I have an amendment to the old adage, “Location, Location, Location”. When it comes to restaurants, I would like to propose, “Location, Location, Design”. People have long since been dazzled by a good-looking restaurant but it seems that lately consumers are even more brand and design conscious. Just as chefs are evoking more locavore menus, restaurant design is all about going back to our roots. Edison lightbulbs, refurbished wood, chalkboard menus, and vintage frames are taking center stage in restaurants across the nation. Thrift stores are being raided and natural materials are being highlighted. As our own nine-year old restaurant gets a new look in the new year, I can’t help but keep my eye on design.
Food establishments have been around for centuries. Ancient Rome held the birth of the street vendor and Medieval travelers rested at inns, taverns, monasteries, and hostels. Colonial Americans even had Publick Houses where they could grab a bite and enjoy the company of others. The word restaurant itself is derived from the French word restaurer which means to restore. Early French establishments (pre-revolution) did just that, they served meat based consommes to “restore” a person’s strength when they were not feeling well. But it is the French Revolution that gave birth to the restaurant as we know it. Prior to the revolution there were strict licensing by the king to control specific food through the use of guilds (eg. the Patissiers, Rotisseurs, Charcutiers). Fancy food was left for the royalty not the middle-class customer. The revolution brought with it the ideals of egalitarianism and the believe that those who could pay for it could have it. French chefs were quick to seize the opportunity and open up their very own establishments. In about 1765, a Parisian man named Boulanger wrote on his sign: Boulanger sells restoratives “fit for the gods”….and the restaurant was born.
Chefs like Escoffier then traveled to London taking their “fit for the gods” menus and opened up at fancy hotels. People started eating with their eyes. Decor reflected this grand theatrical prosperity and in the 19th century chandeliers and gilding reigned supreme. In the 1930’s there was a small movement toward the simplification of restaurant design but it was in the 1960’s that restaurant design became a powerful tool for entrepreneurs. There was now a diversity in venues and a more mobile consumer and it was with design that establishments could distinguish themselves. Consumers could tell what was a bistro, cafe, diner, or fine dining restaurant just by the design. In the late 20th century, chefs capitalized on this coercive technique and partnered with famous designers creating opulence in their menus and in their interiors.
Design has become an element as valuable to a restaurant as great ingredients. It is now up to the consumer to decide what concept resonant with them. Whether you prefer grandiose, splashy design or the simplistic provincial style, I hope you find your place, because everyone needs a place to “restore”.