You walk into a restaurant you’ve never been to before, and the first thing you do is look around.

Your eyes go into overdrive as you scan your surroundings, forming a first impression that will guide your expectations for the entirety of the visit. You size up the space, take in the lighting, check the comfort of the seating and absorb the mood of the decor. All this happens in the first few minutes, and its effect is lasting.  The design of the restaurant influences how you feel about the food and you might not even realize it.  A restaurant design sets the tone for the customer’s experience.

That is why restaurant design requires an investment of time and money. You only have to get the restaurant’s design right once. On the other hand, a flawed design is expensive to fix later on. To add to that, there is always the risk that the design is hurting the customer experience and the restaurant brand, and you have no idea how customers are responding to it.

In most cases, the restaurant’s design does not weaken the restaurant’s bottom line but you must be deliberate and seek help when you do not have all the answers.  If you go into the restaurant design process with a plan, you are much more likely of having an inspiring design at the end.  

Design as the Clothing of a Restaurant

A restaurant’s design is the clothing of a restaurant, both interior and exterior. Like clothes, it is important to be dressed well and appropriately.  You cannot rush and throw two unrelated things together and expect them to match. As with what you wear, people judge you before you even have a chance to share anything valuable. In other words, customers make judgments before they even take one bite.

There is not one way to dress a restaurant well, as no two restaurants have same brand and concept. But a restaurant design cannot be merely attractive, but appeal to customers who are looking to try your food or drinks. A restaurant is a place to eat, so practical considerations must prevail. Therefore, the concept and the brand should shape design decisions.

As the owner, you are the gatekeeper of the brand. You may go with a professional restaurant designer, which is more likely to give the restaurant design a more unified theme.  But even with assistance, you have to be hands-on and contribute to the design process, as the entrepreneurs launching a new restaurant have a unique understanding of the brand identity. We will discuss how to find the a talented restaurant designer later on.

Let’s skip ahead though and take a tour of a real bar/restaurant to see what good design is. The second location of AYZA Wine and Chocolate Bar is in the convex corner of a building with branded signage that is emblazoned with its signature black cat. There is a red awning that wraps around and foreshadows the interior. After inside, customers encounter an intoxicating sense of romance with plush red cushions, dim dramatic light, hardwood floors and large windows out onto the street. The mix of shadow and light set the tone for customers, which is equally mysterious and sexy. It brings to life the chocolate and wine that draws people into AYZA. Offering sensual experience makes AYZA an ideal environment for dates or ladies’ nights out.

It offers a good lesson. In interior design, you should account for the type of occasion of the customer visit. Think about whether customers will flock to you for a quick lunch or sitdown dinner; whether with families, with friends, or for dates etc.

Step by Step Design

Customers are very conscious on the totality of the space and the message the restaurant is trying to convey. Accordingly, designing the interior space should be done systematically with written out plans.

It is possible to identify some principles for interior design. This will allow us to see how design works in different situations. Skip ahead to the chapter focusing on floor plan and how that readies your restaurant to work as a well-oiled machine, if you need particular insights on how to transform your space into a restaurant. Even though the arrangement is related, this chapter concentrates on what looks good and goes together.

Our general recommendation is if you have the budget, you should see if you can find a restaurant designer. There are interior designers who have lots of experience with restaurants. They know what to expect. Also it is more likely that you get the design right the first time. Overall, it normally makes the process go much more smoothly, but you should contribute to the design process regardless.

Design piggybacks on choosing a good location, so you may want to hire a designer early on to advise you. At the very least, visualize the completed restaurant when you are scouting locations.  What follows is how to go from a restaurant idea to a full design to a restaurant ready for business.

Step 1: Offer Cues for Your Concept

Owners should have a strong vision for  their restaurant before they get started and commit to a location and contractors. First off, your concept matters, even before your brand.

A potential customer should be able to at a glance figure out how your restaurant works. Without asking your staff, new customers must infer correctly if they need to go to a counter to order food or they should wait for a hostess to seat them.

There are many cues that give away what type of service they will receive. These cues help new customers feel comfortable when trying out a new restaurant. Issues for quick order restaurants could be that customers are confused where the line to order is and where the line to pick up is. Sitdown restaurant design also can deter customers, based solely on not understanding the concept. Signage can partially clarify this, but design offers a more reliable way to signal to customers what kind of restaurant or bar you are.  

Step 2: Set the Scene with the Brand

A brand extends through every part of your restaurant, and it has to be crystal clear in the design. Only then will the design be greater than the sum of the parts, and customers will focus on the interrelationship between elements, rather than what sticks out. The experience should be immersive without being overwhelming. More isn’t necessarily better.  

To see a brand in action, we can look to Orient Express, a cocktail bar that builds on the legendary European railway. Understandably, the interior has a certain opulence and recalls a bygone age. At its most basic, the wood panel walls, a white marble bar, a vaulted ceiling and warm lighting make you feel like you are at the bar of the Orient Express as it barrels across Europe towards Asia. You may not know actually what will match with your concept, but you should have a visual sense, like the owner of Orient Express. You should imagine how you will fill your space with basic elements like light, coloring and space.

