Today’s Special: 9 Restaurant Design Trends

restaurant design


Effective restaurant design begins with this fundamental question: What experience are you looking to give customers when they walk into the restaurant?

A true understanding of the restaurateur’s vision for how the menu and service style set the tone for the overall customer experience is essential because everything else begins there — from the layout of the physical space to the structural and artistic touches that make it feel special and unique.

Effective restaurant design “sets the table” for what the customer can expect when they walk through the door. Here are just a few examples of how restaurant design is helping to enhance customer experience:

1. Open Kitchens

In the past, most establishments hid the food-preparation process from public view. But today more restaurants are casting aside old ideas governing the separation of kitchen and dining room — using open kitchen concepts to add energy, ambient sound and transparency to the dining experience.

The proliferation of reality TV cooking shows has also fueled curiosity about watching professional chefs (and controlled kitchen chaos) in action. Chicago’s Grace even offers a modified version in which the kitchen is on full display, but behind glass — offering diners a stimulating visual experience without sacrificing the aura of quiet intimacy.

From fast-food chains and open-hearth pizza joints to upscale restaurants emphasizing the chef-diner connection, there seems to be a growing appetite for open kitchen flavor.

restaurant trends
Saison, in San Fransisco, CA, removes all barriers between the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of house, taking open concept to a whole new level. Photographer: Bonjwing Lee


2. Multi-Use Spaces

Today, it’s not uncommon to walk into a white-tablecloth restaurant and notice that in addition to the main dining room there are also some people gathered around a raw bar; and some folks sampling appetizers beside a cozy fireplace; and a sign announcing a musical act playing later downstairs.

For many restaurants, focusing on being great at one thing makes the most sense. But more establishments are seeing the value of options that empower customers to decide how they want to interact with you.

“When designing a space that has multiple uses, relevancy should be the main objective. The spaces also need to flow together to tell a complete brand story.” — Valerie Killifer, restaurant development + design

3. Mixed Retail and Restaurant Spaces

Perhaps the most high-profile example of this trend is Eataly, the ever-expanding Italian marketplace that combines a variety of restaurants with grocery and gourmet retail space, food and beverage counters, a bakery and a cooking school — all under one roof.

The restaurant-retail movement is also vividly on display in many U.S. airports, where product offerings are often geared toward locally themed items and souvenirs.

Today, a variety of restaurants are also adding retail floor space (for example: a steakhouse with a butcher shop that also sells branded sauces, merchandise and local craft beers). In addition to sales, this can be great for marketing. When guests buy retail products as a memento of their dining experience (especially products that carry your name and smartly designed logo) they become ambassadors for your business.

Explore the ‘Natural Material’ Trends Now Influencing Restaurant/Grocery and Retail Interiors >


4. Adaptive Reuse

Think of the restaurant that used to be a church, distinguished by high arched ceilings and natural sunlight filtered through beautiful stained glass. Or the two-century-old bank building converted into an Irish pub, where diners can grab a burger inside an actual vault whose heavy door still has the massive wheel-like locking mechanism.

Adaptive reuse is also about repurposing materials that are saved during the renovation process (for example: turning a giant slab of original wood into a bar or countertop). Old buildings often face logistical challenges, of course. But in addition to charm and character, they also have built-in stories. Adaptive reuse can unlock those stories in ways that invite diners to flavor them with their own imagination.

restaurant trends
Meat West restaurant, in Amsterdam, is a former train repair depot converted to a restaurant. Photograph by: Peter Tijhuis

5. Environmental Consciousness

Restaurants are also paying greater attention to green-friendly practices and creative ways to let diners know it — understanding that some customers feel a stronger affinity for businesses that demonstrate a shared concern about environmental issues.

Environmental elements are also increasingly being used for ambiance. For example:

  • Emphasizing natural wood grains helps evoke a connection to the natural world.
  • Utilizing natural light and LEDs can soften the atmosphere, while conserving energy.
  • A wood fireplace can be a heat source and a design element, introducing a cozy feeling and the mesmerizing quality of an open flame.
  • A fountain or moving water element can add a striking visual aesthetic as well as ambient outdoorsy sound.

Rooftop or courtyard gardens that grow fresh herbs have also become increasingly common, as more restaurants seek creative ways to emphasize the use of organic or locally grown produce or farm-to-table concepts.

restaurant trends
Pot Commissary Cafe in Los Angeles, CA, has a rooftop greenhouse for growing and dining. Photograph by: Audrey Ma


6. Different Dayparts, Different Experiences

Many restaurants are discovering new ways to keep business more steady by reinventing their approach to existing dayparts and even adding new ones.

Examples include everything from Taco Bell rolling out breakfast options to neighborhood dinner joints extending hours and creating later-night menus to cater to bar patrons. In addition to changes in lighting and menu diversification, much can be accomplished through the creative use of signage and menu boards.

And one of the easiest and most effective ways to draw a clearer distinction between various dayparts is with music. At the most basic level, a restaurant might choose to play slower music at lower volumes to keep the mood light at lunch, then switch to faster, higher-energy tunes at dinner and later in the evening.

7. Storytelling Elements

Some coffee shops help tell their story by displaying hefty, burlap sacks filled with fresh beans, or by grinding them in the front window to create an experience that connects their product to the customer’s senses of sight, sound and smell.

Brewpubs with floor-to-ceiling windows that invite customers to watch the industrial artisanship that goes into that signature glass of stout, lager or IPA are another example of this.

This trend is really about using unique display items and installations to offer visual cues that help frame (or amplify!) the experience.

restaurant trends
Throwback Brewery, in North Hampton, NH, allows diner to look into its brewhouse through the use of open ceilings, glass windows and barn doors.


8. Less is More

This design idea speaks for itself — just as a single piece of carefully selected artwork on an interior wall can speak louder (or create a more potent and memorable visual impression) than 10 pieces might on the very same wall.

Simple spaces and raw materials like wood and concrete are often used in minimalist design. Other techniques include the use of distinctive lighting, large vivid photography, dramatic typography and one-of-a-kind sculptures.

Emphasizing one carefully chosen, stand-out element is a great starting point.

9. Technology in Design

Digital menu boards, touchpads at the table and mobile apps that enable you to order food without even walking into the restaurant or talking to a person. These are just some of the technologies that are reshaping the customer experience.

The future is now — and right now a big part of the challenge is figuring out how to integrate this new generation of gadgets without compromising carefully considered design aesthetics.

The trend is particularly relevant to restaurants wishing to appeal to millennials — “digital natives” who have grown up with technology at their fingertips. And now that it’s possible to integrate touchpads for tableside ordering with social media and gaming platforms, POS systems and online reservation programs, many restaurants are experimenting to see what works.

What recent or evolving restaurant design trends have caught your eye? At Rose Displays, our work as digital and traditional Signware™ Specialists includes creative collaborations with a range of retail, restaurant and food industry clients. Please contact us if you’d like to continue the conversation.

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