Early last year, Montreal restaurateur Erin Mahoney was putting the final touches on Joon, her Persian and South Caucasus cuisine destination — and her first permanent location following a number of spirited pop-ups — when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, everything was tossed in the air, and she had to make some serious decisions. With lockdown looming, Mahoney says, “We developed a list of needs — what do we absolutely have to keep and what are the secondary elements.” Faced with a priority to create more distance among patrons and staff and a pivot to a takeout/delivery model, she had to compromise on the design of her dream interior. One of the first things to go was the plush banquette, a sister piece to the custom communal seating running down the middle of the space, to be placed against the front window. “It was heartbreaking.”
Like many restaurateurs, Mahoney had long envisioned how she would fine-tune her perfect ambience. And like many restaurateurs (who, pandemic notwithstanding, are brave enough to enter a notoriously cutthroat industry), she was resourceful. As the rules kept changing throughout multiple lockdowns around the world, restaurants big and small kept adapting, again and again, and two narratives emerged side by side: how an agile mindset could contribute to the resilience of even mom-and-pops, and how entire culinary empires could collapse in an instant.
Some hung on by embracing novel restaurant–retail concepts: takeout, delivery and bottle shop–pantry models that will surely have enduring appeal. As warm weather bloomed last year (and this spring), many took to the sidewalk, transforming entire city cores into al fresco dining scenes the likes of which North Americans once envied Europeans for.
But despite these adjustments, the entire industry has suffered a major calamity. Between March and May of 2020 alone, the U.S.-based National Restaurant Association tallied up a $120 billion loss in sales for restaurants; one in four people in the food and beverage industry was laid off. In Canada, more than 10,000 restaurants permanently left the scene and scores of waiters, servers and bartenders were suddenly unemployed. At the urban scale, cities were losing their beating heart; the places that make neighbourhoods thrive were shuttered, either temporarily or forever, dealing a gut-punch to street life.
Now, a year later, we stand at a precipice where both positive and negative prognoses once again converge: Will subsequent waves, stoked by variants, bring further lockdowns and instability to the hospitality industry, or will increased vaccination level out the threat? For industry insiders, it’s a fine tightrope. Designers who specialize in hospitality interiors have also been compelled to pivot. We surveyed practitioners who are working with clients to make the most of this moment — adopting new modes of operation that could be fruitful for future scenarios — and to plan for what might be a Roaring-Twenties comeback of wining and dining.
More than a year in, COVID-19 continues to make each venture, major and minor, a guessing game. “Every day, the guidelines are changing,” says Melissa Bowers, the designer behind such buzzworthy projects as American Bar in New York’s West Village and the Faena Hotel in Miami. At the beginning, one of the easiest fixes (other than wrapping every other table in barricade tape) was to install Plexiglas — as barriers between customers and kitchen staff, between tables, and sometimes even between individuals at the same table. Bowers recalls her horror when Plexi was drilled directly into a beautiful walnut table in one of her upcoming restaurants. “Everything should be like restoring an antique — it needs to be reversible.”
Indeed, expedience was overwhelmingly favoured over thoughtful design as food and beverage businesses went into survival mode. But designers have had a role to play, then and now, in reconfiguring spaces. “For existing clients,” explains Kristen Lien, principal of Alberta studio Frank Architecture, “we were just trying to help them through. We would do a quick exercise for no extra fees, because our business is built on repeat clients — and we have families, too, so we feel like we’re in it together with them.”
In general, the hospitality designer’s scope has expanded toward a longview approach that emphasizes here-to-stay principles of increased ventilation, circulation and flexibility. Justine Dumas, of the Montreal firm Appareil, explains, “We now make sure that the layout provides for the possibility of removing or adding tables. At the moment, the idea of larger tables with everyone sharing their meals — which we love — is not something that we can propose to our client. This new reality will create new styles of restaurants.
And as designers, we must find a way to manage these new constraints and still provide spaces that are beautiful and interesting.” Whether it hews to the latest recommendations or not, good design is good design: Appareil’s interior for Le Clocher Penché, conceived before the pandemic and so not influenced by indoor dining rules during its design phase, features many of the musts of a safe yet compelling restaurant. “We were lucky because we created different areas in the layout, which helped with physical distancing. Also, most of the tables are movable, so the owner has removed some of them.”
