Between 2019 and 2020 dining-in saw a 100 percent decrease, year-over-year. 

The act of going out to eat was once borderline sacred. Whether visiting a neighborhood favorite or getting adventurous and finding new flavors, you got dressed for the occasion and headed to a restaurant where you would be hosted, served, and cleaned up after. These days, on the heels of the pandemic and amidst high levels of inflation, diners are more likely to skip the being hosted, served, and cleaned up after in favor of the more grab-and-go approach that is take-out.

It comes as no surprise that, according to Statista, between 2019 and 2020 dining-in saw a 100 percent decrease, year-over-year. In response to the pandemic, restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms without notice or knowing for how long. Cue the rise of online ordering and food delivery services, which collectively accounted for just six percent of food service transactions in 2019, app-based orders more than doubled to 15 percent in 2020. 

So, it’s not hard to believe now that consumers have applied new meaning to going “out to eat.” Spending the extra time and money required to leave the couch and put on “hard pants” to eat the same food that could be dropped at the doorstep is a tough sell, to say the least. According to Yelp, nearly 70 percent of American adults are now more likely to order takeout than they were pre-pandemic. 

What then will lure consumers out of their living rooms and into your dining rooms? A really good story.

Chapter 1: The Journey Begins 

Home, first and foremost, is filled with the comforts of familiarity. Rivaling that level of comfort in your restaurant begins with eliminating the guesswork of navigating your space. Thoughtful wayfinding allows people to get around without seeking assistance, through layout, signage, lighting and other visual cues and design elements. 

Make your space intuitive with clear, multi-sensory cues, beginning with first impressions. To reiterate the hosted part of dining out, make the first touchpoint warm and hospitable. Be it a host or hostess or clear and friendly signage, use this as your best opportunity to set the tone (or the table, eh?). 

While there are ample opportunities for building fun surprises into the dining experience, the floorplan should be among the least of those. Dining areas are centrally located, kitchens toward the back, and restrooms somewhere in between. While working through a layout, consider sight lines and design elements that will guide guests’ eyes or interest around the restaurant and provide a feel for the spaces and adjacencies. These cues can be as subtle as floor transitions, and as obvious and explicit as on-brand signage adorned with labels and/or graphics. 

Lighting design (both the lighting level and color temperature) can also aid in tone-setting and navigation. Keep kitchens and workspaces brightly lit for safety but use lighting in dining areas to achieve a desired mood that aligns with your larger story. If you’re opting for moody or romantic (in other words dim or filtered lighting), just ensure features like level changes and abrupt corners are accented effectively. 

Chapter 2: The Plot Thickens

Every touchpoint is an opportunity for your patrons to physically, and sometimes subconsciously, interact with elements of your brand. These details form the narrative. If they align in unique, interesting, and sometimes surprising ways, you will have created an irreplicable experience, one that takeout will only stand up to in the most desperate of time crunches. 

Not so different than the previously mentioned wayfinding tactics, each touchpoint should be considered through the lenses of many senses. If your brand channels classic elegance, for example, a plastic-coated menu may not be the most convincing move. On the other hand, if your brand identity skews more eclectic, maybe a hand-written menu fits the bill. How does it feel? How does it make people feel? Although menus are a seemingly standard feature in any food service establishment, they help communicate the story your restaurant tells–one that diners become part of for a short time. 

At the risk of exhausting the topic of menus, also consider the smells, the sounds, the scripts you share with your staff. Each of these minute, but important, details can and should be carefully designed to create an unforgettable story. Ensure the energy is channeled appropriately through elements such as acoustics. Is the restaurant designed so guests can easily hear their dining companions but not those at nearby tables, or is it a family-style restaurant with a bit more cacophony? Maybe you even layer in more intentional and oft-overlooked audio experiences by playing defining soundtracks in your identified zones—one restaurant we’ve been to played audio versions of cookbooks in the restrooms. 

Chapter 3: Ever After

You can put tremendous effort into every detail of your food and drink, but if the space isn’t comfortable and inclusive, patrons are less likely to linger. In a very tangible way, this may mean selecting seating for ergonomics as opposed to just utility, and even more specifically, giving real thought to patron mobility when compiling a variety of high and low, hard and soft, bench-style and bar stool seating options.  

Restrooms require a similar degree of scrutiny. They, after all, contain some of the most important design elements in a restaurant and need to be thoughtfully integrated in the restaurant’s design in terms of layout (unisex or grouped—gone are the days of gendered restrooms … a grouping of private lavatories with communal sinks provide a level of privacy), noise impact (or lack thereof), and cleanliness (bag or jacket stowage, countertops, faucet types, soap dispensing, hand drying options, trash disposal and baby-changing stations). 

Like curling up with a really good book, your restaurant should inspire comfort and excitement from the moment they enter until the dishes are cleared and the bill is paid. Make every effort to create pleasant moments of surprise throughout your restaurant and guests will return, and not just for takeout. They’ll remember the reasons why eating out of disposable plastic containers really isn’t what food service is all about. 

Kevin Stewart is director of Cushing Terrell’s Food and Beverage Design Studio. He brings more than 20 years of experience to the team, ranging from hospitality, food and beverage, and cultural projects to commercial office, mixed-use, multi-family, and single-family residential projects. He has experience in all aspects of the design process, from conceptual design and production to construction documents and contractor team management. He specializes in realizing immersive user experiences and compelling destinations that celebrate food, gathering, and community. Prior to joining Cushing Terrell, he worked for several architecture firms in Texas and Arizona, serving in the roles of project manager and project architect, as well as leading marketing, client relations, and staff management and development.

Expert Takes, Feature, Restaurant Design