The Secrets of Bar and Restaurant Interior Design: A Guide for Owners and Operators

The design of a bar or restaurant sets the entire tone of the guest experience, according to Alexis Pierson, a designer at Legeard Studio, a New York- and Miami-based design firm that focuses on the convergence of art, architecture, and technology. “Thoughtfully designed visuals, textures, and sounds should enhance the overall ambiance instead of causing a distraction,” she said. “Guests are more likely to return to a restaurant for the atmosphere, not just delicious food.”

Certainly, the interior design of a bar or restaurant is all about attracting customers, creating the right atmosphere, and making the experience memorable so customers return. Yet, it’s also about making the space highly functional for staff and operations.

For Robert Ervin – owner and principal architect at Ervin Architecture, an architect and interior design team in Maine and Florida – the current bar and restaurant design trend is leaning towards atmosphere and great cocktails rather than excellent food. “Obviously, there are exceptions, but younger generations are more in a ‘see and be seen’ mentality, where ‘Instagrammable’ atmospheres are desired and everything else is secondary,” he said. “Now, more than ever, people want to be transported to another place when they dine. No longer can the food do it single handedly.”

bar and restaurant design
Jolie in New Orleans. (Photo: Jolie)

Vincent Celano, founder and principal of Celano Design Studio Co., believes the interior design of a bar or restaurant is vital for the overall customer experience. “Design equals positive revenue and an ROI; a good design will create a good experience – it’s part of the theater, so it should be a priority along with the food and service,” said Celano, whose N.Y.C.-based design team serves the hospitality industry.

Hospitality Works’ Izzy Kharasch, a restaurant industry consultant in Chicago, said the interior design of a bar or restaurant, as it relates to the overall customer experience, is far more important than most owners and operators understand. “A great interior design can enhance the overall check average/sales, and a poor design can drive sales down.”

Ervin, of Ervin Architecture, said owners and operators must understand that investing in great overall design will give them immediate power to build a strong brand and monetize their atmosphere. “Not only will it be a draw for people to frequent your establishment, but it will also allow you to increase your plate prices because people are willing to pay more to eat in an exciting and inviting environment,” he said. “Lastly, it allows you to build a brand that drives outreach and gives you exposure. In the world of social media, you need a unique atmosphere that photographs well.”

David Shove-Brown – partner at //3877, a Washington, D.C.-based design firm that works with restaurants and hotels – stressed that it’s not just about aesthetics and making a good first impression when it comes to design – a smooth operational flow for both employees and guests is also important.

“In a lot of cases, you see one hallway providing the single access point for the bathrooms and back-of-house areas,” explained Shove-Brown, discussing design and operational efficiency. “This creates ample opportunity for collisions and bottlenecks, negatively impacting your operations as well as the customer experience. Think about how many times you’ve gotten up to use the restroom and had to do an awkward shuffle to let a server with a full tray through. You want to make things as easy as possible for everyone using the space, by providing multiple clear access points to different areas if you can.”

What Do Customers Really Want from a Bar or Restaurant Space?

When it comes to design and what the customer wants to see, Shove-Brown, of //3877, pointed out that guests want an authentic experience now more than ever. “Tacky gimmicks no longer draw diners in; rather, they're actively seeking out establishments that have a definitive sense of place, both as part of the larger surrounding area and as a distinct brand itself,” he said. “Customers are increasingly spending their time and money in establishments with an engaging, customized design – they’re seeing right through cheap clichés in favor of honest, genuine establishments that embrace who they are and where they excel.”

For fine dining customers, they want something fresh and distinctive, but they also want a space with great sound attenuation, soft lighting, and comfortable seating, said Ervin. “Customers would also like a degree of privacy but may sacrifice some of that for an exceptional atmosphere.”

Another key thing that customers want to see with bar and restaurant design is comfort. Pierson, of Legeard Studio, noted that designing around comfort encourages guests to stay longer. “Ensuring seating is comfortable, there are cozy corners to gather in, intimate lighting, and music to fit the overall ambiance are all design elements that affect guests’ feelings,” she said.

