When it comes to restaurant design, a nuanced, unique approach can prove timeless.

If food and beverage are king in the restaurant industry, then design is most assuredly the queen. Without it, the establishment in question risks defeat by competitors—including those with inferior menus. Creating a stylized space with a personality befitting the concept and cuisine can boost brand recognition and enhance the dining experience.

That being said, a certain degree of restraint is critical. Exaggerated designs may prove off-putting while a super trendy aesthetic risks becoming dated. For restaurants in nontraditional spaces like museums, gardens, and parks, the location can be a double-edged sword, offering inspiration but also the temptation of leaning too far into a particular theme.

Here, two restaurant groups and one design firm share their approach to creating a one-of-a-kind space that stands the test of time.

Michael Lennox | Owner, Golden Eagle, Muchacho, and Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall

I would describe Golden Eagle’s design as my grandparents’ living room merged with a 70-plus-year-old Rust Belt tavern or diner’s club, merged with the basement drinking den of a very tasteful imaginary relative.

Interesting spaces have a way of guiding you if you pay close attention to the bones and the details. The building we were in was built as a train depot in the 1920s and has a distinct, subdued charm and warmth to it. I wanted to play into the timelessness of the building, while also doing something that wasn’t so literally connected to railroad history.

I had the rough contours of the Golden Eagle concept bouncing around my head for a few years by the time we signed the lease for the property. The goal was to provide our guests an opportunity to take a step back in time a bit, but still leave enough of it open to interpretation and subjective experience so that it feels more organic and alive than a period piece from a specific year or era.

Life is too short for bland and boring spaces. If the dining environment doesn’t enhance the dining experience—or actively detracts from it—then the kitchen and service teams have an almost impossible job to do in terms of creating a positive and memorable meal for the guest. Alternatively, if people’s eyes light up the moment they walk through the front door, then the likelihood of delivering a top-notch experience goes up considerably.

Overly thematic spaces are really tricky because whatever trend they represent will have a shelf life, and it’s usually not a good place to be when a trend becomes stale. That being said, good taste is timeless. Our goal is to be tuned in enough to know what people respond well to at the moment while also being rooted enough in an environment that will age gracefully and withstand the test of time.

David Ruede | Vice President of Design, Construction, and Maintenance, Patina Restaurant Group

All of our locations are one of a kind, and we custom-make restaurants to suit each one. Diners want to be awed. Morimoto Asia in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, was inspired by an abandoned bottling factory with a two-story layout, multi-level sculptural bar, and spiraling chandelier. The designer, STUDIO V Architecture, won the American Institute of Architects Orlando’s Design Built Award of Merit for it. In New York, Lincoln Ristorante is a stunning example of modern architecture: a freestanding building with glass walls and panoramic views of the Lincoln Center. Its sloping roof has a hyperbolic paraboloid shape and features a 7,200-square-foot, walkable grass lawn that doubles as a public park. Our flagship restaurant, the four-star Patina in Los Angeles, is located in the Frank Gehry–designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. The kitchen there is soundproof, a thoughtful touch for concertgoers.

Our goal is to create an organic synergy and extend the guest experience. At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York, we built Yellow Magnolia Café into a wing of the Palm House, a sunny greenhouse space that perfectly embodies the spirit of the place. With the New England Aquarium, it’s another beautiful location, on the Boston Harbor, that deserves a modern restaurant. At the aquarium, the seasonal Reef Bar, designed by the terrific Boston-based design firm Bergmeyer, will open this summer with a new look and menu.

A company like ours at Patina is unusual because our concepts are all specialized. It’s different than a company that has one hit concept and is duplicating it. I think both methods can be successful.

Jeff Young | President, Restaurant Design Concepts

Design in the restaurant industry is really a question of corporate versus private restaurants. Franchises and corporate chains will always maintain brand familiarity and keep their cookie-cutter spaces to keep their loyal base happy.

The latest and greatest designs have always been found in the single-location restaurants. They need to stand out in a field of constantly growing competition to make their space the travel-worthy places people want to see and be seen in. The biggest shift may be that the smaller restaurants are also paying attention to design, not just in the high-end restaurant world.

One of our most unique designs was Cinco TacoBar in Livermore, California. The design draws inspiration from the cantinas of Mexico with colorful Dia de Los Muertos murals. Another client, Saucy Asian in San Francisco, blends modern and retro designs. It replicates the Korean street food experience with its outdoor tent dining atmosphere, which pays homage to Korean tented markets while creating a modern look.

Our new client New India Bazaar wanted a modern, industrial look with broad appeal. We tied cultural elements into the counter-face tile pattern that married Indian and modern culture in a subtle way while staying fresh and new.

We keep design themes subtle in the architectural details that support the concept. We try to avoid actual objects that are from the theme but reflect the patterns and cultural elements in the finishes and lighting fixtures. We maintain a strong concept that is followed through in the details and not in the decoration.

Expert Takes, Feature