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A more casual Il Fornaio serves as lab for the future

il fornaio woodland hill main dining room and bar

Before last month, Il Fornaio hadn’t expanded its classic Italian concept for eight years. The economic downturn stalled growth, delayed further by a change in equity partners. Today, it is back at it with a new location in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.

The chain set out to accomplish two things with the unit. “The first was to make sure people felt like they were still in an Il Fornaio,” says Michael Mindel, senior vice president of marketing. The second: “Acknowledging that the way people are dining out and the kind of places they want to dine out in have changed.”

Traditional touches such as tablecloths and formal place settings were swapped for less intimidating features like reclaimed oak tables. “The design is a little bit lighter, a little bit airier and a little bit less formal,” Mindel says.

The chain built the latest concept around the bar, giving more square footage to the area. “In our older locations, we had relatively large bars, but they weren’t necessarily spaces in and of themselves,” Mindel says. “They were essentially designed as waiting areas for people who were going to be dining at our restaurant.” Now, the bar and its communal island serve as space for guests to have a drink or bite, without committing to a whole meal. The bar, too, flows into a patio with fire-pit seating.

Many of the new features are meant to court millennials, who often view louder restaurants as trendy and vibrant. That’s where Mindel draws the line; he is adamant that people should be able to converse while dining. To combat the amplifying effect of the hard surfaces, the restaurant is decked out with elements that reduce sound while still fitting into the design, such as double-duty acoustic tiles that quell noise.

Although the look of future locations has yet to be determined, Mindel sees the Woodland Hills unit as a lab for new ideas. “We’ll be watching it quite closely to see what the guest response is—which elements they like—and probably make adjustments down the road. But early indications are great,” he says. 

Concept: Il Fornaio
Location: Woodland Hills, Calif.
Footprint: 6,000 square feet
Seating: 150 total, 12 at bar, 20 on patio
Key features: Island made from a single tree trunk, warmer tableside lighting slits, fire pits, terra cotta tile floors

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