what does restaurant design look like?

People eat out for two reasons: the food and the experience. Sometimes one takes precedence over the other, but for a restaurant to truly succeed, both must be deliberately addressed.

Last month I traveled with my daughter for a couple of weeks. We ate out….a lot. By chance we ate in 3 restaurants all owned by the same restaurant group. When we sat down in the third restaurant, I told her I thought all three were owned by the same people, or at least designed by the same group. Being my child, she of course challenged me. How could I know that? They had different names, different menus, different looks. Really they didn’t have much in common aesthetically at all.

I dug in and sure enough they are all part of the same group of restaurants. It made me wonder….what had I seen that made me so sure? I didn’t go into any of the kitchens or wait stations, so it wasn’t about functional design. I just sat down, ate my meal, visited the restroom (I always check out the restroom). Clearly, a well designed restaurant is seen in the details, it doesn’t hit you over the head.


When we walked into each restaurant we were greeted immediately by a host stand. We knew where we were supposed to go to be seated. There was no wandering around wondering if we were supposed to seat ourselves, if this was the front, etc. Point of entry is one of the most important places to make an impression on a new diner. You know that pithy saying….you only get one chance to make a first impression. It matters when you are the diner walking into an unknown situation.


The chairs were the right height for the tables, the tables were the right size for the plates, serveware, cutlery, etc. When I sat in each restaurant I was able to cross my legs without rubbing my knee in the last diner’s child’s wad of bubblegum. And I didn’t have to give away the salt and pepper in order to make room for my glass of water. Designers look at many things when designing seating and tables. Will the fabric on the booth create static cling when you stand up? Not a good look. Does the chair have arms so that someone larger than the average bear will be uncomfortably asking for another seat? Huge no no. Will it stand up to years of abuse or crumble under a diner after three months? Does the table have legs that will interfere with human legs?


We could see our menus and our food, and even though we were sitting next to a window we weren’t bothered by glare. Layering the light successfully isn’t easy. Yes, there needs to be enough light to make the pathway from door to table clear. That’s called ambient light. It lights the room overall. But once at the table a little more directed light is required to see the table top, the menu, the food when it arrives. And maybe there is some decorative light in various locations around the restaurant to highlight art or a wall or something that illustrates restaurant concept. Never light the diner from above…that weird ghostly look with deep shadows under your eyes won’t impress your date. If the restaurant has many windows, a designer will have considered how to protect from glare. If you’re staring at your date and all you see is a silhouette, someone wasn’t paying attention to design.


Of course there is a sign outside that says the name of the restaurant. That’s not the end of graphics though. When you’re sitting at your table, how do you know which way to go to get to the restroom? There is usually a sign, but does it fit with the decor? Is it easy to read? Is it visible from most places in the dining room? The restroom signs in all three restaurants did all three…they fit, they were legible, and they were visible. And the menus, while each was unique, fit the decor and concept of each restaurant.


Restroom design is a big deal in my book. Designing the restroom so that it looks like it belongs in its restaurant is the biggest of big deals. If the restaurant is selling steak for $65 a plate and the restroom looks like it belongs at the gas station down the street, no designer was involved in the project. The restrooms at all three of these restaurants were the biggest give away I suppose. They were all well done and each was unique, but they all had the same sleek and efficient fixtures and accessories. My daughter thought it was ridiculous that my thinking was confirmed by a toilet. Be that as it may, the comfort of the restrooms was clearly thought about and designed. Toilets, mirrors, accessories were all well located.

is it really all that important?

While traveling we ate at a restaurant in Edinburgh that had stellar food. The chef was clearly gifted. The dining room was confusing at best. There was something that looked like a coffee bar at the entry with no host or sign to tell us what to do/where to go. The tables were too low for the chairs. The chairs were of varying heights with cushions attempting to make up the difference. The banquette back was at a 90 degree angle to the seat. I couldn’t see to read the menu. Our expectations were low, but the food was amazing. Clearly the chef had a vision for the food, but perhaps not the time/inclination/money to hire someone to design the restaurant.

Sometimes design isn’t possible for any number of reasons, but I posit that if this restaurant were well designed, it would be winning awards and gaining audience. If you’re traveling in Scotland, hit me up and I’ll give you the name. One day, hopefully, they will decide to hire a designer and match experience to food.

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