theater. As a designer, I am tasked with creating a space that meets the aesthetic and operational needs of the owner/operator whether this is a fast food place, fast casual, casual or formal. Based on these needs I recommend where the POS stations will be, how the floor staff will interact with the kitchen staff to communicate and pick up food, where tablecloths will be stored so that they are accessible to staff, where the host will be located to greet guests and guide them to a table, choose furnishings and finishes that set the stage, help with art, etc. The single most important part of restaurant design just might be lighting, because if that is not done well and effectively, everything else will be diminished at best and a massive failure at worst. Lighting a service area is accomplished very differently from lighting at table tops, and this is not just about light levels: it’s also about the type of lighting, the color of the light, the orientation and location of the light, the quality and quantity of light and even the special effects of the lighting.

Great designers are all about the lighting no matter what type of restaurant they are working on. Based on the design, they create and coordinate a lighting scheme that enhances both the design and the operation. And just as they don’t build the furniture that they specify, they will hire and coordinate a consultant to craft the lighting design. When this partnership is done well, you won’t even notice. When it’s not done well, you can’t miss it.

all photos courtesy Yabu Pushelberg/Evan Dion

At Yabu Pushelberg they get lighting. They created The Clement at The Peninsula Hotel in New York and the lighting is gorgeous. (Restaurant & Bar Design has a nice writeup). Check it and remember how important lighting is when you do your next project. Your guests will thank you.

Keep in touch,

a devilish hot weekend


Have you been up to the northern reaches of Sonoma County in the last, say, 6 years? Hubby is doing a 100 mile bicycle ride through wine country in a few weeks (the Giro Bello ride to benefit the Rotary Club’s charities if you want to join him), so yesterday we drove about half the course and ended up in the tiny little town of Geyserville. The ride is gorgeous through vineyards, farms, winding country roads and rolling hills with rest stops at a couple of wineries. Not sure I could enjoy it as much on a bicycle, but beautiful from our air conditioned car!

By the time we arrived in Geyserville it was late afternoon. We’d worked in our garden all morning then jumped in the car to check out his route…lunch hadn’t seemed important at the time. So at 4pm in 100 degree weather I was verging on ‘hangry’ as my good friend Patty says. Hungry and angry. Hubby is gluten free, so the deli wasn’t an option, the cafe was closing for the day, and Diavola was two doors down and serving a limited menu. I don’t speak any Italian, but I know diavola and I think I was channeling her, so it seemed like a match.

Diavola opened in 2008 under the tutelage of Chef Dino Bugica who hailed from nearby Santi (now closed). Bugica’s love of salumi stems from years spent in Italian butcher shops learning the trade. At Diavolo they make their own salumi as well as some amazing pizza. The restaurant consists of a front room where the pizza oven takes center stage with the bar on one side and tables on the other. At the front end of the bar is the chef’s table over which hang meat hooks holding the curing house made salumi. Kind of like the ducks in the window in Chinatown but way better. We were seated in the second dining room, just off the main room. And lucky we were….the heat was stressing the building’s power and intermittently shutting it down along with the lights and air conditioning…it was nice to be away from the pizza oven, pretty as it is!

After powering down a litre of ice water and all of the delicious skinny breadsticks they brought when we sat down, we relaxed enough (barely) to look around and see what a cute place Diavola is. Brick and plaster walls, old fir flooring, a (fake) tin ceiling and rustic furniture. Kitchen towels as napkins are always a favorite of mine…whenever we travel that’s what I collect. Loving anything spicy, we chose the Inferno pizza…roasted red peppers, tomatoes, basil, provolone, mozzarella and spicy peppers. We didn’t even need to add the spicy house made oil provided at each table. In our haste to get food on the table, we forgot to ask our server for gluten free crust, so lucky me I got to eat more than my share while my hubby nibbled at a slice or two muttering ‘stomach be damned’ under his breath. We also shared their mixed green salad which was anything but typical. Mixed greens with pine nuts, gorgonzola, radish, bacon and fried fava beans which were amazing. It was all dressed in a slightly sweet vinaigrette. I could totally eat a whole bowl of the fried fava beans and happily not share a single one.

I’m looking forward to driving the second half next weekend and finding another undiscovered (by me) treasure….I clearly need to get out more! And if we by chance end up at Diavola again, we will make sure it is during lunch or dinner when we can enjoy the full menu and maybe even sit on their adorable patio. Presuming it isn’t 100 degrees.

Have a great week…I hope you get to explore something new,

Diavola Pizzeria/Salumeria
21021 Geyserville Avenue, Geyserville
open seven days a week, lunch and dinner