A few months ago, I went to brunch at an of-the-minute Manhattan restaurant. The whole thing should have been prime Instagram bait: There were gorgeous pastries, oozing egg yolks, and plants everywhere. But the plants on the shelf just over my shoulder, a collection of succulents, did not attract my iPhone camera. Some leaves were a mushy droop, others had shriveled entirely — and not just at the bottom, where a plant sheds old growth to make way for new. These plants were inches from death.
Already trending across interior design and fashion, indoor plants bring a lot to a dining room. Plant shop owner Danae Horst says that “the whole vibe feels different” when plants are present. And she’s excited about how many houseplants are in restaurants these days; not just because it’s more potential business — her Pasadena shop Folia Collective offers plant design services to restaurants, and so far has worked with a local smoothie shop — but because “they really change the way a space feels.”
Houseplants are the connecting design thread through some of the hottest restaurants in the country. Vines of pothos drip over a floating garden structure at Los Angeles smash hit Bavel. A lovely ficus tree stands in the middle of Sorrel’s dining room in San Francisco, while various Bay Area ferns hang overhead. Chef Alvin Cailan recently spent a Sunday shopping for plants for his eagerly awaited NYC restaurant the Usual.
“They’re bright; they add texture,” says Libby Willis, co-owner of the buzzy Brooklyn diner MeMe’s. At MeMe’s, Willis and co-owner Bill Clark manage a collection of houseplants that include jade, ZZ plants, and kangaroo ferns. They turned to these sturdy houseplants to help create a warm residential feeling in the overall design. And, since they were on a tight budget, they found that houseplants were more affordable than bringing in multiple floral arrangements. (Many upscale restaurants hire florists for that.)
But when it comes to restaurants, Horst sees plants as sometimes being “an afterthought” in the design process. Between heat from the kitchen, the cold from air conditioning, the traffic flow (seriously — servers can injure plants by brushing against plants and breaking their leaves), and frequently dark spaces, restaurants present a challenge even to seasoned gardeners. She recalls sitting in a hip LA restaurant and spotting a rubber tree with scale, a common plant pest. “I kept looking at this tree thinking, ‘They really need to get this tree out of here. It’s not just sad, it’s actually diseased.’ It distracts from the overall experience when there’s something dying sitting next to you when you’re in this beautiful place enjoying this delicious food.”
The MeMe’s front-of-house staff takes care of the plants as part of their sidework. “Honestly, it’s the same as washing the shelves or organizing the cabinets,” Clark says. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, the plants come off the shelves and into hotel pans for a good watering. Willis and Clark are accomplished home gardeners, and keep a close eye on their plants’ health. Even so, some plants haven’t made it, exposed to too much sun from the restaurant’s large front windows.
“If you don’t particularly love houseplants and you fill your restaurant with houseplants, you could end up with a restaurant full of dead houseplants,” Willis says.
Restaurateur Tuan Bui has gotten a crash course in plant care. He and his partners turned to ponytail palms, fiddle leaf figs, Swedish ivy, and over 10 other plants to decorate their month-old Brooklyn restaurant Di An Di. “Being a Vietnamese restaurant and decorating with plants was a no-brainer, and we knew it was trending on Instagram,” he says. “We knew if we were doing it, we had to do it really well and own it.”
Bui takes the lead on plant care, with help from his cousin, an artist who also works at a Williamsburg hardware store. Together, they figured out what kind of care each plant needs, where to place them, and how to keep them thriving. He waters the plants on a twice-a-week schedule, and uses an 8-foot ladder to water the hanging plants. He keeps an extra-close eye on the greenery near the kitchen. “The open kitchen emanates so much heat and smoke,” Bui says, “but it also produces a lot of humidity, which is good for plants that thrive in that.” So far, he’s found success by learning as much as he can about the plants’ native environments, and being “mindful on a regular basis” of their health.
Another way to ensure a restaurant of living plants: Pay someone to manage it. Johnny Raglin, the director of bars and development for the Absinthe Group, knew he wanted to fill San Francisco restaurant Barcino with plants from the get-go. He turned to botanical design firm Living Green Design, the same team that helped him find the right plants for a previous project, to create a verdant wall display and hanging planters. The restaurant is home to at least seven varieties — including spider plants, pothos, rhipsalis, and staghorn ferns — as well as a lighting system tricked out with grow lights to help them flourish.
“What I’ve learned is you can’t trust restaurant people,” says Raglin, noting that it’s a challenge to maintain proper communication about which plants were watered and how their health is doing. “Even under proper care, some plants just don’t make it and they need to be removed from the fold. It’s just the case of leaving it to the professionals, honestly.” And while having professional maintenance for the plants is costly, Raglin believes it’s more cost-effective than having florist-designed arrangements brought in.
As houseplants continue to trend across design (and Instagram), more restaurateurs will likely be inspired to try their hand at making their own #UrbanJungle. Any who do should be prepared to do the work — or spend the money to have someone else do it. After all, says Horst, “dead plants are not what people are looking to incorporate into their aesthetic.”