Barbara Best-Santos, a co-managing principal at ForrestPerkins (Perkins Eastman’s luxury hospitality and high-end residential interior design studio), echoes the need for modifiable interiors — which, in the firm’s case, has also extended into mixed-use territory. “Our most impactful conversations revolve around building flexible gathering spaces within larger environments that support meetings, lounging, food and beverage, and are easily convertible from public to private,” she says. There is a tremendous design challenge and opportunity here, she believes, as multi-tasking interiors are now taking on the roles of lobby and bar spaces with fully accessible smart technology.
Stretching the limits of what indoor dining can become is at the core of conversations charting the hospitality industry’s future. Perhaps the one win for restaurants — and cities — during this crisis is how the need for flexibility has translated into an explosion of outdoor dining. All at once, with the return of warmer weather and longer days, the intimate indoor dining experience began to merge with the outdoors. This trend, on the horizon once again as we head into summer, saw ad hoc solutions by restaurants and cafés that were improvising with whatever they could get their hands on.
In New York, however, the renowned architecture firm Rockwell Group started DineOut NYC, a pro bono design–build service in coordination with the NYC Hospitality Alliance, to offer more calculated resolutions. (Later, upon its proven success, it expanded as a partner project of the Fund for the City of New York with contributions from Pershing Square Capital Management and Moët Hennessy, as well as founding New York City partner Resy and its parent company American Express.)
“David [Rockwell] got a group of us together in the office and said, ‘Restaurateurs are our people, and they’re being hit hardest now. What do we do to help them?’ ” says Matthew Winter, a studio leader and senior associate at the firm. The team then developed an entire system, from street zoning recommendations for the City and the Department of Transportation to wood furniture and lighting. By June, the team was already installing the first patios for a number of Harlem eateries, hiring set builders — thereby helping theatre workers, another hard-hit group — to construct them. And then they created a 120-seat outdoor dining area servicing a number of restaurants in Chinatown — an even harder-hit contingent — in one anchor set-up.
The initiative offers five schemes that range from minimal to more involved. “A lot of it was driven by function,” explains Winter. “For restaurateurs, it’s hard enough to operate, so our goal overall was to try to create something fun, light and colourful and to try for consistency.” Despite the modesty of the designs, the firm was able to imbue each with the character of the restaurant it complemented. For one client, their interior wall mural was reprinted as a vinyl that was stretched over the patio tables; for Mott Street, in Chinatown, an artist collaborator’s dim sum illustrations were stenciled onto the outside of banquettes and neighbourhood kids were invited to fill them in, paint-by-numbers style. As summer turned to fall, Rockwell helped to winterize these spaces by designing a slender heater that could fit on Chinatown’s narrow sidewalks.
Rockwell’s humble yet hugely successful contribution is part of a much larger story about how restaurants are renegotiating their footprints — taking up as much space as they can (and, perhaps for the best, taking space away from car traffic). Keeping the Tables Turning, a recent collaboration between WXY Studio and Uber Eats that forms part of the app’s US$10 million commitment to supporting Black-owned businesses, explodes this concept.
The design team at the New York–based firm looked at every facet of a building — whether it’s an infill on a main street or an isolated establishment surrounded by a huge parking lot — to provide recommendations for everything from how to expand dining capacity for physical distancing to setting up takeout counters along its perimeter and on its rooftop.
“The playbook is aimed at sending forth a series of more inspiring ideas about how to activate public spaces, thinking about outdoor and curbside space for restaurants across the country,” says David Vega-Barachowitz, WXY’s director of urban design. The emphasis, again, is on cooking up new ways for places to survive — not on aesthetic design — but the ideas for how indoor and outdoor spaces could be adapted are elegant in and of themselves.
If there is any doubt about how creative and mesmerizing the possibilities are for claiming more al fresco dining space, one need only look at Taller Architects and Colab-19’s La Concordia Amphitheatre, a vertical outdoor dining and event space constructed out of scaffolding and jute potato sacks around one of Bogotá’s biggest food and cultural markets.