Mark Moeller, founder and president of The Recipe of Success, a national restaurant consulting firm, agrees that comfort is what customers want, along with ambiance. “Guests are looking for a restaurant/bar that has comfortable seats, a manageable sound level – they want to hear others without yelling – and a neutral environment, one that fits the concept,” he said. “They look for the details – are their hooks under the bar or in the restroom for purses and bags, is there a place to hang their coat, a fireplace, charging ports or outlets for their phones/computers. They want the comfort of home when they go to a restaurant or bar.”

Guidance: How to Start Designing (or Redesigning) Your Bar or Restaurant’s Interior

So where does an owner/operator begin when it comes to design, what are some of the key considerations, what mistakes should be avoided, and what’s often overlooked in the design process?

//3877’s Shove-Brown said the first conversation, when one begins the design process, should be about outlining goals. “That foundation allows teams to make informed decisions that guide each aspect of the construction, design, and operations processes,” he said.

bar and restaurant design
Aslin Beer Company in Pittsburgh. (Photo: Ed Massery)

Moeller suggested that owners and operators start by designing for functionality first, aesthetics second. “All too often design is ‘pretty’ and not functional, leading to a disruption in operations,” he said. “For example, banquettes and bench-style seating are not for every restaurant or bar. I am a big fan of this type of seating, but it can limit functionality if the operation is looking to incorporate catering as a source of revenue, for example. With fixed seating, flexibility is limited, thus limiting the size or type of party the space can accommodate.”

Ervin said some of the most important areas of consideration when designing a restaurant or bar revolve around operations. “The three most important areas operationally are bar setups, kitchen setups, and waitstaff setups,” said Ervin. “By setups, I mean identifying what types of equipment these areas need, learning how the current owner uses this equipment, and understanding the desired proximity of these setups to each other; say, for example, a waitstaff hub always needs to be next to the kitchen, but not too far away from the bar. Lastly, it’s crucial to package each of these setups to bring convenience and efficiency to those working in the new restaurant. The restaurant needs to operate well, independent of a beautifully designed atmosphere for customers.”

Pierson, of Legeard Studio, encouraged bar and restaurant owners and operators to think about the back-of-house spaces when starting the design process, as it’s just as important as the guest-facing areas. “The efficiency of the kitchen, storage, and service areas directly impact the success of the establishment,” she said. “Ensuring each space is designed to operate at full capacity is essential.” 

Pierson pointed out that not leaving enough space for the operational areas of the restaurant or bar will lead to issues down the line – “…smoothly operating service areas directly impact the success of the restaurant,” she said. “If staff are able to efficiently move throughout the space, and the overall design is intuitive, it ensures a seamless operation.”

Of course, while operations is a key component of the restaurant or bar’s interior design, the overall brand identity is just as important.

“When designing a new restaurant or bar, it’s crucial to translate that brand aesthetic into the physical space,” said Shove-Brown of //3877. “I’m not just talking about throwing a logo on the wall. It’s about paying attention to details that tie each element of the experience together, including furniture, materiality, color palette, and lighting selections. All of these factor into the creation of a cohesive, immersive brand expression that leaves diners with a distinct sense of who you are and what they can expect.”

Celano, of Celano Design Studio Co., advised: “Make sure your brand has an identity and that it’s represented well in the design. Also don’t over design, a good concept tells the story best when you have a few really good design elements without being overwhelming.”

Do Not Make These Mistakes When Designing Your Bar or Restaurant

Katy Curtis – owner and creative director at 75 Degree Design Studio, a Dallas-based firm that specializes in restaurant design – said that one of the biggest mistakes an owner or operator can make when designing the interior of a restaurant boils down to the budget. “The budget, whether too much or too little, can significantly impact the establishment's success,” she said. “Too little invested in the design can harm the overall guest experience.”

bar & restaurant design
Kanù in Old Town, Maine. (Photo: Brandon Barré)

Shove-Brown, of //3877, echoed Curtis’ view on the importance of the design budget. “It’s crucial to look at the budget for a project in a holistic way,” he said. “Many times, little things can be overlooked in favor of throwing a majority of your allocated funds to aesthetics, and this can be disastrous in assuring your bar/restaurant strikes a balance between good atmosphere, food, and service. You can always tell if a restaurant is more owner- or chef-driven the moment you walk in the door, when comparing the size of the kitchen to the size of the dining area. Neither is a good or bad thing, but at the end of the day, you’re trying to develop a healthy ratio of money in to money out, creating a necessity to strike that balance.”

