Among the many beloved experiences we have had to give up this past year, the restaurant meal has been especially missed by many. What had often been spaces of celebration, connection, and often indulgence were suddenly stripped of any magic. In many cities, eating out became a clinical, frightening endeavor that only the intrepid—and, in winter, warmly wrapped—would undertake.
Restaurateurs and designers pivoted quickly, devising clever temporary strategies to somehow hold onto as much charm as possible while keeping diners safely separated. But now, a year in, as everyone considers more permanent solutions, designers of new restaurants face an interesting challenge: how to create spaces that accommodate social distancing requirements while bringing back the delight and romance of the dining experience.
AD PRO reached out to famed hospitality designers Patricia Urquiola, Michael Hsu, Luke Ostrom, and W. Brian Smith to ask how the pandemic has shifted their thinking—and how they’re envisioning the restaurant of the future.
A private moment
The elbow-to-elbow charm of a buzzing, tightly packed dining room might be a thing of the past (for now), but there are other ways to evoke a sense of communal intimacy in the experience, says Patricia Urquiola, who has designed spaces for lauded chefs including Alain Ducasse in Vieques, Puerto Rico; Carme Ruscalleda in Barcelona; and Andreas Caminada in Bangkok and throughout Switzerland.
“We’ll be designing restaurants where privacy is key, so that small groups can gather in intimate spaces, well distanced from others,” she says, adding that furniture, greenery, and lighting will be essential to delineating such spaces. “We’ll choose materials that gently ‘wrap’ the guests in an intimate atmosphere—textiles, upholstery, and wood that visually and acoustically recreate a cocoon where [guests can] enjoy the meal.”
Brian Smith, a cofounder of Studio Tack (now Post Company) who designed the Tsukimi in New York’s East Village as well as the Rose Tavern at The Lake House on Canandaigua Lake in upstate New York, agrees that private spaces will take priority. “I think they’ll become more sought-after, experience-driven revenue generators where designers can let loose and have fun,” he says. “Think lavish, over-the-top, maximalist spaces that are dripping in detail—a small reward for the compensations made this past year.”
Outdoor dining reimagined
“If you were to ask New Yorkers a year ago if they would eat outdoors under a heater or in a greenhouse in the middle of January, there would have been a resounding ‘no,’” says Luke Ostrom, partner at NoHo Hospitality Group, and creator of Manhattan dining darlings including Locanda Verde, The Dutch, Lafayette, and A Voce. “What a difference a year makes. What seems clear to me is that this new thinking is here to stay.”
After the initial shock of the pandemic’s impact on their operations, Ostrom says that he and his team were forced to think more creatively. “We looked to activate all of our spaces in different ways to provide different reasons for our guests to come pay a visit,” he says. This included landscaped street platforms for alfresco dining, activated private “backyards” for seasonal picnics and urban lawn games, and music tents for people to “social-distance gather.” When chillier temperatures hit, they also added an ice skating rink at Westlight in Brooklyn, as well as streetside private dining chalets, dubbed Le Village de Lafayette, decked out with a private “fireplace heater,” cozy carpets, and sheepskin throws on the chairs. Ostrom says that many of these solutions will now be regular fixtures.
Architect Michael Hsu, the designer behind many of Austin’s hospitality spaces, envisions much more activation of unused outdoor spaces to create pocket gardens, tented parking lots, and designed pavilions. Reversing the common design exhortation to bring the outdoors in, he says it’s now more about bringing the indoors out. “Redesigning outdoor spaces with all the creativity, coziness, and amenities of indoor spaces guides a certain mood that may not have been present or considered before,” he says. “Proper lounge furnishings, accessories, and even art achieve the comforts of indoor experience and shouldn’t be limited to interior spaces.”
Early in the pandemic, designers prioritized safty over aesthetics, and rightly so. But the heavy presence of plexiglass robbed much of the dining experience of its magic. Going forward, designers are looking to more calming, aesthetically pleasing barriers.
“I see the temporary plexi partitions soon becoming a thing of the past and new designs incorporating these partitions right into the millwork and overall aesthetic and design,” Ostrom says.
“Plexiglass shields and spaced-out tables can be triggering reminders of difficult times,” Smith says, adding that he plans to design with more modular, adaptable systems rather than permanent ones. “The challenge for designers lies in our ability to translate protective measures into constraints that can actually help the bottom line. Designers can help owners put their own spin on the color and materiality of PPE so that they appear as comforting extensions of the brand.”
“Density and the energy of a crowd are the most critical ingredients to livelihood and instituting a total experience,” Hsu adds. “Incorporating beautiful partitions and screening delineates personal space and creates anxiety-free dining without overusing available square footage.”
It’s all about ambience
Fancy partitions aside, how do you infuse the dining experience with a sense of intimacy when everyone is spaced apart? “Dim and warm lighting is a core strategic design element to authenticate intimacy and coziness as restaurants become more spacious,” Hsu says.
“I prefer metal mesh lamps instead of glass chandeliers to allow a more uniform sound in the room,” Urquiola says. She plans to follow the same design approach she used for Andreas Caminada’s IGNIV restaurants, where theater-inspired curtains, ropes, and wooden and textile panels absorb sound and create a cocoon-like environment.
Urquiola emphasizes that, regardless of the design, limited seating shouldn’t lead to restaurants becoming exclusive locations accessible to a select few. “One solution will be to create spaces that can work all day long, so that clients can distribute away from peak hours.” And above all, she says, restaurants of the future will need to reignite the joy of dining. “They have to become places to stop and have some quality time for yourself.”
Originally published by Architectural Digest