When I eat out these days, I can’t help but notice the stools. If I’m dining at a two-top or just passing by the bar, as the waiter leads me to my table, I’ll crane my head and note the firmness of the seat (are they cushioned enough for long sits?), style (do they scream hip and cool but not too hip and cool?), and if I get close enough, the sturdiness of their build (I like to give chairs a little shake to see if they sway precariously). If a certain stool really speaks to me, I’ll pull up the restaurant’s Instagram, scroll through months of content in search of said stools, and save whatever images I find for future reference.
The reason for the bar stool obsession: I’m planning a refresh of my apartment and I’m kind of a type-A Planner with a capital P. (Don’t judge me.) And while smartly-appointed dining establishments have long been a source of joy to those of us who revel in good design, it seems the restaurant world has really hit its design stride in the past couple of years. (A desire to look good on Instagram probably has something to do with it.)
The big winners are me, you, and everyone else who loves a good bar stool. Here are just a few eye-catching examples pulled straight from the dining world that can work just as well at home as they do at the restaurant bar.
For that modern, minimalist look
Modern sushi spot Robin in San Francisco is striking for a plethora of reasons, chief among them its irreverent but exacting approach to omakase. But the molded plywood seats at the bar also deserve credit. Chef-owner Adam Tortosa picked them out himself because he liked the stark contrast of the chair’s blonde wood against the moody, dark colors of the dining room. Sleek and modern with molded, tapered wooden legs, these stools make a statement without trying too hard, which is pretty much the cool-stool sweet spot.
Comfort was the main motivator behind the current design scheme at Momofuku Nishi in New York City, since meals at this Italian-by-way-of-everywhere spot from David Chang can last a while (and perhaps also because early reviews of the restaurant’s first incarnation dinged it for uncomfortable seating). But the dusty green Fiber Bar Stools from Muuto have low-slung backrests, which offer support without overpowering the chair’s silhouette. According to the Danish Design Store’s website, they’re “perfect for settings where people are seated for many hours.”
Nope, you’re not seeing double. Japanese-inspired bar and restaurant Kumiko in Chicago also opted for Muuto’s Fiber Bar Stools at its formal eight-seat bar, except these feature cushions upholstered in inky black leather. The look seriously amps up the drama, though they’re more than twice as expensive as the non-upholstered version. For the restaurant’s creative director Julia Momose, the splurge was worth it. “Of all of the furniture, the bar stool is the one that I thought about most,” she said. Of key importance? Finding a seat “with the right amount of cushion to suit all body types,” plus a footrest and a sleek aesthetic that looked at home in Kumiko’s minimalist dining room. Plus, they’re a good foil for messy eaters. “I love how easily we can keep the stools clean thanks to the smooth design,” Momose added. “There aren’t any deep crevices into which crumbs may hide.”
The Punch Garden at The Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. is an outdoor cocktail oasis lined with drapey plants and twinkling string lights, and the seats are as laid-back as the atmosphere. They’re also built to withstand the elements, made with soft nylon ropes treated with an ultraviolet coating that won’t fade in the sun. “You really just want something that’s aesthetically pleasing and feels good to sit in — that’s the alpha and omega of choosing stools,” said Angie Fetherston, CEO of the bar’s parent company, Drink Company. “And they have to have a footrest — it feels terrible to have your feet dangling like a child.”
For getting your midcentury on
Comfort was the number one consideration — noticing a theme? — when it came to choosing a bar stool for Reverie, the globally-inspired contemporary fine dining spot in Washington, D.C. “Guests who dine at our counter are sitting for quite some time,” said chef and owner Johnny Spero of the 20-seats blue-tiled bar, which wraps around the restaurant’s open kitchen. Plus, “these look great in the dining room.” Upholstered in faux leather with a wooden frame with saddle-style seats, these stools are among the more affordable options on this list, but they look expensive.
