How to Use Bar & Restaurant Design to Elevate Guest Experience

There have been themed bars and restaurants as long as there have been curious, hungry, and thirsty customers to fill them. However, what do you do when your customers are part of a savvy, well-traveled generation and feel they’ve seen everything? And how do you impress this group when they have already been exposed to interesting culinary and cultural ideas through the ever-expanding number of traditional and social media channels?

For the last few decades, owners could count on plug-and-play decor formulas built on nostalgia (remember the speakeasy revival 20 years ago?), familiar travel tropes (Tiki, British Pub, exotic lounges), and culinary celebrities. And speaking of nostalgia, remember when social media and influencers surfacing during the previous decade would practically do the promotional work for you?

David Shove-Brown, partner of //3877 Design in Washington D.C., observes that today's increasingly savvy consumers can see right through tacky, overly contrived dining experiences. “People are looking to spend their time and money in honest, genuine establishments that embrace what they are and what they’re good at,” he states. “There’s a reason fewer tourist-y chains are popping up. Consumers are seeking out unique venues rather than cheap clichés. We’re also seeing menus reflect the turn away from gimmicky restaurant operations. Guests are less likely to enjoy a menu full of gaudy-themed drinks, trading these fluffy party tricks for authentic food and beverages that are high in quality and value.”

bar and restaurant design
TAKODA by Dan Swartz

“The guest experience is the utmost important factor when designing a space,” affirms Greer May, associate principal of Studio 11 Design in Dallas. “Our goal with every restaurant project is to draw guests into the space from their arrival moment at the front entrance forward, immersing the guests into a memorable outing from start to finish. With the popularity of social media and the free publicity this has to offer, we ensure that we are designing those picture-worthy and memory-making moments for our client that are shared, in turn, propelling new visitors to come to these spaces."

Jay Valgora, founder and principal of New York City-based STUDIO V Architecture, stresses it is not enough for a space to be decorated in a certain style to underscore what’s on the menu. The job needs to be approached as an all-encompassing adventure or mini-vacation.“We need social spaces beyond streets and parks,” explains Valgora. “While [people met up] in a hotel lobby, a private social club, or even shopping malls in the 20th century, it’s restaurants in the 21st Century. They are the stage sets of the modern city…places of connection...a respite from routine, reconnecting with friends, meeting new friends, a first date, a celebration. (While) you want people to want to return again and again, and while food is the most essential part of the experience, the most successful venues offer different places within an overall place, diverse moods within the greater whole.”

Valgora’s goal for his hospitality clients is to create a space that simultaneously transports the customer from everyday life to a one-of-a-kind escape and reflects the best characteristics and personality of its location. He believes that a good designer will listen to his hospitality client in order to make a restaurant or bar memorable and, “condense the experience into a place where we can feel it, share it, and enjoy it with our meal. [Restaurants] provide every guest a wonderful voyeurism…the awareness of ourselves and of others within the buzz, and the ‘vibe,’ the feeling of energy and movement.”

While this is a dramatic way to describe that goal, he suggests that’s exactly what customers want. He’s not alone.

Setting the Stage Before the Table

“Creating an experience is critical to the success of any new restaurant, whether it be a beautifully basic clam shack on the water’s edge in Baja (like Vista Al Mar south of Loreto) or Negroni, a design-forward cocktail bar in LA’s hot ‘restaurant row’ in Beverly Grove,” says Frank Stork, a Los Angeles hospitality developer and partner in Negroni’s second location (hot on the heels of the original Miami location). “The 365-degree experience is why people love it and are coming back for more.”

Beyond its modern food and beverages, Negroni includes artist-painted walls, perfect lighting, vibey music, superior service, and several rooms throughout the space with their own décor and personality, ensuring regular customers can have a completely different dining experience with each visit.

Although existing physical space informed the direction of Negroni’s design, Stork says Los Angeles-based Preen, Inc. was selected as the firm of choice based on its extensive experience in the F&B industry and its distinctive design aesthetic. “They combined classic elements of the Negroni brand, such as a towering, amber-glowing back bar,  with new ideas to unify certain spaces (such as a glowing red, 24-foot high ‘ombre’ treatment to the restaurant’s double height East Room and mezzanine) to create a truly unique feel. As the building has housed some very successful and important venues in its history, it was imperative to pay homage to the past while also creating a new feeling that could stand on it’s own two feet.”

bar and restaurant design
Photo by Jakob Layman, Negroni

Valgora argues that you have to make sure the designer you hire can create a different experience for patrons every time they walk through the door. While a restaurant can be “hot” when it opens, it can end up being one of many venues people see as ‘one and done’ in that they can say they tried it and never have to return. To achieve longevity, the design must make guests walk out the door and look forward to the next time they can return with a different group. Good design incorporates different seating options so people can make your bar or restaurant their go-to for any occasion. Most importantly, the design has to equal your customer’s overall idealized experience: Better food, nicer lighting, beautiful materials, more vivid experience, and energy.  “To make people feel good, you need to make them look good, and make the food look good,” Valgora says. A good designer, in turn, will be able to intuit the exact things that will accomplish the mission for their client.

Service with a Smile

May says the goal should be immersing the guest in ambiance and service during their dining experience. May points to the firm’s collaborative work for Dirty Rascal, an Italian restaurant inside the Thompson Hotel in Atlanta. “A signature element we love to create is synergy between the establishment’s brand identity and the interiors," says May. "Working closely with our in-house branding team, Brand Bottega, and our art curation and styling team, Lou Verne, we are able to create unique experiences and continuity in the finished spaces. That final layer of art and accessories in any space can really help set the tone and be those curated moments that get captured and talked about time after time again.”

bar restaurant design
Dirty Rascal, Thompson Hotel, Atlanta

Better and more interesting adjuncts, amenities, and stand-out features are being worked into May's clients’ designs to make the dining experience more personalized and interactive. She points to such trends as the surge in tableside food preparation and vintage beverage cart service. 

