What the Restaurants of the Future Will Look Like
by Diana Budds
When the sommelier Yannick Benjamin was planning his East Harlem restaurant Contento, he told his architect that he wanted to make it feel like home, a simple place where diners would step inside and instantly feel comfortable. And he has succeeded: A long, yellow banquette hugs one of the exposed brick walls, and navy blue wallpaper with gold accents is on display in the back. Orb-shaped pendant lights hang over the bronze bar, and the storefront windows open wide so that the interiors and the outdoor dining shed feel almost as if they’re part of the same space. Benjamin will probably be there, too, working the busy room, pouring wine, and making sure his guests feel welcome. But if you ask him what his favorite part of the restaurant is, he’ll tell you it’s the area behind the bar. Benjamin has used a wheelchair since he was 25, and this is the first place he’s worked where he can do a full 360-degree turn.
Every detail in the restaurant has been considered so that customers of all ability levels can comfortably enjoy the space, which has been busy since it opened in June. Next to the bar is a lower counter with five chairs, designed so someone using a wheelchair can just pull up and Benjamin can serve guests eye to eye. They’re the most popular seats in the house. “We’re image conscious in the restaurant industry,” Benjamin says. “And people think accessible design will affect the aesthetics… We have fantastic bartenders, and they all say, ‘I love the counter seating. I can see customers, they can see me, it’s more intimate.’ When the bar is high, it’s like a wall. It lacks that intimacy.”
Contento has been in the works for years, and its owners didn’t plan to open during a global pandemic. But with the exception of an outdoor dining area, they didn’t have to change anything about their design to adapt to the new ways we interact with space. Many of the things they had wanted from the start — completely touchless features in the bathroom and a dining room with movable tables and chairs to accommodate wheelchairs — just made even more sense in the COVID era. Every table is designed to be accommodating, physically and philosophically. “We have a lot of customers who have compromised immune systems, and if someone called and said, ‘I need to have 6 feet of distance,’ we could make that happen,” Benjamin says. “We just move a couple tables. It’s [about] making sure every customer is getting their money’s worth.”
For Benjamin, it’s second nature to think about how bodies navigate spaces and what would be considered welcoming and accessible to all people; yet, despite Americans with Disability Act requirements, it’s long been perceived as optional for everyone else. The pandemic, however, has shifted that thinking, as every restaurant has had to contend with ever-changing rules around how their spaces need to function; diverging customer expectations surrounding safety; and a truly different barometer for what it means “to be comfortable and welcoming.”
These new approaches will define the future of restaurant design — even after the threat of a new outbreak or new restrictions has passed. “The only thing that’s certain now is that when people set out to design things, things are going to be different than we think they are,” says David Rockwell, founder of Rockwell Group, the architecture firm behind Nobu, Vandal, and Union Square Cafe. “The need for pivoting and flexibility — that point has been driven home.” Outdoor dining is becoming a mainstay; adaptiveness will be built into designs; and light, air, and space will become even more important, not just to the future of restaurant design but to the health of the industry as a whole.
Over the past year and a half, restaurant design has changed more rapidly than at any other moment in recent memory. Restaurants constructed outdoor dining sheds, moved tables at least 6 feet apart from each other or separated them with acrylic dividers, reduced the surfaces that people touch, and removed paper menus to limit exposure among staff and customers. While the temporary acrylic barriers have mostly come down (it turns out they really didn’t do anything to protect us) and we now know that surface transmission is rare, some of these adaptations will have longer-term viability.
“Outdoor dining literally saved my business and my staff’s jobs,” says Melba Wilson, owner of the Harlem restaurant Melba’s and president of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “Permanent outdoor dining is what we need.” At first glance, it seems obvious that outdoor dining will become a fixture in cities; however, restaurants will first need to answer questions about how they will interact with streets, neighborhoods, and cities before they can begin to figure out how they will interact with customers outside.
