Among the many beloved experiences we have had to give up this past year, the restaurant meal has been especially missed by many. What had often been spaces of celebration, connection, and often indulgence were suddenly stripped of any magic. In many cities, eating out became a clinical, frightening endeavor that only the intrepid—and, in winter, warmly wrapped—would undertake.
Restaurateurs and designers pivoted quickly, devising clever temporary strategies to somehow hold onto as much charm as possible while keeping diners safely separated. But now, a year in, as everyone considers more permanent solutions, designers of new restaurants face an interesting challenge: how to create spaces that accommodate social distancing requirements while bringing back the delight and romance of the dining experience.
AD PRO reached out to famed hospitality designers Patricia Urquiola, Michael Hsu, Luke Ostrom, and W. Brian Smith to ask how the pandemic has shifted their thinking—and how they’re envisioning the restaurant of the future.
A private moment
The elbow-to-elbow charm of a buzzing, tightly packed dining room might be a thing of the past (for now), but there are other ways to evoke a sense of communal intimacy in the experience, says Patricia Urquiola, who has designed spaces for lauded chefs including Alain Ducasse in Vieques, Puerto Rico; Carme Ruscalleda in Barcelona; and Andreas Caminada in Bangkok and throughout Switzerland.
“We’ll be designing restaurants where privacy is key, so that small groups can gather in intimate spaces, well distanced from others,” she says, adding that furniture, greenery, and lighting will be essential to delineating such spaces. “We’ll choose materials that gently ‘wrap’ the guests in an intimate atmosphere—textiles, upholstery, and wood that visually and acoustically recreate a cocoon where [guests can] enjoy the meal.”
W. Brian Smith, a cofounder of Studio Tack (now Post Company) who designed the Tsukimi in New York’s East Village as well as the Rose Tavern at The Lake House on Canandaigua Lake in upstate New York, agrees that private spaces will take priority. “I think they’ll become more sought-after, experience-driven revenue generators where designers can let loose and have fun,” he says. “Think lavish, over-the-top, maximalist spaces that are dripping in detail—a small reward for the compensations made this past year.”
Outdoor dining reimagined
“If you were to ask New Yorkers a year ago if they would eat outdoors under a heater or in a greenhouse in the middle of January, there would have been a resounding ‘no,’” says Luke Ostrom, partner at NoHo Hospitality Group, and creator of Manhattan dining darlings including Locanda Verde, The Dutch, Lafayette, and A Voce. “What a difference a year makes. What seems clear to me is that this new thinking is here to stay.”
After the initial shock of the pandemic’s impact on their operations, Ostrom says that he and his team were forced to think more creatively. “We looked to activate all of our spaces in different ways to provide different reasons for our guests to come pay a visit,” he says. This included landscaped street platforms for alfresco dining, activated private “backyards” for seasonal picnics and urban lawn games, and music tents for people to “social-distance gather.” When chillier temperatures hit, they also added an ice skating rink at Westlight in Brooklyn, as well as streetside private dining chalets, dubbed Le Village de Lafayette, decked out with a private “fireplace heater,” cozy carpets, and sheepskin throws on the chairs. Ostrom says that many of these solutions will now be regular fixtures.