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Space race

These design-forward restaurant trends are worth a second look.

Living walls. Communal seating. Rooftop bars. Been there, done that. It’s tempting to let design trends go by without a second glance. Like menu items, there will be a new one to come along before you have a chance to water the moss along your backbar. Still, it’s worth it to keep an eye on design currents because, as all restaurant operators know, the experience does not fully rest on the plate. Diners’ expectations have evolved, and operations from QSRs to fine dining need to be greener, more high tech and more creative than ever. We’ve sifted through the fads to bring together four on-the-rise trends that are shaping the way customers experience—not to mention feel about—the spaces in which they dine.

Brighter “green”

Sustainable design is here to stay. Chicago research firm Technomic identified eco-consciousness in the restaurant industry as one of the top trends for 2014. Living walls brought the notion front and center: what once was largely a behind-the-scenes setup moved out to the dining room, the same way open kitchens did.

The next generation of living decor is off the wall, literally. It’s also more functional—not just decorative. At Little Beet in New York City, for example, healthy food rules the fast-casual concept, and that philosophy is supported in the design. Here, plants and herbs move up the wall and onto the ceiling, suspended from a custom metal grid. At Jose Garces’ JG Domestic in Philadelphia, there are “living tables” with holes cut out of the surface to accommodate potted trees. Here, too, the living walls actually are living windows, with rows of indoor planters lining the glass that borders the booths. Bouley Botanical, David Bouley’s event space in New York City, has similar planters, referred to as a “living pantry,” lining its windows for passersby to see. The goal for all? To drive home the concept’s authenticity and use of fresh ingredients with permanence.

the little beet

Refining Casual

The trend toward more laid-back spaces prevails. “Everyone is casual,” says Glen Coben of Glen & Co. Architecture in New York City. But Coben predicts that the casual movement can sustain an upscale nudge, and he’s seeing his clients move in that direction.

“It’s possible to create a restaurant that serves casual cuisine, but in a space that is inspired,” says Michael Chetcuti, partner at Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina, a three-unit Neapolitan pizza and small-plates concept in Ann Arbor, Mich., that has James Beard-nominated Luciano DelSignore at the helm. “We’re personally moving towards more high-quality, refined spaces that are thoughtfully designed, yet still comfortable and inviting,” says Chetcuti, who also is a licensed builder.

Bigalora’s newest address features curated, ’60s Italian-pop-meets-industrial design, from its moody table lamps to the artwork on the bathroom doors. Chetcuti says he chose items that felt collected, thoughtful and purposeful. “Everything is intentional,” he says, noting the vibrant baby blue, orange, red and off-white color palate and framed images of Ferrari race cars.

To keep things cozy in this ever-evolving space, Coben predicts flames. That’s right, flames. “There will be more fire ... visual flames off of rotisseries and wood-burning ovens,” he says, drawing inspiration from French-leaning Rôtisserie Georgette in New York City, the upscale, chicken-focused entrant from Daniel Boulud’s former marketing director, Georgette Farkas. There, display-worthy rotisseries inform both the vibe and menu. Farkas’ spit-roasted meat spot will do a whole-pig feast for eight and flame-licked poule de luxe, which arrives with wild mushrooms and seared foie gras. It’s the perfect juxtaposition for a space that exudes comfortable grandeur.

bigalora wood oversize photograph

An oversize photograph adorns bathroom doors.

bigalora wood design

The vide at Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina in Ann Arbor, Mich. is upscale with an edge.

Marrying space and time

High-flying airport concepts continue to compete for hurried travelers’ time and attention by offering interesting, local food and beverage options, and as such, the designs for those spaces continue to get more and more ambitious. ICrave, the New York City-based design firm with eateries in nightclubs, hotels and casinos, partnered with OTG Management a couple of years ago to create 13 hybrid restaurant, bar and market concepts in the gate areas at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Vinifera in Terminals 1 and 3 is one such concept. The Terminal 1 space is housed in a massive cube constructed from sheets of orange glass and complemented by warm lighting and dark wood tones. It’s worlds away from the grab-and-go experience that used to be travelers’ only option. Inside Vinifera, exposed wood shelves and vaults house hundreds of bottles of wine and liquor, the curated collection overseen by a Master Sommelier John Szabo, and offset by Michael Coury’s global menu.

“The idea of luxury is changing as [airport] restaurants now must serve a lot of people across a fairly wide range of time,” says Siobhan Barry, partner and designer at ICrave. The space at Vinifera allows diners to grab a quick bite or linger over a glass of wine when their flight is delayed. “This broad reach must still be coupled with a high cache of ingredients and an immersive, relevant atmosphere that customers feel comfortable in,” Barry adds. “To us, it’s less about design trends per se and more about creating a space and program that’s immersive and engaging.”

Of course, airports aren’t the only places stepping up their game. Restaurants in retail  stores also are on the rise. According to a study by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based food and restaurant consulting company Baum + Whiteman,  retailers both large and small “are mainlining food … and discovering the magic of ‘dwell time’” to keep hungry customers on the premises longer, so they buy more.

That’s why Tommy Bahama’s flagship in New York City now proffers hamachi crudo and coffee-crusted rib-eye with marrow butter; Urban Outfitter’s Terrain home and garden store in Westport, Conn., dishes up duck with brûléed strawberries; and Chicagoland’s specialty grocer Standard Market has an in-house restaurant using its own house-aged meat and locally sourced ingredients. Even Walmart is rolling out grab-and-go meals with its Walmart To Go concept.

marathi toronto pearson international

Tech flexes

Technology is allowing for more flexibility and more engagement with consumers, beyond the touchscreen. At ICrave, that’s playing out through a convertible sense of space. “The function is to drive the aesthetics, whether that’s with high-tech artwork that comes alive at night or collapsible elements [such as big-screen monitors] that are concealed when not in use during certain times of the day,” Barry says.

The folks at Baum + Whiteman point to international spots such as Paul Pairet’s Ultraviolet in Shanghai as inspiration. There, diners encounter everything from smell diffusers to a secret, mood-shifting dining room that changes to suit plates from a 20-course “psychotasting.” The experience includes uplights in the floor, changes in air temperature and 360-degree, high-definition projections.

Interactivity is starting to happen stateside, too, including at David Bouley’s private dining room, The Pass in New York City, where a massive television screen enables diners and imbibers to correspond in real time with growers and vintners whose products are on offer from the chef.

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