Yin Kong, the director and co-founder of Think! Chinatown, a New York advocacy group that works with small businesses mostly owned by Asian immigrants, is concerned about the limited public space in her neighborhood and the presence of outdoor dining pavilions. “The businesses here serve a lot of people coming from other [parts] of the city and from New Jersey who are more dependent on cars,” Kong says. “The fight over streets and parking spaces is a bit more ferocious here. Some community members claim that [outdoor dining] impedes pedestrian flow and safety for less mobile people, like seniors.” Meanwhile, Wilson is working with the city to develop a new set of outdoor dining guidelines that will make it more sustainable and standardized than what’s in place now — which is largely a free-for-all.
But at this pivotal moment, and coming on two years of use, many outdoor dining structures are falling apart, owing to shoddy construction and materials that were never meant to withstand inclement weather. And many have simply outlived their usefulness. Tropical Rotisserie, a Dominican American restaurant in the Kingsbridge area of the Bronx, received an outdoor dining structure from a pro bono program and used it for restaurant seating and community events. But it eventually had to be dismantled because of maintenance. Manhattan’s Chinatown received a flurry of outdoor dining pavilions at the beginning of the pandemic — many as part of pro bono programs like Dine Out NYC — and the neighborhood is now at an inflection point. The structures have been helpful to some restaurants, like Sweet House, a dessert shop that had only four seats inside, but weren’t much use to the bigger banquet halls whose main business centered on special events that no amount of outdoor dining could ever replace.
A+A+A — an experimental design studio run by Andrea Chiney, Arianna Deane, and Ashely Kuo — worked with Think! Chinatown to find ways for outdoor pavilions to be more responsive to the needs of businesses. “In the design industry, there’s this mentality that you put something out into the world, it just kind of stays there, and you don’t really bother with what happens to it later,” Chiney says. The studio had been exploring how to make these structures easier to disassemble so a single build could be repurposed for another business, a move that also addresses sustainability. But now, it’s mostly focused on the beautification of existing structures since the area is currently saturated with pavilions.
Like Kong and A+A+A, architect Michael K. Chen is concerned about the longevity and safety of these structures. The pavilion he designed for Tribeca coffee shop Interlude is made from extruded fiberglass, which is stronger than wood and lighter than metal. The structure is joined with fasteners instead of nails and bolts and is composed of grid-like walls that enable ventilation. “We thought maybe our concerns on airflow are overblown; the pavilion is designed for an earlier phase of this situation,” Chen says. “And then all of a sudden, the design was incredibly prescient [due to the delta variant]. There’s a need to make the outdoors still outdoors.” The walls are movable and can act both as security screens at night and table dividers during the day. “There is so much uncertainty, regulatory and related to the pandemic, so we’re trying to design to those conditions in a way that isn’t wasteful and is mindful of limited resources,” Chen says. “It’s a real challenge, and we haven’t solved it. We’re just trying to see into the future as best we can.”
The restaurants that will be able to make the most out of outdoor dining in the future will have the resources — or pro bono support — to craft their own flexible spaces with some degree of permanence. Indoor-outdoor spaces, in particular, are shaping up to be de rigueur for restaurants planning for a future where some diners will want the safety of being fully outdoors: Atmosphere and vibe are now being balanced with new concerns surrounding safety. “In my entire career, I have never had as many conversations about making people feel safe,” says Brian Wickersham, design director of the Los Angeles-based firm Aux Architecture. “Some people haven’t been out of their homes much over the last 18 months. Right now, a quality experience in a restaurant is about getting rid of people’s anxiety.”
The Art Room — a creative space in downtown LA with offices, a gallery, and a restaurant helmed by Derek Brandon Walker of the Mar Vista — is set to open this December after facing delays from COVID-19. The developer hit pause on the project around March last year and only decided to move forward after adapting the design. Aux incorporated a more powerful HVAC system with ultraviolet filtration so there’s hospital-grade air inside as well as a “COVID dashboard” that will inform guests about the precautions the building is taking. But the biggest addition is a glass wall that can slide from the front of the building toward the back, allowing the restaurant to choose how much seating is inside or outside. “We think of it as a building that can expand and contract,” Wickersham says.
