February 9, 2022
Will restaurant design be fundamentally changed by the pandemic? All signs point to yes.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has changed the way we think about our built environment and no more than when it comes to publicly shared spaces like restaurants. The hospitality industry has been particularly hard hit over the past two years and has in turn witnessed pronounced changes in design, layout and dining experience. Businesses have had to work with unprecedented health and safety protocols and measures to stay open. Fewer seats and more space between them, partitions made of a multitude of materials and “residences” (whether in the form of structures such as sheds, picnic tables or even personal igloos), are all of which have become familiar (and out of) restaurant sites during the pandemic. Overall, these structures were hastily erected with a do-it-yourself feel, but as the pandemic enters a new phase and mandates and restrictions begin to lift, we can now begin to ask ourselves: pandemic forge a new attitude towards restaurant design that will fundamentally change the look and feel of “eating out”? And will some of the changes we’ve seen over the past two years be permanent?
Speaking to Seattle Architects, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. “No matter what happens to some of the physical innovations we’ve seen, I think the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we look at space and design in the hospitality industry,” said Yi-Chun Lin, director of Board & Vellum, noting a new awareness of health and safety, interactions with others and the importance of having flexible furniture solutions in a space. Jim Graham, co-founder of Graham Baba Architects, also sees 2020 as changing the landscape and future of restaurant design. “What we were actually seeing before the pandemic was a move towards more communal dining with large central tables etc. That has of course totally changed now,” Graham said, “Both the convenience and the perception of security are going to continue to push the design forward,” he added. “I think the task for architects and designers now is how to create spaces that provide a sense of unity, yet a way that feels safe?” Lin said.
In the future, diners can expect to see more varied and flexible seating options, better filtration systems, and perhaps even spaces that highlight security systems as part of the design. Another permanent change will be better access to outdoor dining and design innovations that blur the line between indoors and outdoors, such as large windows that open to the street front. And what about the future of the restaurant, perhaps the most ubiquitous feature of pandemic restaurants?
Both architects I spoke with had positive opinions and would like them to become a more permanent feature. “With the streateria, the dining experience now starts outside the restaurant, which I think is something to celebrate and provides an exciting opportunity for architects and designers,” Lin said. “I think with the strategies there is a real opportunity to activate the streetscape for the public,” Graham added, “in my view they provide a way to turn a private enterprise into a public good” . Going forward, Graham imagines more thoughtful and robust strategies than those that had to be put in place quickly during the pandemic. “Each neighborhood or city might even have its own design language across the streets,” he mused. Graham also hopes the board in Seattle decides to encourage the strategies and make them easier to authorize. The future of the theater will ultimately be decided at government level. In Seattle, council members are actively seeking to make them permanent — Dan Strauss set up the Path to Permanency program for outdoor dining — while in Edmonds, the streatery program could end this spring.
Beyond strategy, Graham pointed to two other pandemic-induced changes he expects to see more of: removing windows and reducing service. “We included a street-facing take-out window for a customer just before the pandemic hit and it ended up being a godsend for them,” he said. He also noted that many customers are now thinking about the restaurant takeout experience, deciding where that interaction will occur and its relationship to the indoor dining space. “It’s not just about having someone come to the back door for takeout anymore, we’re now actively thinking about takeout as part of the dining experience,” Graham explained. Graham Baba Architects has also seen a move towards less service, driven by health and safety concerns and personnel issues, affecting the design. “The goal of the architect is how do you design spaces where it feels natural and pleasant and not like you’re missing something?” he concluded. It’s becoming clear, don’t expect a “back to normal” when it comes to restaurant design.
Emma Hinchliffe can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.