To avoid budget mistakes, Hospitality Works’ Kharasch advised getting prices on everything before starting the project, so that there are no surprises. “Architecture and design are the areas that go over budget most often,” he said. “Very often this is because the owners are making changes throughout and that gets expensive. Work closely together and get it right the first time.”

Ervin, of Ervin Architecture, said a common design error has to do with a balance between aesthetics and operations in the space. “The biggest mistake we see is the client needing to comprehend how much is required behind the scenes to ensure efficient operation, and how these needs impact the square footage remaining for dining areas,” he said. “It's all about the number of seats – and their upside – that justify design and construction in the first place. However, there are a lot of mandatory components that need to be added when designing a properly functioning restaurant. Elements such as laundry, a dish pit, walk-in coolers, a staff bath, a staff office, liquor storage, dry storage, wait staff areas, and a locker room for staff are all essential and can quickly eliminate square footage in the dining area. It is important to map out all your needs first and look for a suitable space afterward.”

Common Oversights in the Design Process of a Bar or Restaurant

Ervin, of Ervin Architecture, said there are many things that are overlooked by owners and operators when designing a space. He said some of the most common are acoustics, lighting, furniture, and building codes.

  • Acoustics: “Make sure you counterbalance any hardscape – brick walls, for example – with acoustic tiles, fabric, sound baffles, and the like,” explained Ervin. “Restaurants are noisy, and if you have enough softscape, the sound will be properly attenuated for pleasant conversation and listening.”
  • Lighting: Ervin said owners/operators should not underestimate the importance of great lighting in a restaurant. “You need to create a soothing atmosphere with a commitment to showcasing the architecture,” he noted. “Lighting is perhaps the single most important element in a restaurant. If you look closely, sometimes you find a very simple design that dazzles because of the lighting. Be clever with your design and use lighting to your advantage to create a welcoming and memorable environment.”
  • Furniture: When selecting and positioning furniture, thoughtful decisions are mandatory if you want a successful restaurant, per Ervin. “Ensure your table heights are properly proportioned to seating – and the same goes for bar to stool height,” he said. Ensure your furniture is comfortable and ergonomic with appropriate commercial ratings on fabrics so the owner gets good value.”
  • Building Codes: “Understanding your kitchen exhaust route per applicable codes,” said Ervin, “the number of bathroom fixtures you need to be code compliant, handicap accessibility requirements, the scope of all kitchen equipment – this includes walk-in coolers and freezers – HVAC needs and routes, and looking at how these requirements affect the dining capacity is essential.”

‘Restrooms Are the New Instagrammable Spot,’ Sound Is Part of the Design

bar & restaurant design
La Grande Boucherie in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Legeard Studio)

The design of restrooms is also an area that’s often overlooked in the design process. “Restrooms are the new Instagrammable spot and are a great way to showcase the restaurant’s personality with a fun design,” said Curtis of 75 Degree Design Studio.

Pierson, of Legeard Studio, said restrooms are sometimes overlooked or left last in the design process, but that shouldn’t be the case. “Guests often judge a restaurant or bar experience solely on the aesthetics and comfort of the bathroom,” she said. “If these spaces seem neglected and barren, the overall feeling of the establishment goes down. A thoughtful, well-designed restroom helps to elevate the entire guest experience.”

Moeller, of The Recipe of Success, said don’t overlook the sound level of the restaurant/bar. “The biggest mistake is not focusing on the sound level when the restaurant is full,” he said. “Often, there are too many hard surfaces that cause sound to bounce; this is done out of aesthetics and not functionality.”

Kharasch, of Hospitality Works, agreed. He said many owners, operators, and designers don’t think about the material that is being installed and how that impacts sound. “Some guests say they won’t come back because the restaurant is too loud and it is too hard to hear,” he shared.

