Subtlety: When Less Is More

Red Rooster Harlem

It's the small design details that combine to make a truly great restaurant experience for customers. Are you delivering?

I have had the pleasure of participating in the Ask the Experts booth at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show for three years now. Ask the Design Experts is a free 30-minute private consultation with leading front- and back-of-house designers and management consultants in cooperation with Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI). This year the experts were asked to answer several questions to be used in promotional pieces leading up to the NRA Show in May 2011 at McCormick Place in Chicago. One of the questions asked of me was:

What is one crucial design element that the average guest would probably never notice?

I answered: There is not one design element that a guest would never notice, but many; acoustics appropriate to the theme; light levels and gentle transitions to set the mood; being unaware of how perfect the chair or booth sits; or the colors in the room that contribute to why they are having a great time.

The point of the answer is that subtlety many times may point to the success of your restaurant. You want your guest to rave about the food rather than complain about the temperature or the noise levels.

I have often appreciated that the perfect waitperson is one with the ability to sense when you have a need and is there when you need them. Otherwise you are unaware of their presence. Opposite to this is the manager or waitperson regularly interrupting your conversation to ask if you are enjoying your meal. “Well, I was, until you so rudely interrupted me,” is often my thought.

I think it is likewise true of the many architectural components of a great restaurant that contribute to its ambience. They are there, as you need them, acoustics, lighting, art, furnishings and music.

It is rare to have an engaging conversation with your dining companion without having to shout and without being part of the conversation at the next table. This is one of the top complaints of restaurant guests. Successful sound systems and acoustics will allow the conversation to happen effortlessly and without shouting. It also serves the guest well to ensure that the music is delivered directly to the table at a volume that allows them to appreciate the music without raising their voice above it.

Yes, yes, I have heard all the stories about how you don’t want to include acoustic material in the restaurant because you want the restaurant to be noisy, because noise adds energy. Nonsense! Noise is just noise. Sound and music, color and art, people and conversation add energy. Deliver the sound to the table and forget the noise.

Lighting can be the art of the room and more often than not is called upon to light the art in the room and the tables it serves. The subtle workings of lighting should be perfect for the various times of day. As the day wears on the changes in lighting should be unnoticeable.

The perfect chair with the right proportions allows your guest to focus on the food and their companion because it has the right sit, the right feel, and the right support. And, yes, it can look great as well.

In the work I do, I strive to provide an ambience consistent with and tailored to the theme or rhythm of the restaurant through appropriate use of sound, lighting, and acoustics. It all starts with the menu and builds from there. Guests often do not know why they love the place, or why in the world they are willing to wait two hours for a seat. But they tell their friends.

Over the course of the meal, or on their subsequent returns, they may begin to notice the special attention that went into the details, the colors and species of the woods chosen, the custom wrought steel coat hooks, the illuminated art work and the design of the seating. Even subtler will be the layout of the room(s), varying heights of the tables and ceilings, and the spacing of the seating.

I have no notion that great design is the answer to a restaurant’s success. Great design will contribute to a restaurant’s success, but it is always food first, service second, and then let the architects build on those first two principles and work within your budget. Every concept is different. Each has its challenges of budget, but it always starts with the food. Many of our restaurant projects have comfortable budgets and they often are the ones that are published in the design magazines, but many more have very tight budgets that require careful decisions to stay in budget. Regardless of budget, the principles of design and layout are the same for any successful project.

In future editions of this magazine I hope to address some of these details in more depth. Feel free to email me with your own questions at Perhaps I can answer them in future columns.

In the meantime, come to the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, taking place May 21 through May 24 at McCormick Place in Chicago. Sign up for an Ask the Experts time slot and get 30 to 40 minutes of free advice from some very talented experts in design, management, and kitchen planning.

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