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The “Secret Sauce” of Restaurants: 10 Ingredients for Success

Atto Primo, Shanghai. Image © Gensler.

What makes the dining experience truly memorable? What creates the spark when you walk through the door, the ambiance once you’ve been seated at your table or the joy when you are served your first dish? Over the last 20 years, I’ve learned that restaurant design is an art. It’s never just one thing that makes a great restaurant memorable, but rather, it’s a combination of elements—from the finishes and fixtures down to the presentation of the food—that creates a meaningful experience and keeps guests coming back again and again.

So, what is the recipe for a top-notch dining experience? I believe there are 10 key ingredients for a successful restaurant:

1. Food Follows Fashion

Fashion trends and influences frequently appear in restaurant design, from preppy to punk or global to bohemian. Even the cyclical adage that “everything old is new again” remains true for restaurant design. Our clients value the nostalgia of something familiar and we discover ways of recreating them into something new.

Left: Acadiana & Ceiba, Washington, D.C. Image © Gensler. Right: A look from Valentino’s Resort 2016 collection. Photo © Valentino.

2. Decompress the Entry

Whether there is varying height, an introduction of sound, or a physical structure, decompressing the entry creates a portal from the outside world to the inside. This sequence allows guests to experience elements of surprise on their journey to the final destination: their table.

Left: Andiamo Steakhouse, Las Vegas. Right: Vast Restaurant, Oklahoma City, Okla. Images © Gensler.

3. The “Big” Wow

Upon walking into the main restaurant space, something should catch your guests’ eye right away to spark a jaw-dropping reaction. This focal point is typically not just one single design element, but it’s the integration of multiple design elements together that cohesively create that one, big wow moment.

Etihad Lounge at JFK International Airport, New York. Image © Gensler.

4. The Jewel

There should be a custom-crafted element in the space that is unique to that venue. It is authentic, precious and often handmade by a local artisan. For Peska, we built on the restaurant’s coastal feel with a school of fish running throughout the space. Each abstractly-shaped fish within the art installation is independently mobile and custom crafted, with thin sheets of crimped aluminum laminated in dichroic film to give them a luminescent effect.

Peska, Houston. Image © Gensler.

5. Bang for Your Buck

Restaurants should allocate their budget to the “wow” moments and use cost-conscious solutions elsewhere. We often recommend that our clients spend more on high-end seating, where guests experience the majority of their meal, and less on flooring finishes.

The Houston Club, Houston. Image © Gensler.

6. Day to Night

Restaurants usually operate from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night drinks. To be versatile from day to night, the design needs to pay special attention to lighting—from daylight opportunities to transitional lighting—and be flexible, utilizing multi-functional furniture.

Left: Starbucks, Miami. Right: The Alexander, Indianapolis, Ind. Images © Gensler.

7. Ordinary Extraordinary

This principle takes the ordinary, everyday object and transforms it into something completely new and unexpected. I often find inspiration from back-of-house storage in a restaurant and make it a focal point for the front-of-house. For example, in the design of the brewpub, Loose-Wiles Gastro Pub & Freehouse, modified kegs serve as light fixtures and a portrait of Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead, the father of Prohibition, was rendered in bottle caps by a local artist.

Loose-Wiles Gastro Pub & Freehouse, Minneapolis, Minn. Image © Gensler.

8. The Perfect Table

The design is in the details—the candle, the flatware, the linens. Everything the guest sees or touches during their visit adds to their overall experience, making those small details just as important as the larger ones. Thoughtful branding—from the menu to the takeaway box—plays an important role in the dining experience.

Peska, Houston. Image © Gensler.

9. Craft & Presentation

The best dining experiences occur when guests are exposed to the craft of their food. Whether it is providing visibility to the chef in the kitchen or the artful plating of entrées, visitors will return if they feel their meal was prepared honestly and thoughtfully.

Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, Arlington, Va. Image © Gensler.

10. Addition of Retail

The Hard Rock Café was the first restaurant to really start selling merchandise as part of the restaurant experience. Planet Hollywood spun off that idea shortly after, and now you can see this just about everywhere. It goes beyond key rings and coffee mugs—it’s barbecue sauce, a growler of made-in-house beer, or whatever is the most important part of the restaurant’s identity.

Left: Loose-Wiles Gastro Pub & Freehouse, Minneapolis, Minn. Right: Peska, Houston. Images © Gensler.

Lisa Pope-Westerman is a design director and principal within Gensler’s Houston office. As a retail and hospitality specialist, she is known for applying innovative practices to everything from restaurants to corporate campus amenities. Through her 20 years of experience in restaurant design, Lisa has excelled at creating unique dining environments that resonate both locally and nationally, while being well-suited to each individual and the collective experience. Contact her at lisa_pope-westerman@gensler.com.