But Vega-Barachowitz is in a growing cohort that sees the trend of sidewalk eating as part of a bigger movement to reconfigure the street to support multiple purposes; accelerated by the pandemic, this is a development that can be witnessed in cities around the world, including in Toronto, with its Quiet Streets program. “For our work,” says Vega-Barachowitz, “the challenge is: How do we anticipate what comes next — and take something that was never necessarily meant to be permanent and make it part of the project development process? How do we make it part of a larger vision for what streets can and should become, and how do we integrate that into higher-scale network thinking about how managed streets allow for this kind of activation and pedestrian access?”
These explorations point to a range of new possibilities — for restaurateurs and hospitality designers alike. Known for marquee projects like Toronto’s Momofuku and Soho House, the Los Angeles co-working space NeueHouse and the affordable-chic Generator hostels in Europe, DesignAgency is betting on a Roaring Twenties return to dining in the next year or so. While things might still be touch and go for the immediate future, the Toronto firm is at work on several years-long commissions that will stoke the fire of experience dining. “A year ago, restaurants were hoping to adapt for a short-term situation,” says Matthew Davis, one of the firm’s three founders. “But now, most of our clients are planning for a more experiential space instead of just trying to cope. There’s this great sentiment that, once we get to the next stage, there will be a lot of pent-up demand for socializing.”
These bigger clients with means, he explains, are planning to up the ante by creating unique offerings, from sommelier classes to food prep lessons, that elevate that special night out with an educational component. In one of DesignAgency’s upcoming projects, Miami’s Legacy Hotel & Residences, the ground-floor restaurant will feature a cloverleaf-shaped bar surrounded by theatrical stations that let diners watch staff shucking oysters, making cocktails and decanting fine vintages. “You’ll feel like you’re really participating — it’s not just a meal,” Davis explains.
That particular hotel project also epitomizes what he calls the “category collider” — a trend toward de-siloing our hospitality, work and residential modes. For Legacy, he and the team are developing a robust area called the International Business Lounge. “People have become comfortable with Zoom and digital presentations, which allows them to travel for longer without triggering vacation hours,” he says. (In fact, many up-and-coming hotel brands are encouraging longer-term stays with suites that contain coveted extras like kitchenettes and laundry.) “The IBL is a club-style set-up, imbued with all the layers of hospitality and technology, for hosting, entertaining and presenting in a space with a casual head-office feel.”
While this all-in-one approach demonstrates how the hotel office lounge is merging with the hotel restaurant, another hospitality variant — the ghost kitchen, a shared cooking facility for preparing delivery-only menus — is also being considered anew. “Most restaurants we are planning now have a ghost kitchen element,” Davis says. “The concept works exceptionally well with most hotels, as they typically have large-scale kitchens. However, the idea of a ghost kitchen is adaptable to smaller kitchen sizes and we are seeing an increased request for this type of hospitality. At Legacy, where it factors into everything from menu diversity to the bottom line, it will service the hotel but also take the shape of a walk-up window off to the side that offers a unique food and beverage menu untethered from the hotel.”
Anita Modha, in charge of strategy at Otto Design Group, the firm that serialized Urban Outfitters stores across North America, is seeing the same trend. The firm is working on a food market in North Hollywood called Town Hall, which is being positioned as “your neighbourhood kitchen” — with operable windows providing ventilation in a massive space that invites various eateries to devise adaptable, cohesively branded kitchens in a plug-and-play scheme.
This scenario, which also includes activation and art spaces, would give tenants an alternative option to a permanent location and a 10-year lease. Among the design services offered under its Seeds and Growth chapter, Otto develops “culture studies” for its clients — sets of guiding principles covering user and case studies, trend reports, and data on localization/serialization and daily drivers. These resilient business models can then be passed on to another architect to bring to fruition. Enter the designer as visionary business consultant.
“Brands are really rethinking how they operate,” Modha says. “And while health and safety will become the critical eye through which we will look at design solutions, adaptability is going to be the most important thing.” Indeed, adaptability, for both restaurants and the designers that work on them, will be key from now on.