Restaurant design trends emphasize, light, comfort, social aspects of dining

With the competitive landscape so challenging for restaurants, and diners having so many choices in the Metro-D.C. area, the design and comfort of restaurants is more crucial than ever. An inviting, comfortable interior can call out to passerbys. A layout that is warm, well-lit and cozy can be part of a great dining experience when it is paired with amazing service. Think Rose’s Luxury in the city, or Barley Mac just across the river in Arlington, Va., or Summer House Santa Monica at Pike & Rose in North Bethesda, Md.—all of these are transports to another world—a place where design meets the needs of diners looking for a unique, and memorable culinary excursion.

With mid-tier casual dining restaurants finding incremental business elusive, fast-casual and polished casual dining eateries have come into their own. D.C. has been a churning factory for concepts in these segments and entrepreneurs in the space have done well when carefully establishing these brands and giving them unique design, appeal and identities. For example, Cava, Sweetgreen, &Pizza, and Beefsteak are all brands with a unique and very memorable look in the fast-casual space.


In the presence of “so many barn wood and subway tile clad restaurants, brands are looking for ways to stand out and make their mark in the fast-casual & upscale casual space,” says Sarah Pike, art director for starrdesign, a Charlotte, N.C.-based design and branding firm.“ In restaurant design, customizing the space and making it stand out are some of the imperatives of experienced design firms. For starrdesign, it’s important to make spaces feel signature.

“We use non-commercial photography and text in our environmental graphic program and incorporate curated installations in the space, adds Pike. “We create signature patterns with branded colors, and we often design custom wall coverings, tile, hand rails, and even planters.”

Eatery Pulse restaurant documentary film - Jonathan Phillips
Neon lighting wraps around a table in one of the booths at Cowfish. Photo by Jonathan Phillips

Having curated pieces as part of the design of a restaurant and details that form a space that is memorable and leads to easy recall is smart. Not only can it elevate the experience, but also form a seamless thread of the brand and identity for the restaurant. Customizing light features and having tailored touches add to the branding and make the restaurant a destination, she says.

Custom lighting features like the ones at Barley Mac, in Arlington, Va., have become part of the brand identity and allow customers to take away the signature aspects of those fixtures as part of their stored memory. The restaurant has additional touches that are ubiquitous like a column designed with cork around it, complementing its bourbon bar identity and a wall of top-shelf spirits and whiskey.

Barley Mac has additional touches that are ubiquitous on site, like a column designed with cork around it, complementing its bourbon bar identity and a wall of top-shelf spirits and whiskey.
Barley Mac has additional touches that are ubiquitous on site, like a column designed with cork around it, complementing its bourbon bar identity and a wall of top-shelf spirits and whiskey.

“We have seen a mixture of patterns and textures to make big brands feel more boutique in nature,” Pike says.“ Artifacts and repurposed treasures are thoughtfully incorporated into the interior design. Being eclectic is another design trend”, she adds.

The importance of light, comfort

Customers are looking for design that is open and feels like it has more space for a better dining experience, notes Adam Williamowsky, director of restaurants at Streetsense, a design and strategy firm based in Bethesda, Md. Diners don’t want to feel like they are being sandwiched together with tables nearly on top of each The challenge for restaurateurs is to find a balance between maximizing the profit of a dining space (seats per square foot) and making a dining room comfortable enough with adequate distance between tables.

Bars as a centerpiece of the restaurant are still in vogue. Restaurateurs do well when they accommodate single diners and small groups with bar seating and high top tables. Communal tables are not as popular as they once were, notes Williamowsky, but large tables can be effective in creating last-minute and non-reservation seating for singles and couples.

When lighting and seating can come together in a very unique fashion, this can add to the allure of the space and give it energy. This is evident at the Cowfish restaurant in Atlanta, Ga., a starrdesign client. The firm also sees the use of a lot of white and yellow to create bright spaces in health-oriented brands. The way lighting is integrated into a restaurant space can help make it functional for all dayparts.


Elements of ‘openness’ and transparency

Consumers are putting a lot more emphasis into the quality, functionality and origins of the food they are eating. With the concept of transparency being central to the food industry, and cater to customers’ preferences, open kitchens are still in demand. These spaces need to look appetizing and design firms like Street Sense and starrdesign can find ways to create the right environment of these open kitchens, paying particular attention to the viewpoints and angles from the dining areas.

The functionality of kitchens are important as well, notes Williamowsky. Now that much of a restaurant’s business, particularly for fast casuals is take-out, the kitchen needs to have sufficient prep and staging areas to accommodate this type of business, as well as catering, and the prep of meals of large outdoor spaces. Mobile ordering and pick-up can tax a business if it is not carefully design. Mobile ordering is a big trend that filters down to how spaces are created.

Revving up the energy at a restaurant can be accomplished through various means, one of which is outside patio spaces. “Outdoor dining spaces have never been so exciting, with festoon lights, fire features, communal tables and a breeze,” says Pike. “This is an older trend that seems to have some staying power.”

Williamowsky says that restaurants can be designed with their surrounding environment around them. This forms a holistic integration with their neighborhoods and environments. The Dabney is one such example. Its design and structure hark to a colonial time and make the space feel homely and unpretentious. The Dabney’s design also fits well with its surrounding Logan Circle and Shaw neighborhoods, and the stone former rowhouse where it was built. This integrated design philosophy is in play and very much a part of D.C. restaurant design.

Original ChopShop - tile mat - starrdesign
A tile mat at the ChopShop restaurant entryway has made its way to many customer’s social media accounts.

With so many picture of food and dining experiences being shared on social media and Instagram, some restaurants are creating design aspects that welcome this trend. A tile mat at one of its restaurant client’s entryway (see photo) has made its way to many customer’s social media accounts. Restaurants are part of the Instagram trend, and many digital apps that resemble it and will follow in the future. Some restaurateurs may do well with abandoning their vexations related to foodie photos, camera pictures of their restaurants and selfie moments, but rather embrace the trendy activity. “Demand for these elements is amazing,” says Pike.

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