Restaurant Design Tips to Help Your Restaurant Succeed

Good design sends subliminal messages that reinforce your brand identify. Bad design could keep guests from coming back.
restaurant design feature
Your restaurant design should reinforce your brand promise. (Photo: zhu difeng/Shutterstock)

A restaurant doesn’t just serve food. It also serves an experience. And the design of the restaurant shapes that experience from the moment the guest walks in the door — and can help make it positive, authentic and unique.

“So many restaurants today lack soul and personality,” said Doug Roth, CEO and founder of Playground Hospitality, a restaurant consultancy in Chicago. Find yours, and be sure your design articulates it.
Related: The Keys to Creating a Likeable, Memorable Restaurant Brand
Of course, “design” starts with architecture. “Don’t pick an architect who’s really good at home design and doesn’t have restaurant experience,” Roth advised. “There are certain realities to the physical organization of a restaurant that you can only learn from experience.” You’ll need to think about logistics such as storage and refrigeration needs, for example. And the design will need to meet local codes.

But design goes far beyond a blueprint. It encompasses more or less everything the guest sees, feels or touches, short of the food — the seating configuration, the tables and chairs, the physical menu, the lighting, the décor, even the music. Each aspect should contribute to an experience that delivers on your brand promise.

“Every restaurant needs a story, and the design needs to reinforce the story,” said Roth.

Here are six of the most important elements of restaurant design and how to nail them.

Related: NCR Silver’s Guide to Starting a Restaurant

Seating

restaurant seating 1

The proximity of the seating can determine the vibe of your restaurant. (Photo: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

“Sit in every seat in your restaurant and make sure that you want that seat,” said Roth. “And if you don’t want it, fix it.” Are you looking at the wait station or at a blank wall? “On the positive side, are you sitting somewhere that makes you feel good?”

There are a million things you can do to “fix” a bad seat, noted restaurant consultant Clark Wolf of Clark Wolf Company, such as adding a mirror to the wall a seat is facing, turning the table a certain way or adding a wraparound to create a cozy space and shield the table from the host stand or the bathroom entrance. “There are some ways that those tables can end up being the best tables,” Wolf said.

When you created your restaurant business plan and budget, you estimated how many seats you need and how many turns you’re going to get. Better to err on the side of fewer seats than more.

For a table service restaurant, “You usually want less than the demand because people like to go to places that are busy. If you never fill up, even at peak times, that’s a problem,” said Wolf. “People don’t mind waiting in many cases, especially if you give them something fun to do while they wait” or give them the option to take out if they’re in a hurry.

How close together the tables should be depends on the vibe and experience you’re going for. Roth advised against having too much space between tables (an option most restaurants don’t even have). “People really like to feel a sense of liveliness and that they’re part of something that’s going on,” he noted.

Furniture

Like every other aspect of the design, your furniture should reflect your concept. For one bistro in Chicago, Roth used straightforward school chairs to get across a message: simplicity. “Bistros are simple and the food is simple and straightforward,” he said.

The furniture should also be comfortable, or diners won’t relish coming back. Make sure table heights and chair or banquette heights make sense in relation to each other. For example, you don’t want the table so high that “you feel like a 9-year old,” said Wolf. When that happens, “You really truly never want to go there again.” And you may question the wisdom of the owner.

“If people can’t figure out the ratio of a chair to table, how can they figure out making food?” Wolf asked. “All these things have to do with an attention to detail that either builds or destroys trust.”

Lighting

lighting

The right lighting at your restaurant doesn’t have to be too pricey; Ikea has great options. (Photo: Ruslan Seradziuk/Shutterstock)

“Lighting is another way that you can economically create a real big impact,” Roth noted. “Light just makes people feel good.” Or in the case of bad lighting, such as in a restroom, “It reflects back on how they feel about the restaurant.”

Choose your lighting to set the appropriate mood, which could entail making guests feel like they’re right at home or somewhere far away.

