From takeout windows and patio seating to a more efficient back of house, restaurant design is headed into new territory.

When one of Rosy’s Taco Bar’s windows was broken during Philadelphia protests against police brutality in June, the taco bar’s team made lemonade from lemons. The damage was reinvented to become a pickup window to support the restaurant’s recent uptick in takeout orders.

“It was fortunate for us, really,” says Avram Hornik, owner of FCM Hospitality, which runs Rosy’s and eight other bar and dining outposts around Philadelphia. “We were already considering a pickup window so we were able to just install it in place of the broken window.”

During the coronavirus crisis, Rosy’s hasn’t been the only restaurant to make design changes that support a variety of sanitation standards and service tweaks. When the pandemic shuttered dining rooms, the full-service sector was forced to confront a revenue stream that previously took a backseat to in-store sales: off-premises business. The gradual reopening of dining rooms has forced attention onto patio and outdoor spaces, which, at times have taken a backseat to dining rooms. And, of course, new cleaning protocols and guidelines are impacting the space of the dining room itself.

The result of this reckoning is a hybrid approach to full service that places much of the emphasis outside of the traditional dining room experience. This new approach is evidenced not only in temporary design changes—i.e. socially distanced tables or strategically placed hand-sanitizing stations—but also in lasting innovations that could change the way we build and design full-service spaces in the future.

“To truly compete, full-service restaurants need to innovate,” says Howland Blackiston, principal at foodservice branding, design, and consulting agency King-Casey. “People are always looking for good food, quality service, good value, convenience, and, especially now, sensitivity to health and safety. The dining experience must now include heightened sensitivity to these customer desires.”

All about al fresco

As restaurants across the U.S. have reopened at reduced capacities, a majority of on-premises dining has shifted to outdoor spaces.

The switch to outside allows free airflow around distanced tables and is reportedly safer for guests and employees but brings with it a couple of key considerations; namely, is this model sustainable through the fall and winter months? How can operators offer guests an elevated experience outside of a dining room? And what about restaurants that don’t have outdoor bandwidth?

FCM Hospitality runs a trio of restaurants that focus on al fresco dining: Morgan’s Pier, an outdoor barbecue concept on the waterfront open from April through October each year; Harper’s Garden, an indoor-outdoor contemporary bar and restaurant offering a garden atmosphere and locally inspired fare; and Juno, a seasonal Mexican grill that opened in July.

Should indoor dining rooms remain off-limits into the fall, Hornik says FCM might consider expanding the seasons of Morgan’s Pier and Juno, but only if healthcare professionals deem it safe. “I don’t know how we’d do that without limiting the airflow outside,” he says. “If we add partitions and heaters and tents in our outdoor seating, is that also going to eliminate the safety of outdoors?”

With outdoor-heavy concepts already in its portfolio pre-pandemic, FCM is no stranger to creating a fine-dining experience beyond the four walls of a restaurant. Hornik says his advice for other operators new to the scenario is to embrace its natural aspect rather than focus on ways to artificially capture or reinvent an indoor experience. He recommends adding planters and fresh greenery to patios, sidewalks, and parklets to create an ambience that’s appropriate for the outdoors.

“You have to embrace outside for what it is,” he says

Bakan, a large, upscale Mexican restaurant and mezcal and margarita bar in downtown Miami, has focused on its covered terrace dining area since the very beginning. Due to its warm location, the restaurant seats outdoors year-round, with side awnings in place that can be drawn around the terrace in case of rain or other unfavorable weather.

Bakan co-owner Lalo Durazo echoes Hornik’s sentiments on plants; he says that cacti imported from Arizona and Mexico and scattered throughout the space help set the mood on the terrace. An expansive sound system and an indoor-outdoor bar are also key in linking Bakan’s indoor dining room to its outside space. Around three-quarters of its 25-person bar is on the patio, while the rest is indoors.

“We haven’t been able to really seat at our bar lately due to social distancing, but the visual of the indoor and outdoor bar really helps connect the spaces,” Durazo says.

Although both FCM and Bakan had pre-existing areas dedicated to outdoor eating and drinking pre-pandemic, capacity restrictions on outdoor spaces have pushed the two to look beyond their established patios and add more tables and chairs along sidewalks.

Hornik says Rosy’s placed tables on both sides of its sidewalk out front, distancing dining guests both from each other and from patrons who walk by. Per the city of Miami, Bakan was able to add seating along a wide sidewalk and in parking spaces. (Note: In early July, Miami restaurants were ordered to shut down indoor and outdoor dining amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.)

In D.C., Relative Newcomer Annabelle Rearranged Its Indoor Dining To Accommodate Takeout Business And Socially Distant Server Stations

In D.C., relative newcomer Annabelle rearranged its indoor dining to accommodate takeout business and socially distant server stations.

Taking it to-go

In the case of Annabelle, a modern American eatery in Washington, D.C., no patio seating was available when the pandemic struck. The concept has since applied for the permits to build a permanent terrace in front of its establishment while relying on takeout and delivery in the meantime.

Many other restaurants are pursuing similar avenues since, up until very recently, off-premises was not an integral part of their business—especially true with regard to more upscale concepts and fine-dining restaurants. Now, the accelerated integration of off-premises into full service is resulting in spatial changes that, like Rosy’s takeout window, could stick around for a while.

Annabelle had been open for only around six weeks when dining rooms were ordered to close. The restaurant began offering takeout for the first time ever by making meals available for pickup and delivery via Caviar three to four days per week. Even once COVID-19 is a thing of the past, owner Ashok Bajaj says that carryout will be a permanent part of the restaurant’s operations.

