Striking a balance has never been more important.

Restaurant design was an intricate art even in the calmest of times. In addition to the age-old questions that haven’t left, such as squeezing sales out of square footage, or striking a balance between practicality and functionality, operators are now walking a different line.

According to a recent study from consulting company Deloitte, more than half of consumers (55 percent) said they’d be willing to pay 10–15 percent more to know about the safety and cleanliness that surround the preparation and transportation of their food. And the average respondent in the 1,000-person survey said knowing details regarding where their food comes from would be worth as much as paying 6 percent more.

It brings up a design quandary as COVID conditions stretch into yet another calendar: Some early measures, like wiping down surfaces, moving tables apart (taking a self-imposed capacity hit in turn), and adding contactless options such as QR codes or disposable menus, clearly have a place in the landscape. But what matters most, for how long, and is there a way to assure customers without also making them feel like they’re dining out in a pandemic bubble?

Per OpenTable data, the Omicron variant only twisted matters. Reservations in Baltimore (29 percent), Chicago (31 percent), Denver (16 percent), New Orleans (39 percent), and New York (40 percent) remain below 2019 levels. Sixty percent of adults changed their dining habits due to the Delta variant, according to the National Restaurant Association.

And yet, broadly, higher checks and continued off-premises growth are pushing recovery along with sales in November 8.3 percent stronger than two years ago (Black Box Intelligence). A 2.3 percentage point improvement over October’s growth rate made November the best month based on sales growth in more than a decade.

As has been the case throughout, demand for restaurants hasn’t been the main hurdle for consumers—it’s been accessibility and mandates.

This raises the stakes on restaurant design even higher, says John Paul Valverde, the creative director and principal for Dallas-based design firm Coevál Studio, which is expanding to new markets across the country, like California, Miami, and Atlanta.

Design has become a journey in the details, and a constantly evolving one at that. For instance, the beginning of COVID was defined by layout extremes, he says. Coevál created pedestal sinks for people walking in so they wouldn’t have to navigate restaurants to get to a washroom. Yet operators didn’t love the idea, even when integrated into the host area.

Of late, trends have started to fall somewhere in the middle.

In this case, Valverde says operators are leaning toward a practice that gained popularity a few years ago, where restaurants design restrooms where each guest has their own space. Sink, included.

Alignable Chart

The Parlour by Bottled in Bond.

Less granular, though, having a modular space has become perhaps the biggest ask of Coevál’s restaurant clients, he says.

“Meaning, if you’re an operator and you’d like to get 80 seats in your restaurant, you’re conscious of the fact that some people don’t want to be very close to one another right now,” Valverde says. “So what we do is make sure that the restaurant layout is modular in the sense where you can have hypothetically 60 seats and when people feel more comfortable or if you have a busy night or special event, you can easily modify that and bring in more tables and chairs.”

Flexibility is a pandemic design staple. Beyond Valverde’s point of allowing brands to adapt to occasions, there’s still plenty of uncertainty ahead, as OpenTable’s data suggests. Just this week, New York restaurants were given the choice of either requiring dine-in consumers/staff to wear mask or asking for proof of vaccination based on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s order to stem winter COVID cases.

Valverde says operators are treading carefully with design so they can limit seating if mandates and other setbacks resurface. Yet also, they want a setup where they can add tables back in later if things loosen up.

“I think a lot of operators are realizing, or have realized, that their space is still not free when you’re closed,” he says. “You’re still paying rent 24 hours a day.”

This led to surge in hybrid concepts. Coevál designed The Sporting Club & Blum, which opened May 2021 in Dallas. It’s one roof with two separate spaces. Essentially, there’s a day/club sports bar on one side and a nightclub on the other, split by a factory-style storefront. “They wanted to see if they can captivate a crowd from Monday through Sunday versus Thursday through Saturday,” Valverde says.

Interior Of Restaurant

Interior Of Restaurant

The Sporting Club & Blue offers two concepts under one roof.

Interior Of Cafe

Xaman Cafe.

The nature of COVID imprinted hybrids on restaurateur’s conscious. At times, brands want to flex less throughout a single day to take advantage of mobility and behavior changes. For instance, a coffee shop in the front that turns into a lunch café at noon with a full wait staff. “The initial idea is just to make sure we understand what the flow and circulation should be,” he says. “But most importantly that [the client] understands what their own concept needs to be, because that will present us and you and your team from going in circles of what this is and why is this laid out in this manner.”

“How to make the most out of one space revenue wise has become important,” Valverde continues. “So that you can hit different markets at different times for more revenue.”

Customers coming back to dining rooms still want a memorable experience. That hasn’t changed. If anything, the space has to provide that more than usual given what it takes some guests to make the leap back. Celebratory occasions are on the rise for a reason. Consumers are turning to restaurants as an escape and place of reconnection, Valverde says.

A feature Coevál has pushed lately is “motion arts.” Basically, this boils down as a digital display inside a restaurant that could be an NFT. Or, it could show up as a video art piece that moves continuously throughout a day.

So instead of having a mural or wallpaper, Coevál places these motion art pieces in hallways, on the way to restrooms, etc., to create a technology-centered feature that enables a space to constantly change.

“That ‘Instagram moment’ that operators kind of cling on to is the entire restaurant should be technically Instagramable,” Valverde says. “The space needs to be layered. There needs to be textures and colors and lightning. … We get this request weekly and almost daily from different clients: ‘Everything looks great, where is my Instagram wall?’ So what we’re trying to do is figure out a nice balance between motion arts, and then interior design to make sure that the space feels like it’s an entire Instagram moment versus a neon wall that says ‘I love Tacos.’”

“I think what’s important is figuring out what the next step is going to be past an Instagram moment,” he adds.

Another shift of late was a transition to closed kitchens. The open-kitchen, on-display movement before COVID reverted somewhat, in many cases as a response to health regulations, Valverde says.

Part of it, however, is also a consumer pivot to help people feel safer. “Our last few clients have requested closed kitchens because they just want to focus on the environment,” he says. “I think the trend is coming back. And then the high-end restaurants are having expo kitchens with islands and a really nice showcase.”

Supply hang-ups have challenged designers just like it’s hamstrung operators. Valverde says they’re “scrambling constantly” to make sure whatever they spec and source is ordered and purchased quickly. What’s in stock, how soon can they get it, and ensuring the manufacturer isn’t backed up have become staples of the deisgn experience.

Pre-coronavirus, Valverde says, Coevál could build restaurants within 12–14 weeks. It now takes “easily” 20–24, even 26 weeks. “Almost double,” he says. You have lead times on fixtures and from general contractors. Layer that on top of permit expediting (they’re also backed up) and procedures and regulations, and everyone is left waiting for the puck to start moving.

Prices on metal, concrete, and “everything else that you would think is not going to be very expensive,” Valverde says, have gone up “dramatically.”

Coevál has seen significant ranges in projects, too. Some operators are taking aim at 16,000–20,000-square-foot boxes while others are trying to keep it under 3,000 to ensure they can pay rent if things go awry again.

Overall, though, the design world reflects what’s always been critical for brands, Valverde says. Whether it’s a website or Instagram or the lobby of a restaurant, the verbiage, feel, and language of a brand not only draws guests back to restaurants, but rewards them for making the trip.

“I think people just want to go back to what it was before,” he says.

Feature, Restaurant Design