It is good to start from most basic elements of design and then worrying about the small details. This means you will have to consider the strengths and weakness of your space, such as the windows and the walking space.

We often see restaurateurs getting lost right from the onset. Take lighting. In general, you should work with light not against it, but many restaurants choose the surfaces and colors of the interior before they have considered how those colors will interact with light.  You have to be practical (people should be able to read the menu) but also create a mood.

During both the day and the night, windows are your allies (especially if they face the sun), even if their light does not reach very far into the restaurant. The natural lighting of the restaurant should be your starting point when you decide what lights you should have in your restaurant. Figuring out the lighting first will help you choose colors and surfaces later on.  From lighting, you can find out what color of the walls and the material for the floors. Then, you can find furniture that works on top of that. The space will organically come together, as you both bring your brand to life and deal with the practical constraints of the location. The key though is that to communicate your brand you have to be systematic and not skip steps.

Step 3: Scout the Competition

One way to avoid that expense and envision your restaurant is to scope out similar restaurants and determine what aspects you will mimic and the parts that will be unique to your restaurant. You should break down these scouting reports into categories, like lighting, walls, ceilings, chairs and tables. This provides you the opportunity to tell what works and what doesn’t, as frequently every interior design has strengths and weakness. Beware making the interior of a restaurant completely original normally takes an enormous amount of effort and money even for a trained professional. It also involves risk. There is nothing wrong with borrowing good ideas.

Step 4: Draw up a Plan

Once you feel that you can imagine how the space will be as a restaurant, it is time to draw the design up. Unlike the floorplan, this does not have to be an exact, scale drawing, but it should include the palette of colors and types of floors you want. It should show what will be on the walls and what furniture will be placed where. You may even include ideas for design touches.

This is hard for a restaurant owner doing the design as a Do-It-Yourself project without professional help. A restaurant owner may never have done anything like this before, but it is absolutely necessary. How else will you get feedback or find items that fit your wants. You’d be surprised how often people even forget great ideas because they never wrote it down.

With a restaurant designer, you may be able to see a 3 dimensional representation of your restaurant. These help in visualizing the new restaurant. Even without that, expect the designer to show in some detail what they want to do before giving the go ahead.

Either way, a plan will play an indispensable role in bringing together the many parts. Without one, there is no guarantee that you will capture the brand identity in the design or even that the design will be practical.

Step 5: Decide on a Budget and Schedule

Money and time should be not be far from your thoughts when designing your restaurant’s interior. Obviously you need to budget out expenses. It is a good idea to start with the fixed elements, like walls, floors, ceilings, lighting etc. You will need to get quotes for these, so budget and schedule them first. Then you can move on to tables, chairs and other movable objects.

After you have a good idea of what you want, you should formulate an in-depth, realistic schedule. Take into consideration some short delays and unexpected problems, but all your agreements should have consequences for unnecessary delay. Once you decide on your materials and what it should look like. You need to be able to communicate it. For pre-fabricated things like chairs and tables, this is a matter of selection. One thing to keep in mind is to not jump at the first thing you see when it comes to pre-fabricated parts of your interior. The overall feeling (which influences mood) of the room is determined by the light, floors, walls and arrangement of fixed structures. These are much harder and more expensive to change if they don’t fit with the tables/chairs/table cloth/napkins/curtains etc.

Step 6: Find Contractors and Suppliers

You will entrust your contractors to fabricate parts of your restaurant. Doing your research and looking at their prior work in person will help to ensure that you choose a contractor that does a satisfactory job. For big projects, such as the electrical or flooring, you should put everything in writing, and not work on a pay-as-you-go system. The contract that you sign should be a collaborative effort and protect you against anything that does not happen according to plan.

So there aren’t any surprises or conflicts, you need an accurate quote, conceptual drawings and blueprints (some contractors assist you with this) so it is clear what you expect. The floorplan will have to be nailed down by this point and a guide for contractors.  Costs should be assessed beforehand and also the procuring of the necessary materials with time to spare. This goes along with setting up a schedule. If possible, you can build in penalties if your contractors don’t finish in a reasonable amount of time.

Step 7: Decision Time: Element by Element

This is the moment of truth where you have to integrate everything before you spend your money. It is important to focus on the customer experience at this point and find a balance between what is interesting, practical and comfortable that matches your brand. You may find yourself being more subtle than you originally planned. The floor, whether tile or wood, the ceiling, whether it has a chandelier or hanging lamps, the walls, whether they have a solid color or a design, affects the mood of your customers. In particular, the colors that you choose and lighting send subconscious signals to customers. Also, customer quickly assess if the design is cheap or expensive.

