As the world has come to grips with a global pandemic, the restaurant industry has been among the hardest hit, with some eateries closing altogether. Others had to pivot their services on a dime to accommodate carryout-only mandates and adjust to varying statewide safety protocols with social distancing, mask-wearing measures and ramped-up sanitization routines. But for fine dining, adjusting to consumer demand – which has progressively shifted over time toward more casual environments – is nothing new.
When designing Northern Italian-style restaurant Subito, the dining counterpart to downtown Cincinnati’s Lytle Park Hotel (a Marriott property), creating a flexible experience was top of mind, says Barbara Best-Santos, Principal, ForrestPerkins (San Francisco). “Today’s diners are much savvier about their dining choices and are looking for environments and food offerings that speak to their desire for more personalization and a unique experience,” she says. Designing a space that could offer a variety of settings rolled into one venue was just the ticket.
To capture the restaurant’s concept, which Best-Santos describes as “an upscale European-style café,” the restaurant’s relatively small footprint of 3565 square feet was divided among distinct areas: a bar, a dining counter, the main dining room, a private dining room and outdoor seating on the terrace and an outdoor patio for dining al fresco. Rather than solely focusing on “bringing the outdoors in,” says Best-Santos, its designers sought to blur the lines between the indoor and outdoor spaces.
Located in a 1909-built historic building, it was crucial that each area of the restaurant felt as though it belonged, which was achieved through subtle nods to traditional lines in its interior architecture and layering modern color palettes, furnishings and decor. Areas are defined by distinct material aesthetics and existing building contours. Private dining is more traditional, with warm wood flooring, detailed cabinetry and luxe chandeliers. An antique-inspired carpet, a contrasting ceiling treatment and columns anchor the main dining room, visually separating it from the attached hotel lobby, with a foliage- and citrus-patterned mural at the back of the room evoking the outdoor garden.
Restaurants in hotels, which must appeal to a wide range of customers, may just be ahead of the curve on adaptive restaurant design. “There is a big push to bring the food and beverage environments into the main lobby spaces, creating more vibrant, seamless environments,” says Best-Santos. By providing choices in dining experiences, she says, guests can “easily move between spaces and select an environment that speaks to them.”
A New Normal
All facets of the restaurant industry are being challenged by the safety restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and designers are along for the ride, helping their clients provide the most comfortable and sanitary conditions for diners possible.
“Restaurants are a blend of form and function,” says Todd Taylor, VP, Design, Darden (Orlando). Designing an environment that is simultaneously beautiful and operational is “compounded” in the era of a pandemic, he says. Social distancing with the assistance of physical barriers creates a set of unique challenges, including managing sightlines, acoustics, air flow and compartmentalization.
But, he says, it’s not impossible to integrate an existing brand image with durable and easy-to-clean materials that provide a heightened sense of safety for the guest. “Safety must come first. The perception that the restaurant is compliant with local ordinances and is taking every possible [measure] to keep guests safe will help ease any potential anxieties.”
In the QSR sector, many restaurants have increasingly utilized third-party delivery apps such as Door Dash or Uber Eats, which David Milne, Director of Global Shop Design, Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corp. (Charlotte, N.C.), suspects may remain a convenient habit for diners after the pandemic ends. Table-top QR-code activated digital menus have become a common means to eliminate a literal touchpoint between customers. “QSR restaurants are also seeing a significant uptick in drive-thru ordering and pick-up, with many brands, such as Chipotle, organizing a separate order pick-up lane.”
For restaurants centered around the dine-in experience, however, such as fine dining, both Taylor and Milne expect diners will be anxious to return to be transported once again when there is a sense of normalcy post-pandemic. In the meantime, Taylor says, “please support your local restaurants, as they are doing the best they can to assure your well-being and their livelihood.”