“A moment where staff can prepare a chilled Caesar salad tableside and converse with patrons, a fresh popped bottle of champagne paired with caviar flights, these moments of elevated experiences are making a comeback,” says May. “This can be done at both fine dining and family friendly establishments, as it attracts any crowd. With this in mind, we recently customized a tableside guacamole and queso cart for a Tex-Mex family friendly concept out of locally sourced ice-cream, or helado, carts from Mexico. Creating these functional service elements that reinforce the brand and interiors improves the overall guest experience and is an easy way to tie it in from an experiential standpoint.”

Shove-Brown agrees that the “guest experience” is everything when it comes to operating a bar or restaurant, adding that setting the tone is a balancing act even before food and beverage comes into play, or as he puts it, “a well-rounded, holistic concept” that’s not just focused on the food, service, or atmosphere. And it’s often a team effort. He recommends owners and managers start with their people and train with the right attitude, culture, and understanding of the menu and atmosphere. Owners also need to have a thorough understanding of the culture they want to construct before thinking about aesthetics.

“A good guest experience requires perfect harmony between all three,” he says. “If one thing falls short, the whole thing goes sideways. Furthermore, the instantaneous nature of customer activity on social media is a barometer of whether or not the concept works. Success is achieved when design can fit easily into the puzzle of overall operations. You can have a great design, but if it isn’t enforced every step of the way by each component of the restaurant, it’s useless.”

The Main Course (of Action): Collaboration

The plan for a bar/restaurant design often involves multiple steps and plenty of communication.

“When we start working on an F&B project, the first thing we do is sit down with the owners and/or the chef to get a sense of what kind of experience they want to create, which we then use as a guide to inform our design choices,” says Shove-Brown. “We always want the design intent to tie back to the menu and service in a way that makes sense, seamlessly combining the price, message, and feeling of the desired guest experience. These conversations result in the materials, finishes, color palette, and furnishings in a restaurant/bar, careful to not make design the main focus, but rather establishing an environment that complements the whole package.”

May’s project plans and design decks for clients extend beyond the interior and exterior spaces, as she and her team strive to make the client’s destination a perfect balance of interior aesthetic and employee hospitality, which must complement one another. "Uniforms, menu designs and even tabletop details like cutlery and dishes must all build upon the overall aesthetic of the interior design,” she says. “At the end of our projects, we provide design decks for managers and owners to help train their staff on the unique elements within the spaces, telling the story of the restaurant from ideation to completion. This allows the staff to connect with the guest, and in turn, the guest to connect with the space they are in.”

While materials and furnishings play an important role, Valgora says this is a small part of the restaurant design process. “Those materials should not just be aesthetically pleasing, but work cohesively to provide the customer with a sense of movement from one end of the venue to the other, and into the varied spaces within the venue,” he says. “In the case of Boston Hub, we used a rich and varied material palette—flamed ash hues, textured graphite brick, highly polished variegated concrete floors, rough textures of expanded metal mesh, the bright colors of zinc, and bronze—that work together to create a full sensory immersion that’s unquestionably Bostonian.  As Boston grew on a central peninsula ‘hub’ that expanded outward with spokes of railways, bridges, and roads into a modern city, we memorialized this within our main entrance in a dramatic custom glass mosaic artwork at the entrance—the historic Boston Hub rendered in over ten thousand individual handset pieces of glass mosaic that brings the story of this part of the city to life at the front door of the restaurant.”

Valgora says the client having an open mind to design ideas was also key on the Boston Hub project. “We were originally asked [by the client] to create a series of entirely separate venues on separate floors, with individual entrances on separate streets offering different foods or experiences,” he recalls. “Our first move was to recommend combining and overlapping these separate venues into one network of restaurants and entertainment offerings to [make it more than] a fine-dining restaurant, massive food hall, and entertainment venue. It’s a gateway to northern Boston, the front door to thousands for their daily commute. It’s a wild sports bar on game nights. It’s a place to try out dishes from famous chefs (such as Iron Chef Morimoto’s ramen and dumplings). It’s a quiet place to grab a drink and catch up with friends. It’s an extension of the experience of the Boston Garden, the arena, North Station, the Causeway, and the hub that is Boston itself.”

banners kitchen
Photo by Raimund Koch, Banners Kitchen & Tap

The Cost of Creating Community

Above all else, design’s greater purpose is creating a sense of community and connectivity. Valgora sees thoughtful, intuitive restaurant design as essential in bringing people back out to reconnect with the world. Although the economy, product shortages, and continued safety concerns are very real things restaurant owners and managers have to worry about, most seem to agree that guests will be willing to splurge on an F&B experience that puts its money where its mouth is.

“We would like our customers to leave satiated and impressed that they had a great time without feeling gouged,” Stork says. “It’s a fine balance as our investment in the space, our work with Preen, Inc. was significant, and our operating costs are going up, but we don’t ever want to feel unapproachable. Preen, Inc.’s handling of the design, ambiance, and experience creates real value for the restaurant, even as we’re being mindful of how customers and restaurants are dealing with rising costs and keeping prices reasonable for the customers.”

“They see the true value in making the investment in a night out that provides excellent service with a thoughtful menu and tasteful design,” says Shove-Brown of his clients’ diverse customers. “It’s not that people don’t want to spend the money to go out, it’s that they want to feel like their money is being spent on a valuable, enriching experience.”


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