You should think this out. No one likes eating breakfast in a dark room. Bright rooms in the middle of the night can agitate customers. It is going to be hard to imagine the finished result so do all you can to visualize the interplay between different elements. You can bring the kind of table you are likely to buy to showrooms to test out the flooring or lighting.

Step 8: Feng Shui (Arranging Everything) and Finishing Touches

Of course, the arrangement of space contributes to mood, as what people are looking at and how close they are to other people change their experience. Putting on the finishing touches is important and making slight adjustments. The things, that one normally wouldn’t notice at first glance, can really add to the experience. There is something incredibly charming when you see something that you missed originally that perfectly fits the atmosphere. A sculpture put in a niche or a subtle design in a tile floor communicates to customers that your restaurant is a genuine article, from bathroom sink to window handles. We wouldn’t overwhelm your restaurant with touches. But a sense of taste in interior design suggest that you have a sense of taste that can make customers more open to your food.

Interiors are not cheap. Along with equipment and labor, they are one of the main reasons restaurants don’t normally turn a profit in the first 2 years. Whether you DIY (do it yourself) or hire help, it is something that you have to live with. Just as important, it is integral to your brand. It’s a balancing act nonetheless. Before, during and after, you should budget it (including maintenance especially places with fountains, etc.). Compromises come with the territory. However, a good interior makes a clear statement that appeals to customers while not distracting them from their companions and the food. The room itself is the real appetizer for customers, not the food on the menu.

Restaurant Design Goals

More than 80 percent of restaurant success stories get written before the doors ever open, based on preparation. Restaurant design, in particular, plays a critical role in attracting guests, facilitating traffic and preparing food properly. Colors, dramatic lighting, seating arrangements, and construction materials contribute to atmosphere, which can often influence guests to spend more money.

Clever design features help smaller spaces generate stronger sales figures. Comfortable reception areas persuade customers to order cocktails while waiting for free tables. Strong restaurant design incorporates additional sources of revenue that increase capacity, create dining options and facilitate revenue-producing ideas such as takeout areas, private dining rooms and staging areas for live entertainment.


Functional Needs and Positive Energy

Restaurants have demanding needs for accessible storage, clear pathways to  restrooms, delivery access near the kitchens and thoughtful equipment placement so that chefs can produce menu items efficiently and get ingredients from holding areas near their workstations.

  • Solid design plans simplify construction and lower building costs.
  • Aesthetics are important, but a smoothly functioning design creates a dynamic working space that guests appreciate.
  • Server-station placement allows wait staffs easy access for maximum use, speeding up service and allowing servers to spend more time interacting with customers.
  • Cavernous entrance spaces could intimidate customers and create negative energy. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of leasing more space than they really need, which increases operational expenses and maintenance demands on restaurant staff.
  • Outdoor dining and patios could add extra space during peak dining seasons.


Professional Restaurant Design

Striking designs include geometric interiors, contemporary designs with precision-cut steel and glass, warm woods with richly grained patterns and refurbished older buildings with exposed brick, high ceilings and hand-built furniture. The challenges of meeting functional demands and designing traffic patterns for staff and customers often require the help of professional designers and architects.

  • Retrofits need engineering expertise to transform older buildings into restaurants that satisfy modern building and health codes.
  • Qualified designers have teams of reliable contractors that help to reduce construction costs.
  • Restaurant flow can transform a small, cramped space into a dynamic, highly charged dining environment.
  • Incorporating space-saving techniques and planning one-directional traffic flows are major benefits of using professional restaurant design services.


Form Follows Function, but Smart Designers Consider Both

Restaurants, except those owned by millionaire hobbyists, exist to make money, so include restaurant design into business plans. Fast-food restaurants need easy access between kitchens and serving staffs to enable high-volume food transfers. Full-service restaurants have more options for kitchen placement, but faster service always helps to increase profits by making customers happier and encouraging faster turnover.

Oddly enough, some restaurants try to keep dining environments from being too comfortable. Smaller restaurants depend on turnover, and studies have shown that less desirable seats earn just as much money as premium dining spaces per check but guests eat faster. Regardless of design, detailed plans help to lower building costs, make business plans more attractive to investors and satisfy requirements of building and health departments.

Entrepreneurs and designers can often create professional restaurant design plans from online templates, design software and drawing applications. The more accurate and professional the plans are, the easier the execution will be.


Branding Efficiency as Green

Customers increasingly ask about sustainability issues, and designers can include ergonomic designs, energy-efficient equipment and refrigeration placement to create environmentally friendly kitchens. Well-designed kitchens try to cut down on walking, bending and reaching. Separating cooking areas from refrigeration units help keep equipment more efficient. Cooking-equipment placement can utilize the maximum benefits of exhaust hoods.

Remember that restaurants evolve, so try to avoid setting plans in stone. Flexibility in restaurant design involves using mobile equipment, configurable work stations and equipment that moves easily for cleaning. Solid plans help to maximize chances for success, and intuitive design makes any restaurant attractive to staff and customers.