The year in restaurant design trends

The pandemic pushed operators to unveil a flurry of new prototypes in 2021, codifying the changes in consumer behavior brought on by the crisis in updated designs.
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

While 2020 was a year of dealing with the immediate impacts of the pandemic, 2021 was a time to assess what changes would be long-term and which ones would be temporary.

Operators around the country found themselves making some big decisions, looking into the future and designing new store prototypes tailored to the way COVID changed consumer behaviors and restaurant operations.

Here’s a look at some of the year’s biggest design trends.

Ditching dining rooms. The pandemic forced diners to rely on food delivery and pickup during quarantine. And many apparently enjoyed the convenience so much, they stuck with it even as dining rooms reopened. That shift has led a number of chains to debut prototypes in 2021 that don’t have dining rooms or have much smaller ones. Portillo’s, known for its sprawling dining rooms, said in the summer that it would open a pick-up-only restaurant this winter in Joliet, Ill. The new design, about half the size of a traditional Portillo’s, has three drive-thru lanes but no indoor seating area. And Chipotle Mexican Grill announced its first Chipotlane Digital Kitchen, to open in December in Ohio. It’s the fast casual’s first location in which customers cannot enter the building.

More drive-thrus. Drive-thrus had their pandemic moment early on. And their popularity is still soaring, as consumers look for a convenient and COVID-safe way to pick up food (without paying delivery markups). Shake Shack opened its first drive-thru in 2021, with plans for up to 10 more in the next year. And other chains, such as Dog Haus and Taco Bell, rolled out designs with two or more lanes. Operators note that drive-thru orders typically come with higher check averages, as well as higher margins. There’s just one major challenge: Drive-thru-friendly real estate is getting harder and harder to find.

Outdoor seating. Both independents and chains found the value in outdoor seating areas amid the ongoing pandemic and concerns about indoor dining. For some, that included building igloos, heated huts and more for outdoor dining in cold weather. For others, that meant the creation of patio seating rather than a larger dining room.

Delivery-driver pickup only. With the growth in third-party delivery, restaurants in 2021 tried to find ways to keep orders for delivery drivers separate from those of the general public. Chicago’s Epic Kitchens, a ghost kitchen/fast casual hybrid, has a separate entrance and pickup counter for delivery orders, as well as reserved parking spaces for third-party pickups.

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