“The more we feel like we’re outdoors, even when we’re inside, the comfort level goes up,” he adds. “I imagine we’ll have a skylight shortage in 2022.”
Rebecca Rudolph of Design, Bitches, the Los Angeles architecture firm she co-founded with Catherine Johnson, has noticed a growing desire to include outdoor spaces in restaurant design. “One thing that we always think about with our clients, but even more so now, is indoor-outdoor,” she says. Despite Southern California’s good weather, restaurants there haven’t historically emphasized eating outside. And even if they did have outdoor space, it was often used to meet minimum parking requirements mandated by zoning codes. But now, with the city loosening zoning regulations as a form of COVID relief and the popularity of eating outside rising, restaurants are finally willing to make the trade-off, and Rudolph is asking, “How can we make use of any outdoor space? If we don’t have it, how do we create it?”
Rudolph and Johnson have found that clients now want to invest in indoor-outdoor ideas that were a hard sell a few years ago. For Sunny’s, a forthcoming restaurant for the Silver Lake outpost of retail store Neighborhood Goods, Design, Bitches is building a rooftop deck. For Baldy’s Grocer, an upcoming marketplace in Mar Vista that will also have sit-down dining, Rudolph and Johnson are making outdoor space by building a “second storefront” out of a glass curtain wall about 10 feet into the building’s footprint. The marketplace’s stucco facade has lots of large windows, and by removing the glass from them, the area becomes like a screened-in porch with seating. They’re also incorporating the same sort of indoor-outdoor area in the renovation of Button Mash, an arcade and restaurant that temporarily closed last fall. “Before, people did not want to lose that interior leasable square footage by pulling a storefront back,” Johnson said. “Now there’s more value in having that flexible in-between space.”
The desire to appeal to customers through indoor-outdoor spaces is fueling flexibility in the very construction of restaurant storefronts. The takeout window was already gaining steam before the pandemic, and as its popularity continues to spike, architects are designing ways to make takeout more seamless. Oakland, California’s Lumpia Company and LA’s Win-dow, which both opened in 2019, only ever offered window service, but now restaurants that offer sit-down and takeout meals are asking for this feature as a way to meet the needs of their customers and support additional lines of business. Restaurants still want to give customers who don’t dine in an experience — and not one that’s like picking up fast food. “I imagine the pickup window will evolve to have more of a chance for hospitality between the customer and the person preparing their food, instead of it being an afterthought of sticking food through a window,” Rockwell says. His firm is exploring takeout windows for future locations of Daily Provisions, Danny Meyer’s all-day New York cafe.
But despite the popularity and convenience of takeout, the dining room isn’t going anywhere. So architects are now tasked with reacting to diners’ new feelings about what makes them feel comfortable and addressing those desires in more subtle ways. “People don’t want to be reminded [of the pandemic],” Rockwell says. Recently, he has been prescribing what he calls “microsurgery” to address COVID-19 concerns from his firm’s clients — small moves like adding the takeout window, touchless faucets, and distancing measures that dictate the placement of tables and flow of people through the space. The latter is a generous move, pandemic or not, since many restaurants, especially in big cities, have been cramming seats closer and closer together. “I think the interesting restaurants will be those that incorporate what’s always signaled safety: fresh air, outdoor space, and an open yet embracing feeling,” Rockwell says.
For a forthcoming Manhattan location of Zaytinya, Jose Andres’s Mediterranean restaurant, Rockwell Group is keeping the space as open as possible. The kitchen and the dining areas are separated only by pendant lighting fixtures, and to keep a connection to the outside, there’s only a sheer blue-ombre curtain over the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The architects are also incorporating free-standing woven-leather privacy screens between tables and banquettes — a far cry from those useless acrylic dividers. “People crave communal experiences and connections to places that trigger memories,” Rockwell says. “It’s about establishing new rituals and protocols that encourage safety and security, that are seamless with the restaurant experience.”
