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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 February 2021

Make a restaurant characterful, but make it clean first

Beautiful restaurant spaces don't merely happen; they need to be designed. Creating worlds for diners to escape to is an interdisciplinary exercise.

Many of us spend more time in restaurants than we do in our own kitchens. For others, eating out happens so rarely that it's like a miniature holiday from the tedium of routine, whatever that routine may be.

For regular diners-out, it's possible that many us have a blind spot for how much time we spend in restaurants, and have maybe turned a blind eye to the restaurants themselves, having grown desensitised to them.

Great restaurant experiences happen all the time, and they can easily happen in less-than-great restaurants. As with the home, there are elements beyond furniture and decor that contribute to the overall feel of a space and that determine whether a meal is enjoyable. Beautiful restaurant spaces, on the other hand, don't merely happen; they need to be designed. Creating worlds for diners to escape to is an interdisciplinary exercise between art, architecture, form, function, technology, philosophy, nature and other themes.

Light plays a significant part in creating the mood of many restaurants, and is often what's missing in the spatially anaemic condition that befalls many hotel restaurants. Last week, I wrote about the importance of appropriate acoustics in restaurants, and over the weekend I was reminded of this importance with grating vigour. Dismantled semi-trailers and railway cars formed the silver-painted walls and ceiling of a loft-like gallery space whose opening I'd been anticipating for months, but the acoustics were so unbearable that I eventually gave up on conversation.

Current trends in the industry aren't a blueprint for restaurant success, and the elements that make for successful restaurant interior design are not an off-the-shelf formula. Rather, they tend to be tailored to the individual space. How do restaurants' interior design affect their appeal, profitability and success, or lack thereof? Almost every restaurant requires a colour scheme to represent or to complement it. Decisions must be made about the palette, concept and quality of the walls, furniture, uniforms, logo, signage, decor and exterior. My friends own a small trattoria whose colour scheme is a taxicab yellow on everything from the staff's visors to the delivery vans. When I asked the Italian owners about their design choices, I was told by their teenaged daughter, matter-of-factly, that: "Yellow is the best colour for a restaurant. Everyone knows that." If that was true, I wanted to know why.

Many restaurants, especially fast-food ones, choose from a palette of oranges, yellows and reds. After investing small fortunes into researching the effects of colour, those were the ones consistently found to most readily promote the brisk purchase and consumption of food. But people tend to be more annoyed in yellow rooms, losing their tempers more often in them, and they are the most likely to compel a quiet baby to start up a fuss. It's been suggested that some fast-food restaurants paint their walls yellow in order to expedite mealtimes.

A less casual restaurant might take into consideration that, although orange and yellow make cheery, optimistic accent colours, they are possibly better suited to a certain laid-back style of dining. Besides alluding to ketchup and mustard, red and yellow can also both stimulate metabolism, raise the heart rate, breathing rate and subsequently, the appetite. Pink, like purple, is a novelty colour that also has a depressive, tranquilising effect; the locker rooms of visiting sports teams are sometimes painted pink by the home team in an attempt to dull their wits. And despite it being perceived as a tranquil colour that's been proved to stimulate the release of calming chemicals (hence it's use in bedrooms), people tend to be more productive in blue rooms, and gyms painted blue produce the most dedicated weightlifters. Green, the most popular colour for restaurant accents, is relaxing and refreshing.

Timeless white is a good choice for table linens and for giving the illusion that the restaurant's interior is larger. But white is also sterile, austere and shows stains easily. Black restaurants can err on the side of feeling clubby and authoritative, although black's implications of style and aloofness make it a popular choice for staff uniforms. The operations of a restaurant, including the flow from the kitchen to the table, depend hugely on layout: can patrons and staff navigate through the space in a way that's efficient but not disruptive to the dining room or the kitchen? Open kitchens can be a good idea, but you'll never see me at an entertainment-themed restaurant, or one where exhibitionism meets teriyaki. My only teppanyaki experience left me feeling like I had exchanged my dignity and my respect for Japanese food for a knife-wielding pyromaniac and some bland tuna (I'd have asked for more soy sauce, but I was afraid that disrupting the chef's performance would mean losing an ear).

Almost as uncomfortable for me are restaurants that prompt high levels of participation. Concept-driven dining can be interesting, but dinner shouldn't feel like an IQ test. Culinary trends have influenced every appreciable possibility and attitude towards food. An appetite for novelty seems more pertinent and certainly more common nowadays than a taste for sophistication. With that, a heightened sense of self-consciousness is ushered in, reminding us that sometimes it's more important to be new than it is to be good. Consider the monothematic reverie one endures for a taste of Pinkberry in the Mall of the Emirates. Better yet, take cupcakes, a confection I had always viewed as where frosting and crumbs meet the law of diminishing returns. I realise this isn't a popular opinion, but I will never stop being amazed by how many smart, opportunistic people have capitalised on the cupcake rage and were successfully able to sell millions of truly terrible ones.

The more I eat out, the less I'm interested in uniqueness and originality, and the more I care about good food and consistency. What's on the walls, whether the tables are square or round, and the colour of the menu mean very little on their own. Finally, I'll take cleanliness over character any day.

Published: October 6, 2010 04:00 AM

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