“We rearranged the prep area to allow space for our employees to safely prep meals for takeout,” he says. “Takeout was previously thought of only in regard to ethnic food or quick service. Now that people know that it works in fine dining, we’re going to see a lot more of it.”

Like Annabelle, Rosy’s has also rearranged its indoor spaces to provide for takeout. The restaurant’s dining room is being used for socially distanced server stations, to-go order coordination, and even cold prep, allowing some back-of-house kitchen staff to move out front for portions of their shifts. Hornik says this system will evolve as the pandemic progresses, and that, for now, indoor dining is not on his radar.

King-Casey’s Blackiston suggests that, even when in-store dining is once again in the picture,  full-service operators consider incorporating off-premises platforms into their restaurants’ operations and design. He says to start with an operations assessment of a venue; determine if the layout, technology, and other infrastructure are in place to expand off-premises; and then develop a strategy that fits the brand.

“It all depends on the restaurant,” Blackiston says. “Assess if there’s room for a drive thru, dedicated parking, necessary signage, and perhaps even a separate entrance for pickup orders.”

A great resource for full-service operators looking to bolster their off-premises operation? The quick-service and fast-casual sectors. Some brands in these categories are to-go veterans and have been serving up successful drive-thru experiences for years.

Blackiston points to Starbucks—a brand that his agency worked closely with on its drive thru—as one such exemplar. The coffee chain, he says, exhibits a valuable lesson for full-service restaurants in making its drive-thru process one that seamlessly echoes its in-store guest experience.

Starbucks’ drive-thru lanes feature decor, graphics, and signage that are consistent with the visuals inside its stores— the road stripe painted in its signature green. Furthermore, the brand’s drive-thru design reinforces its in-store service model. Similar to the full-service dining experience, within a Starbucks’ four walls, the emphasis is placed on customer-employee interaction, with baristas often coming to know regular guests by name over time. The company makes this interaction possible in the drive thru with a two-way video order verification step that allows customers to see their baristas through a camera and vice versa at some locations.

Like Starbucks, fine-dining brands looking to incorporate more expansive off-premises processes into their models should look for ways to make their experience consistent across inside dining, outdoor dining, and to-go ordering—and design can help in that goal.

“This may be new to full-service restaurants, but the good news is that other brands in other segments have addressed it already,” Blackiston says. “Open-minded operators are going to realize solutions don’t always lie within full service; those solutions will only make you as successful as your competitors. Learn from these guys that have been doing this for 10, 15, 20 years, then take it up a notch and make it unique to your concept.”

While Restricted To Al Fresco And Off Premises, Annabelle Is Using Its Dining Rooms To Cold Prep Dishes Like The Yukon Gold Gnocchi

While restricted to al fresco and off-premises, Annabelle is using its dining rooms to cold-prep dishes like the Yukon Gold Gnocchi.

Return to the table

Last but not least are the design changes emerging inside the dining room, or the space traditionally at the core of full service. As evidenced by the scores of guests turning out to fill seats, people are anxious to get back to their favorite restaurants. For example, once Morgan’s Pier opened for reservations-only outdoor dining, Hornik has witnessed a steady stream of guests throughout the week rather than a surge on the weekends. Barring a return to stricter regulations, that dine-out enthusiasm is unlikely to wane anytime soon. Or, as Blackiston puts it, “People will always like being out together for a meal.”

Still, what customers desire to see in a dining room has changed in recent months. People are still seeking out special-occasion, culinary events, but they are also looking for added sanitation measures that increase their confidence while dining out.

How greatly does this desire impact restaurant design? The answer is two-fold. In many ways, guests will want to feel like they did before the pandemic, and adding ambience with decorative elements, beautifully set tables, music, and mood lighting is still crucial in fine-dining venues. But, guests will also be looking for the aforementioned heightened safety, so restaurants should no longer feel pressured to hurry or hide their sanitation practices.

“People are willing to wait that extra five minutes now for a sanitized table,” says Louise Cornick, co-owner of The Edge, a New American restaurant and bar in Jackson, New Jersey. “So we take everything off of the table every time someone leaves. We have always had these safety measures in place, but guests didn’t realize it. Now that they realize it, they want to see them.”

At press time, The Edge was not yet open for dine-in service but had opened outdoor dining on a terrace converted from a cocktail and small plates space to a full dining area. Cornick added bistro lighting and a tent outdoors and continued with her typical dining room table decor: votives, placemats, cloth napkins, and real silverware.

Instead of replacing these items with disposables or removing the votive and placemat altogether, Cornick says she opted to maintain the upscale nature of The Edge’s dining area, choosing instead to replace every placemat, napkin, and piece of tableware after each guest leaves and to sanitize the tabletops and votives between each seating. This results in longer wait times, but Cornick says that guests will hold out for both a fully sanitized table and one that feels elegant and somewhat back to normal.

Bakan’s Durazo echoes these sentiments. At press time, the restaurant has yet to reopen indoor seating, and Durazo says that, in terms of lasting changes in dining room operations post-pandemic, he expects customers will have a heightened sensitivity to matters of cleanliness and sanitation, while also appreciating their dining-out opportunities all the more.

“Five years from today, restaurants will have stayed at the same high standard of cleanliness and sanitation that we are at right now. The awareness that the consumer now has of the potential of getting some type of infectious disease from a server has changed,” Durazo says. “But, in the end, people will also be back in restaurants once there’s an antiviral medication or vaccine. People still want to go out, not just once in a while, but as often as they please.”

Feature, Restaurant Design