Create a memorable dining experience by integrating the intangibles

For better or worse, whether you intend it or not, every element you bring into your restaurant serves as a reflection of your business and its values. Factors that might not even cross your mind can have a lasting impact on your guest’s experience. “Restaurant owners need to remember that they are not simply selling food—they are selling an experience,” says David Shove-Brown, principal of Studio3877, an architecture and interior design firm based in Washington, D.C. “Generally, customers can get good food in multiple locations, so a restaurant's success comes from the intangibles.”

Here, interior designers, architects, and industry insiders offer their take on the five most commonly neglected aspects of today's restaurant atmospheres.

1. Exterior ambiance. One of the most forgotten elements in full-service restaurants can affect your patrons before they ever step foot in your door. An establishment’s entry experience sets the tone for the rest of the meal. Consider well-maintained landscaping, along with ambient music and lighting. Comfort is important, too, especially if guests have to wait outside. Use cooling misters during the summer months and heaters (which can be attached to an awning) on chilly days. If you have a parking lot, landscaped boulevards and trees can break up the mass of asphalt. Find a lighting scheme that makes your guests feel secure—but not blinded—as they head back to their cars.

2. Tabletops. Tables can go from clever to cluttered in a hurry. “I’ve been to some restaurants where there is an item on the table, and you end up moving it because people share meals and things get in the way,” says restaurant designer Griz Dwight, principal of Grizform Design Architects in Washington, D.C. “Not everything on a table is there for functionality purposes.” As such, it’s important to make the most of the space you’ve got. “The presentation of the serviette or the napkin is one of the first experiences that has the opportunity to engage the guest,” notes Nathan Lee Colkitt, principal and CEO of Colkitt&Co, a San Diego-based architecture and design firm. Instead of the ubiquitous napkin “rollup,” he suggests adding some whimsy with treatments like the bowtie napkin fold, a branded napkin weight, or take-home branded napkin rings “that are about the experience and saving memories.”

3. Menus and check presenters. These two oft-forgotten items represent the introduction and conclusion of the meal. They also offer an opportunity for the restaurant to brand itself and improve guest perception. Consider a clean, simple set of menu and check presenters, such as a line from Paradigm Trends, a company that offers both traditional and modern options. Don’t forget about the actual content of the menu, either. Gregg Rapp, a restaurant consultant in Palm Springs, California, recommends removing dollar signs and dots that lead to the price of an item. “You want to discourage people from making a decision based solely on how much something costs,” he says. Another tip from Rapp: menu descriptions should come directly from the chef.

4. Restrooms. They may be the least glamorous place in your restaurant, but restrooms deserve your full attention. They’re one of the most discussed topics in online restaurant reviews. Keep these spaces clean, functional, and well-stocked. (And don’t skimp on the paper products, either.) A management system called Restroom Alert allows you to obtain customer feedback, as well as track restroom checks, cleanings and repair. Give the bathroom a little personality, too. “Yes, it needs to be clean, but I have seen the restroom taken up a notch by adding video projectors or playing Italian lessons over the speaker,” Rapp says.

5. Noise. As full-service restaurants have jettisoned tablecloths, carpeting, and heavy upholstery in favor of hardwood floors, exposed ceilings, and tables free of linens, they’ve also lost a lot of sound absorption properties. Hard surfaces often are a necessity, however. “Soft surfaces are great, but not always the way to go because of wear and tear,” Dwight notes. Combined with high-energy sound systems and open kitchens, restaurant decibel levels are on par with the noise made by lawnmowers, power tools, and concerts. Although today’s diners have come to expect some noise, everyone has their limits. To reduce echo in the restaurants he designs, Dwight will use sound-deadening Acousti-Coat latex paint. He also has employed unique acoustic techniques as the design calls for them, such as fabric-wrapped sound panels and old tractor tires.

The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.

Expert Takes, Feature