But the things we loved about restaurants aren’t going away. There’s a current of proprietors and designers who are planning for post-pandemic dining rooms that look a lot like they did pre-pandemic. “We have a few clients who have basically expressed this feeling of: Outdoor dining is helping; we’re not going to dramatically renovate our interior,” says Rus Mehta, co-founder of GRT Architects, which is in the process of renovating and restoring a historic New York City restaurant. “There’s a school of thought that says, It has to go back to normal.”
Going back to “normal” means leaning into the attributes that made dining out fun, entertaining, and memorable. A hefty part of that is the atmosphere. At the start of the pandemic, AvroKO — an international design firm behind New York City restaurants Beauty & Essex, Ghost Donkey, and Saxon + Parole — received a flood of calls from clients asking about COVID adaptations. But when it actually came time to design, AvroKO’s clients were planning for a future where most guests’ concerns about the virus would be addressed by the vaccines. Kimberly Jackson, the firm’s managing director, sees guest safety as an operational challenge, not a design problem. “When we consider the interior design as part of the full experience of going to a restaurant, we want to acknowledge the need to help alleviate any personal discomfort; however, we don’t want to put the solutions so far forward in the design that they distract from the main reason more and more people are starting to return to restaurants: to reconnect with family, friends, and their community,” Jackson says. “It’s a delicate balance that we work with our clients on individually.”
In May, AvroKO opened a Denver location of Ghost Donkey, a tequila and mezcal bar, and kept the design concept the same as the original New York City space, which closed during the pandemic. Think neon lights around the bar, dim lighting, big booths, and purple Christmas lights hanging from a drop ceiling. It also opened the Twelve Thirty Club in Nashville, Tennessee, a swanky 400-person restaurant and bar done up with wood-paneled walls, velvet club chairs, herringbone floors, and a polished-wood bar. “Restaurateurs still want to be on the top of all the lists — great design, great food, the best destination restaurant,” says Nick Solomon, AvroKO’s chief creative officer. “Achieving that by prioritizing comfort doesn’t necessarily work. Ultimately, the successful ‘pragmatic restaurant’ is still to be seen.”
But restaurants can’t totally look back to the past, especially those that are working with ever-tightening margins and want to serve as many customers as they can. A month after Daniel Bendjy and Myo Moe opened Rangoon, their Burmese bistro in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, New York City went into lockdown. “Our floor plan was absolutely not suited for the pandemic,” Bendjy says. “We forwent seating in favor of atmosphere.” The small, minimalist restaurant — done up beautifully by the design firms Outpost Architecture and Saw.Earth — featured a louvered facade, white tile floors, white-painted brick, perforated white metal screens, and bentwood stools. The space was mostly bar seating, plus a six-person booth and a tall communal table in the back, but it wasn’t until recently that people could dine inside. It was only because of outdoor dining and takeout that Rangoon made it to its one-year anniversary.
So when Bendjy and Moe started to plot their next restaurant — a yet-to-be-named place in Manhattan opening in early 2022 — they made sure space wouldn’t limit their business. The restaurant will have more floor space and a backyard. They’re planning to have a mix of booths and cafe-style tables and chairs that can easily be joined together. And the patio will have an outdoor bar they can use year-round. About half of the restaurant’s seating will be outside, too. “Having the flexibility to social distance when necessary is preloaded into the floor plan,” Bendjy says.
As restaurants gird themselves through design that addresses the demands of the pandemic, there are more challenges to come. Ultimately, a future of restaurant design that takes into account comfort and accessibility for all guests, and looks great while doing so, will be a successful one. Some of the features that restaurants are now leaning into feel a lot like the basic principles of universal design, or the idea that products and environments ought to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible without adaptation or specialization.
For Contento’s Yannick Benjamin, the need for a flexible plan has always been obvious. “People will visit you knowing they won’t have to deal with barriers, obstructions, or moments of embarrassment,” he says. “This taps into a whole population of 60 million people with disabilities who are ready to spend money and have a good time.” And with the lessons of the pandemic still being taught, hopefully more and more restaurants will adopt the architecture-for-all-customers ethos that universal design extols. That’s the future restaurants need. That’s true hospitality.
Diana Budds is a New York-based writer who covers design, architecture, cities, and culture.