Swivel seats! Velvet! Clean lines! There’s plenty to love about this luxe take on midcentury style. That’s why chef Gavin Kaysen and his interior designer wife Linda chose these West Elm stools for his intimate new tasting menu spot, Demi in Minneapolis, which serves an ever-changing, seasonally-focused menu for 20 diners at a time. “The swivel function makes it easy for guests to slide in and out without having to push the chair in and out,” said Linda. “Win-win for staff and guests.” Win-win, too, for small apartment dwellers. The light gray color at Demi is currently sold out, but the “lagoon” iteration (it’s basically navy) is available and on sale.
For channeling your third grade classroom
Tin Tin, the French-inflected wine spot in Atlanta, anchors its 10-seat, azure-hued bar with Industry West’s Academy Counter Stool upholstered in indigo buffalo leather. According to the restaurant, design firm ai3 chose the color as a nod to Provençal blue in keeping with Tin Tin’s breezy south of France vibe. The chairs have a definite schoolhouse-chic appeal — that is, if your school cafeteria served oysters on the half shell splashed with rosé mignonette.
Industry West furniture pops up again at the new Washington, D.C. location of tapas emporium Boqueria, both at the high-top tables in the dining room and along the chef’s counter. The Madewell bar stool is a riff on a classic classroom chair with a slick epoxy-coated walnut veneer and a powder-coated steel base, which we’re 99 percent sure is free of initials and scribbles carved by decades of bored school kids.
For a classic look that says “sophisticated library bar” or “French bistro”
Husband-and-wife duo Joe and Katy Kindred went for a bright and airy look at their contemporary chef-driven spot Kindred just outside of Charlotte in Davidson, North Carolina, but the stools at the bar scream moody library chic. Katy, who designed the space herself, was drawn to these comfy, swiveling loungers, which are accented with brass footrests, brass tacks, and brass ferrules. “I loved the tufted back and imagined that would play well with the sunlit windows in the front of the room, making for beautiful shadows and texture,” she said. She also wanted a timeless chair that “felt like you could have seen it in the early 20th century, the time when the building was built.”
All-day restaurant Oddfellows Cafe + Bar in Seattle keeps it simple with classic black bar stools made with sturdy beech wood. The design is inspired by the famous No. 14 chair by the Thonet chair company, which has become a bistro fixture since its introduction in 1859. Such chairs are often called “Bentwood” objects because their curvy look is achieved by wetting the wood, bending it into place, then letting it harden that way. Whether or not you’re into the backstory of this influential chair, it’s a pretty great way to infuse your kitchen counter with a let’s-just-sit-at-a-cafe-and-drink-wine-all-day je ne sais quoi.
For an artsy, funky conversation piece
Let’s not beat around the bush: The seats on these stools by artist Brett Miller look like butts, and we are here for it. They line the window counter at Relationships, a coffee shop-slash-gallery space in Brooklyn and are available for special order through Miller’s shop, Jack Rabbit Studio. At $1,000, they’re not cheap, but this is art, people.
“Most bar stools look the same, and I wanted to try something else,” Miller said. He was inspired by abstract paintings and wanted to recreate one in furniture form — then things took a turn. “Ultimately, what I did was I sat on the blank board and traced the outline of my butt, hence the title ‘butt stool,’” he said. “It’s very literal.” The stools also have foot pegs that Miller said are intended to look like kneecaps, because why not? “Most woodwork is so serious and I wanted to keep it light and I suppose more playful.”
The 15-seat quartz bar at wine-focused Enoteca Nostrana in Portland, Oregon, also gets literal with its Champagne cork-inspired stools designed by the Radice Orlandini studio. “They’re completely at home in our wine bar,” said Nicholas Suhor, the spot’s director of operations and guiding force behind the design of the space, which also boasts an eye-popping two-story wine cellar. “The cork also brings to mind the cork floors of Nostrana, our original restaurant next door. Bonus for us: They’re Italian designed and manufactured.”