“People like to go to places where they feel like they’ve been transported somewhere else, like they’ve taken a mini vacation,” said Roth. “It’s important for the designer to figure out how to associate that. If he’s doing an Italian coastal restaurant, then let’s make us feel like we’re on an Italian coast — without it being so literal that you have posters that say ‘Welcome to Positano’ or something.”

Effective lighting doesn’t have to be expensive. You can use what’s out there in stores such as Ikea or Crate and Barrel, Roth noted. But you need to have an eye for it. “If you don’t have it, hire someone who does, but again, makes sure that it ties in with what you’re trying to do.”

Décor

restaurant decor

When thinking of restaurant decor, less is more; too much can be overwhelming. (Photo: Eviled/Shutterstock)

Your décor can go a long way toward conveying your concept and expressing your brand’s personality. But don’t go overboard with a theme. “If it’s too theme-y, I assume the food’s going to be corny, too,” said Wolf.

Roth also recommended keeping it subtle — even subliminal. “I think less is more.” Imagine a fish camp restaurant whose design is a literal interpretation of a fish camp. “If you go there too many times, you get tired of the atmosphere and design.”

He often uses small touches — snow domes for a lodge concept, for example. And he likes to take one of the owner’s passions and incorporate it into the restaurant decor. One client, whose restaurant Roth described as “soulless,” had had an experience with a baby elephant as a child that led him to collect baby elephants — which Roth then added into the design.

When it comes to décor, don’t forget the tabletop, where diners can’t help but notice items, especially unusual ones.

“If you don’t have a lot of money, you can use a tabletop in helping to give the final finishing touches to the design,” said Roth. For a fast-casual restaurant, if the owner has a thing for Legos, for example, a unique design element could be something as simple as using Legos of different colors to identify the tables.

When it comes to artwork on the walls, Wolf urged caution. “There are exceptions to this, but I’m a real firm believer that you have to be careful about art because if art is prominent and somebody doesn’t like it, they can’t go to the restaurant. Art and décor are a little bit like the music in a restaurant — they have to be just below the conversation, lifting the conversation, not dominating.”

The menu

restaurant menu

Graphic design, size, and material are all important aspects of your restaurant’s menu. (Photo: Raxpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Every aspect of your menu, from the word choices to the graphic design to the size and weight and material, should continue your brand narrative. But above all, the menu should facilitate ordering.

A menu that’s hard to read for one reason or another is a mistake, said Wolf. For a fast-casual restaurant, “If the print on the menu above the counter is incredibly stylish and chic but not readable, that’s the worst. Another bad mistake is there’s so much description of all the ingredients that you don’t know what you’re ordering anymore, you’re exhausted. We refer to that as fast intellectual.”

Related: 15 Menu Tweaks that Can Increase Profits

The restroom

restaurant restroom

People usually connect the cleanliness of a restaurant’s restroom to that of its kitchen so make sure yours is well stocked and tidy. (Photo: Larina Marina/Shutterstock)

A visit to the restroom can make or break a guest’s restaurant experience — especially if it’s memorably bad.

“The reason so much emphasis is put on bathroom design and cleanliness is because that’s where a lot of people decide if these people know what they’re doing and are taking care of my food back there where I can’t see them,” said Wolf. “If the restroom is a mess, you could worry about the kitchen.”

Aside from keeping the restrooms clean and stocked, consider the lighting. “Make sure the lighting is good in the bathroom — good as in flattering,” said Wolf. “You want to see what’s likely to be seen by others, but you also want to leave the bathroom feeling good about yourself.” Side lighting is generally more flattering than direct overhead lighting. “And a gold or pink gel never hurt. It makes everybody look a little healthier.”

The restroom presents yet another opportunity to tell your brand story. “It can be a really fun place to create unexpected surprises,” said Roth. He once decorated a French bistro’s restrooms using a simple collage of French magazines. “It was very inexpensively done but it got the message across.”

Even stocking the restroom with upscale hand soap and lotion can create a pleasant surprise for guests.

Whether it’s the hand soap in the restroom, the centerpiece on the tables, the menu font, the color of the walls or how the silverware looks and feels, “It’s the details of our business that makes the difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant,” said Roth.

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