One for the Road: A Surprising Design Element Can Make or Break Your Guest Experience

In the May edition of One for the Road, we asked industry experts to weigh in on bar and restaurant design:

What design features or trends can bar/restaurant owners incorporate into their establishments to create a unique and memorable experience for patrons?


evan hennessy
Photo Credit: Grazier Photo

Evan Hennessey, Owner/Chef, Stages at One Washington and The Living Room, Dover, New Hampshire

I think there's two main elements that will elevate the design of an establishment and they both boil down to customer connectivity: sustainable systems and open kitchens. Using sustainable and eco-friendly materials to build the space and create a calming connection to the earth and world. People now more than ever want to feel like they're a part of something and helping to save the environment. Visiting a restaurant with this type of design allows the consumer to put their money and their values in the same space.

Open kitchens have been on the rise for some time now. People enjoy seeing behind the scenes and knowing where their food comes from. Having an open kitchen breaks the boundaries of conventional restaurant design and brings the kitchen and the dining space together as one. Some restaurants are even placing the kitchen in the middle of the restaurant space and seating around it. This creates an energy that conventional design cannot accomplish.


emshika alberini
Photo Credit: Miss MegaBug

Emshika Alberini, Owner/Chef, Chang Thai Cafe, Littleton, New Hampshire

Creating a unique and memorable experience in a bar or restaurant involves a blend of ambiance, service, and offerings. Some of the design features and trends that can help achieve that include themed decor, mood lighting, interactive elements, flexible layouts, photo-worthy opportunities, incorporation of local art and culture, and more. By combining these designs, features, and trends, bar and restaurant owners can create a distinctive atmosphere that leaves a lasting impression on patrons and encourages repeat visits.



Megan Pflug, Interior Designer and Co-Owner of The Woodhouse Lodge and Woodhouse Pizza, Greenville, New York

It's always important to think more about how your guests use your space and less about trends. When it comes to design decisions, classic looks age better and help you avoid a dated-looking dining room. Let's face it, in an industry that is driven by the next new hot spot, it's important that whatever you implement doesn't date your space. With that in mind, here are a few design ideas that you can implement without hiring a contractor!

Good lighting can transform a room and go a long way toward creating a mood. I love all the cordless rechargeable lamps on the market right now. We were early adopters of this technology and it just keeps getting better. When it comes to picking a cordless lamp for your dining tables I prefer options with glass or fabric shades because they give off more light. The first-generation table lights tend to have metal shades and only cast light downward onto the table while a semi-transparent shade casts more light on the diners enveloping them in a warm glow. Not to mention that this type of shade gives the look of a more traditional table lamp. 

Thinking outside of the box when it comes to the utilitarian pieces you're using in the FOH can elevate your space.  Swapping out the standard "restaurant" furniture for vintage or out-of-the-box solutions like a well-designed bookshelf or desk could be an attractive and functional solution for a server station on the dining room floor. 

Finally, consider your branding and print materials. Touch points like stickers on takeout bags, custom printed pins, cocktail napkins, paper coasters, or even branded glassware are a fun way to refresh your customer experience. The key here is to stay away from the overly corporate-looking branded items (you know the ones) and opt for a fun and authentic expression of your brand. I love a beautiful matchbook, ballpoint pen, or sticker!


bobby hill
(Photo credit: Lauryn Sophia Photography)

Bobby Will, Owner/Chef, Thistle & Grouse, Portland, Maine

I believe the one design feature that can create a unique dining experience for guests is one that is not always the most thought out but of great importance and that is lighting. A lot of restaurants struggle with adequate lighting because they focus on the beauty of the light, and not how it will be distributed through the dining room. A properly lit dining room that also looks good is key to the experience. How many restaurants have you been to that have pretty lights but you have to pull out your smartphones to be able to read the menu? We have this beautiful 1950’s Sputnik chandelier that is the focal point of our dining room from every angle of the dining room, but it provides a warm glow that is comfortable to dine under. We handpicked the bell lanterns above each table that bring an elegance to the dining room but put off just enough light for the table. 


one for the road bar & restaurant news
(Photo Credit: Allison McAdams)

Julia Petiprin, Owner, Homemakers Bar / Fifty Fifty Gin Club, Cincinnati, OH

Every detail counts! As hospitality professionals, the main goal is making our guests feel welcome. We do that by focusing on the little things, from the way you set out your toilet paper to the way you garnish a drink. While your guests may not consciously be aware of how these details affect them, subconsciously it will bring a calmness to their minds. Create a sense of ease in your space.

As a designer, I always hide Easter eggs around a space. You can do this a number of ways, mimicking a moment from your branding in the bathroom or creating a bar top your guests have never seen before are just a couple ideas. The same way you’d create a story in your menu and branding—you should be doing this with the design of restaurant. Make sure you have multiple focal points in your space. That will allow diners in the dining room to have just as breathtaking of an experience as someone seated at the bar. Make your back bar big, beautiful, and illuminated. Spirits, cocktails, and other bar items can have better margins so make sure you’re paying as close attention to this area as you are the kitchen.

Design styles I’m seeing emerge are a blend of generations—keep an eye on fashion—we’re truly in an age of mixing styles. Give your guests a glimpse behind the curtain when you can, allowing them to see the process of cooking or making an ingredient. It doesn’t have to be a full open kitchen, just a peek creates excitement and intrigue. The biggest trend I’m seeing that I believe will become a norm versus a trend is the connection to the outdoors. Whether your guests can see your herb garden or if you can bring anything living inside your space, I believe this will create wow moments for your guests.”


lisa haude

Lisa A. Haude, Senior Vice President + Director of Interiors, LK Architecture (Interiors Division)

Creating a unique and memorable experience involves prioritizing a sense of place and authenticity. The design story, which matches the vision for the restaurant, is a strong element that should be consistently carried through. The design ambiance should be captivating and strike the perfect balance between comfort and style. If the space is comfortable, it invites patrons both visually and physically, providing them the opportunity to relax and enjoy their experience. Meanwhile, the design aesthetics add a unique personality and flair to the environment.

Owners should also pay close attention to lighting as it plays a crucial role in setting the mood, further enhancing the ambiance. For instance, at akb in Austin, TX, the unique feeling of the Texas Hill Country was seamlessly pulled into the design and carried out in both architectural details and FFE selections. A unique custom art mural was incorporated to create a pop of the unexpected and lighting was enhanced to highlight the various moods of the space throughout the day. From bright and cheery in the morning/lunch hours to moody and inviting with “twinkle” lights that resemble the Stars at Night for the evening hours.


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