Marisi, a new Italian restaurant in La Jolla, Calif., designed by Encinitas Design Group, is one example of thoughtful design when it comes to sound. In fact, some of the beautiful, hard surfaces in the dining area, combined with the noise of the bar and neighboring guests, are not sound absorbent, which can create a loud and noisy environment. To minimize noise disruptions, the team installed Sunshine Yellow PET Panels from Kirei by Carnegie, placing them on the ceiling. The panels – made from 60 percent post-consumer recycled content – blend perfectly into the restaurant’s Italian design, soak up excess sound reverberation, and lower the overall noise levels, allowing guests to enjoy their meals and conversations.

Michael DiTullo, head of product innovation for Carnegie Acoustic Solutions, stressed that the impact of sound cannot be over-estimated. “It is so important to make sure there are enough acoustic products for the size of the space when you are early in the design process,” he said, adding that acoustic products can be high performance, made from sustainable materials, and have an iconic design. “One huge mistake I often see is people just not putting enough material in, and expecting a minimal amount of acoustic products to lift too heavy of an acoustic load.”

How to Select the Right Firm to Design Your Bar or Restaurant

When choosing a design firm to make the vision a reality, pick a partner that has the right mindset for your business, according to Shove-Brown of //3877.

“When selecting a design and architecture firm, it’s crucial to partner with like-minded collaborators in the sense that they have an understanding of not only the vision you have for your establishment, but tangible, realistic means and approaches for bringing that to life,” said Shove-Brown. “You need a partner that will be both encouraging and realistic – showing a real investment in the final product while managing expectations and providing crucial, honest insight throughout the process to get you there.”

Ervin, of Ervin Architecture, said it’s crucial for owners to partner with an experienced architect who has a proven track record of success in restaurant design. “Look for firms with a portfolio showcasing several successful restaurant projects,” he said. “Opting for a seasoned firm with a history of collaborating with various owners ensures a comprehensive understanding of how to seamlessly integrate all elements of a restaurant project, resulting in a captivating and functional establishment.”

Moeller, of The Recipe of Success, said the main goal is to hire a design/architect firm that both fits your budget and understands your concept.

“The team you hire should have extensive experience with your type of operation,” Moeller shared. “By doing so, you should be able to minimize or eliminate the learning curve the firm will have if they are not familiar with your segment. Not all fast casual/QSR-experienced firms can design a full serve restaurant/bar. There are so many differences between the two and one mistake could be catastrophic.”

Ervin suggested that once the design firm is selected, give the architect and their design team complete artistic freedom to create something special. “Here at Ervin Architecture, we get hired routinely with phrases like, ‘Make it amazing,’ ‘Do your thing,’ and, ‘We trust your judgment.’ Those are the owners that architects want to work with because they show their faith in the architect immediately, allowing creative thinking to flow naturally and unbridled for an optimized result.”

Moeller said be transparent with what you know and don’t know when working with a design firm, as well as what you want and don’t want. “Do not get ‘bullied’ into something because they are ‘the expert,’” he said.

bar and restaurant design
Izkina in Dallas, Texas. (Photo: Kathy Tran)
Aaron Kiel is an editor, writer and public relations professional in Raleigh, N.C. He’s worked in the beverage, tea and coffee industries for two decades, as well as hospitality and technology. He’s a journalist at heart, but he also wears a PR and communications hat through his consultancy, ak PR Group. Aaron is a contributing writer/reporter for Questex’s Bar & Restaurant News, and he recently worked as the editor of World Tea News with Questex’s Bar & Restaurant Group. In 2023, he was a finalist and honorable mention in the “Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards” for Range of Work by a Single Author – B2B,” for his work at World Tea News. And in 2024, he was named a Northeast Regional Finalist by the American Society of Business Publication Editors’ (ASBPE) Azbee Awards, in the category of Editorial Excellence for DE&I, recognizing his article on Pride Month and the hospitality industry for Bar & Restaurant News; he took home the top honor (the Gold Award) for that category.  Aaron also received a 2024/2025 ASBPE Diversity Fellowship award, supporting diversity in the field of B2B journalism. Connect with him on Instagram: @adventurer_explorer.


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