Recipe for Success: Restaurant Design

27 January 2010 (Last Updated January 27th, 2010 18:30)

Lisa Delgado takes a look at four of the most inventive international restaurant projects. While they show a remarkable range of aesthetic approaches, all aim to make patrons feel at ease yet subtly stimulated through a rich, sometimes theatrical, visual and tactile experience.

A good meal helps to rejuvenate the body and spirit – no wonder the word "restaurant" comes from the French word for "restore". But a restaurant's architecture and interior design are also key ingredients to helping patrons emerge relaxed and reinvigorated.

Switch, Dubai, UAE

Switch restaurant in Dubai features a Mediterranean menu and a dramatically curvaceous dining space typical of designer Karim Rashid's signature "technorganic" aesthetic. "The design creates an interesting texture for light and shadow, evoking the sand dunes in the desert. It is a unique environment that completely envelops the guests," he says. "I wanted to create an oasis free from chaos."

As the name suggests, the space is mutable: programmed LED lights change colour every other day, so the walls appear to transform from blue to white to amber to pink. The ceiling is adorned with inspirational, styled Arabic phrases, and the floor has flowing lines of colour running along it, as if to lead the visitor forward.

Contributing to the holistic appearance, the curvy fibreglass walls and ceiling were designed to appear all of a piece, though they're made of 17 floor-to-ceiling panels. The panels were sanded, buffed, and polished on-site, in order to make the space look seamless, Rashid explains. The audio system is also designed for a sense of immersion. "The speakers are placed on the centre ceiling panel behind the glass and the fibreglass wall," the designer says. "It's the kind of technology that allows a speaker placed on glass, wood, metal or any other surface to turn the surface it comes in contact with into a large speaker through vibration."

"The ceiling of Switch is adorned with inspirational, styled Arabic phrases."

A lounge area offers its own look, with one wall illuminated with white LEDs and another decorated with a psychedelic pattern of pink and white swirls against a black background, a style of graphic Rashid calls "digipop". Despite the pattern's complexity, the interwoven abstract curves are strangely soothing, like the swoops of a giant screensaver.

Departure, Portland, Oregon, US

In Portland, Oregon, Departure evokes the glamour and romance of travel (without the real-world hassles). The restaurant comprises the new top floor of a 15-storey building, offering a rare opportunity for local firm Skylab Architecture to design a new restaurant space inside and out. The firm found inspiration in the history of department store Meier & Frank, which once made the building its home and brought "design and culture and products to the city from afar," says principal Jeff Kovel. Though Skylab steered away from literal interpretations, it drew from the iconography of luxury yachts and historic ocean liners in its design.

When guests step out of the elevator to visit Departure, they already feel like they've entered another realm, as they make their way through a mysterious purple-lit hexagonal entryway. "We really wanted it to almost feel like you were coming in from underwater, into the experience," Kovel explains. "We wanted to create a strong sense of arrival and break from everything that you'd experienced up to that point."

The main dining room envelopes a central bar (where people sit in actual boat seats); overhead is a 60ft-long skylight that turns into a window on the east side, "like a windshield on a boat," Kovel says. The bar was conceived almost like a control deck, giving the form, materiality and feel of piloting a ship," he adds. On a nearby wall, patrons can peruse a mural of a faux nautical map of places with whimsical names such as "Tickled Pink Islands".

"Departure evokes the glamour and romance of travel, without the real-world hassles."

The restaurant offers enticing views of the Portland skyline, but the architects didn't want to let that dominate the entire experience. At night, reflective segmented walls create an intriguing effect: "They take all the lights on the horizon, and they draw them into the space … it's almost like a celestial lighting effect," Kovel says. "You can't tell what's what and where it's coming from." The result is an "energy-infused, introverted space that has a really unique interpretation of the view, the horizon and what's outside."

Skylab also played with reflections in the design of a hallway leading past the kitchen and toward the bathrooms. Lining the hallway are eight "portholes" made of mirrors and four that are actual windows into the upper spaces of the bathrooms and into the kitchen, which is designed out of stainless steel to mimic the engine of a ship. The mirrors cast cross reflections back and forth, creating a surreal and surprising sense of the hallway space and its nearby surroundings.

Banq, Boston,Massachusetts, US

Across the country, Office dA experimented with the playful possibilities of designing bathrooms in a restaurant called Banq. The men's and women's bathrooms have domed ceilings, with small openings connecting the two bathrooms, allowing the passage of sound between them, as well as upward views to see the dome of the adjacent bathroom. "The bathroom is probably the most important part of any restaurant design," remarks principal Nader Tehrani. "You get to defamiliarise and take risks."

The main dining area, by contrast, has a more serious feel and even evokes a sense of awe. Cut into curvy forms, slats of birch plywood hang down from the ceiling, moulding the space into forms that resemble a cavern or the undulations of a canopy of trees.

The bold sculptural design sprang from practical imperatives. A restaurant thrives on flexibility on the ground plane – allowing for shifting seating configurations – so the ceiling proved easiest to work with. The slats also provided a perfect way to distract from the array of mechanical and sprinkler equipment. The slats are "oriented toward the main door, which acts as a proscenium for the view into the space from the point of view of the street," Tehrani explains.

L'Anima, London, UK

"Anima is a restaurant that is not about interior decoration," Silvestrin says, "it's about architecture."

London restaurant L'Anima by Claudio Silvestrin Architects could hardly be more different – favouring a stripped-down look, uncomplicated geometries and a palette of neutral colours, it was designed to be a calming retreat from the world outside. L'Anima serves Italian cuisine, and the name means "soul" in Italian. "It's in an area of the city where people are really workaholic and busy, busy, busy," says Claudio Silvestrin, who heads the London and Milan-based firm. "So I think it's good that in addition to good food, they have a place where there is a sense of calm and tranquillity, and also a sense of solidity ... If a place looks very solid, it doesn't make you feel that you have to rush with your meal."

For the walls and floors, natural materials such as travertine and porphyry impart a timeless feel, and high ceilings give the space an airy ambience. Part of the space's charm is its simplicity, Silvestrin says. Furnishings are modern yet not trendy and include white leather Mies van der Rohe chairs and barstools that Silvestrin designed for Italian furniture company Poltrona Frau. "It's a restaurant that is not about interior decoration," Silvestrin says, "it's about architecture."

While the dining space was designed with an eye to tranquillity, the adjacent bar has a jazzier atmosphere. Sections of backlit marble adorn the back of the bar, and music contributes to a lively feel. Floor-to-ceiling glass provides acoustic separation between the bar and the dining space, while still yielding a sense of visual connection. Patrons can catch glimpses into the kitchen through slots in the walls, but smoked glass keeps those views subtle, not distracting. Featuring a vaulted ceiling, a smaller, more intimate VIP dining room has a design inspired by the look of a monastery, including a long, dark-green marble table meant to evoke an altar.

Just as Silvestrin had hoped, L'Anima has proven to be a balm for overstressed souls. "The client told me that when people sit down, they don't want to go away. They stay until midnight," the architect says, with a laugh.