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Make the Space Your Own: 7 Design and Decor Tips for New Restaurants

Think back to your most memorable recent restaurant meal. 

Not necessarily your best meal, although there’s a good chance they’re one and the same. You’re most memorable.

What made that meal so special? Chances are, this question has more than one answer: some combination of the food, the service, the location, the ambience. 

Make It Special — Really Special

Let’s drill down on that last one if we can. The ambience.

A restaurant’s ambience — or its vibe, or atmosphere, or whatever you want to call it — depends on any number of factors. But most of these relate in some way to the restaurant’s design and decor — its “bones” and its dressings.

You know great restaurant design and decor when you see it, which isn’t really that often. While the food always takes centre stage, above-and-beyond design and decor often make the difference between a very good meal and a truly amazing one. 

You want diners to have truly amazing experiences at your restaurant. Consider these seven design and decor strategies to make it so.

1. Take Inspiration From a Singular Time and Place

Nostalgia sells, even when it’s nostalgia for a past that most of us never experienced.

You probably never saw Chicago circa 1955, for instance. But that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine what it was like — or what going to the neighbourhood pub might have involved in Wicker Park or Wrigleyville back then.

Dallas-based Vandelay Hospitality Group turned that nostalgia daydream into brick-clad reality with D.L. Mack’s, a new Chicago-style eatery concept in its backyard. Dark wood panelling, transit-themed memorabilia from mid-century Chicago, and — of course — old-school cracker-crust pizza give the place an inimitable air of the Windy City.

Vandelay doesn’t have a monopoly on nostalgic restaurant themes, of course. How will you transport your diners back (or forward) in time?

2. Use Salvaged Wood Accents, But Don’t Go Overboard

You don’t want your restaurant to resemble the hold of an 18th-century schooner or European country church. Plus, salvaged wood is often more expensive than new wood veneer furnishings and fixtures.

But there’s a place for salvaged wood in many restaurants: a set-piece above the host stand, for example, or perhaps as part of an outdoor pergola. Salvaged wood is more eco-friendly than new wood, too, so you can leverage it to play up your low-carbon cred.

3. Add an Indoor-Outdoor Bar, Layout and Climate Permitting

If you’re planning to have outdoor service and your property’s layout allows, build a bar that’s partly inside and partly outside. Don’t worry about having continuous seating — you can wall or glass right up to the bar on the customer side and keep only the service side free. The impact will still be amazing.

4. Add a Self-Serve Drinks Wall

A self-serve beverage wall is a great way to add a still-novel decor element to your restaurant that’s both practical and memorable. Don’t tell your service staff that it’s also a great way to trim labour costs. 

You’ll still need someone manning the bar to hand out touch cards to patrons and grab drinks for people who don’t want to use the self-serve wall, but you won’t need the same server count for table service, particularly not if you keep your menu simple.

5. Divide the Space With a Long Table (Or Several)

It’s easy to go overboard on the communal dining concept. Depending on your restaurant’s theme and intended vibe, however, adding some multi-party tables to your dining room could have a powerful effect — and might make service easier as well. 

6. Take Over Your Street Frontage

Parklet dining was a welcome pandemic trend that restaurant owners hope to continue permanently. If you have street parking out front or control over what happens in your parking lot, consider adding some outdoor tables or benches. Patrons always value the option to dine al fresco, and you’ll claim more revenue-producing square footage for your business.

7. Feature Local Art (And Sell It Too)

You support your community. This means you support local artists, whether you know it or not. Why not lean into this theme — and make sure your patrons know it — by featuring original work from the top creatives in town? 

Many will agree to have their work featured in it’s clear it’s for sale, setting up a classic win-win situation.

Your Restaurant Needs to Stand Out

Great restaurants stand out. Some do so only on account of their food, and that might work perfectly well for them — a pizza joint doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel decor-wise, and a food truck straight up can’t.

But if you’re opening or renovating a full-service restaurant, you can’t pretend design and decor don’t matter. You need to separate yourself from the competition visually and experientially.

These ideas can help. Now it’s time to commit.

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