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Boston Society of Architects

Food Feature

3 Courses

Here’s the dish on the dining experience

Artisan Brunch 1

A meal inspired by Salvador Dalí from the Artisan Brunch series, 2017.

Photo: Aaron Tilley for Kinfolk magazine Set design: Kyle Bean Food styling: Lucy-Ruth Hathaway.


by Eric Aulenback

Restaurant design is about laying a foundation where hospitality and guest satisfaction can flourish. The foundation begins with the floor plan, the blueprint that will define the future of the restaurant. The layout dictates the seat count, capacity, and ultimately the revenue potential. We often lay out the design on the actual floor and assess sightlines from every seat and how staff and guests might flow from point A to point B.

Then we look for ways to enhance guests’ experiences. “Bridging” — building chameleon-like spaces that bridge the dining and social needs of the neighborhood community, all day and evening — is paramount. Interiors want to be authentic, like a home where comfort reigns above all else. Our design method is about the fusion of a dining experience with a social experience.

At Capo Restaurant and Supper Club in South Boston, the floor plan is based on creating varied experiences within larger spaces. The goal is to give neighbors a comfortable front room that looks like an Old World Italian tavern: an open store front with mahogany bi-folding doors, a bar area with high-top and booth seating made with 200-year-old reclaimed pine, antique ceiling fans and ambient globe lighting that line wood-clad ceilings. Every finish in the back room is different from the front. Open kitchens and flexible low-seating options serve primarily as our dining room but can morph to accommodate events and private dining. The experience is designed to be a bit brighter, more culinary, more focused on the kitchen and food.

The look and feel of a restaurant communicates with guests on a subconscious level, which affects how and when they integrate the venue into their daily lives. We use a wall-mounted display and cutting station to highlight artisanal bread and prominently displayed wine, which help communicate intimate meals shared with friends and family. The juxtaposition of spinning ceiling fans, the energy of the servers, the crackling fire, the dance of food preparation, and the wood-fired oven form a symphony of movement that, along with a curated soundtrack, creates theater where diners become the stars of the show. The goal: to make our neighborhood restaurants feel like a favorite pair of jeans, the ones you keep coming back to and want to wear every day.


by Cheryl and Jeffrey Katz

We’re passionate about design and work on all kinds of projects. We’re also passionate about food, so designing restaurants is perhaps the most fun work of all.

Our restaurant clients usually come to us with a clear menu concept and a strong idea about the style of service. Whether it’s fine dining or a dive bar, we start by looking at precedents. Usually this is an image search, but one lucky time, when we were beginning the design of Sarma in Somerville, it meant a long weekend in Istanbul. Before beginning the design for Menton in Boston, we ate at the finest restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island; New York; Chicago; and Yountville, California. Whether it’s armchair travel or the real thing, we embark on a search to establish, and to communicate to our clients, the tone of the restaurant. All decisions emanate from there.

Next, we tackle the host building to understand what it has to offer — materials, structure, history, light. Sometimes the space offers a lot. At Drink in Fort Point, the character of the bar was more or less determined by the existing space. At South Boston’s Fat Baby, we “constructed” a history using distressed wood and patinated metal. Low ceilings and thick walls allowed No. 9 Park on Beacon Hill to feel intimate, while Fóumami, located at the base of a downtown office tower with huge walls of glass, allowed us to create an airy, open space.

Finally we consider what we call the choreography. We “thin slice” the diners’ experience and design each part of it: the approach from the street, the front door, the greeting and reception area, the approach to a table, the access to finding a seat at the bar. By considering each part of the sequence in detail, we aim to make the whole encounter as seamless and effortless as possible. We try to design spaces that support the experience without overpowering it. If the lighting, acoustics, look, and overall character all add up to an atmosphere that supports the food and the service, we’ve got a success.

And then, hopefully, we end up on the VIP list. That’s when the real fun begins.


by Alison Arnett

In his short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway succinctly outlines a restaurant’s appeal. The old man sits drinking as two waiters argue, one wishing to go home, the other pointing out why the man lingers: The light is warm, the place clean, and the brandy welcoming, and leafy shadows on the terrace offer a distraction. That’s a good, bare-bones analysis of what I hope for when I walk into a restaurant — clean lines, natural light if possible, or at least warm lighting, and attractive details to beguile me.

Here’s my ideal: I walk into Restaurant Perfect and approach the hostess desk. It’s strategically placed but doesn’t block the scene so that I immediately get a sense of the room. As I move toward the table, I appreciate the natural materials, distinctive paint colors, a floor surface that is safe to walk across, even in heels. The attractive upholstery, while aesthetically pleasing, also muffles sound. The tables are close enough to foster a sense of community, but not claustrophobically so.

Settling in to my seat, designed for comfort, I notice conviviality: discreet music, the sounds of conversation, the faint clink of glasses and cutlery, but not a thunderous roar of bass tones or raucous hoots. Lighting is indirect but strong enough for diners to read menus without flashlights. The decor is not cluttered, but there are well-thought-out details that distinguish this restaurant in a time of ubiquitous industrial chic. Most important, there’s a focus: An exterior view is great but often not possible. Instead, a partly open kitchen, some greenery, or a dramatic spot of art commands the view.

And finally, the freestanding bar has ample seating but enough surrounding space so that bar diners are not looming over those sitting at tables. That is the architectural dilemma for restaurant designers right now: how to integrate lucrative bar seating with tables so that the room doesn’t look chopped up and each set of diners is comfortable. In fact, at Restaurant Perfect, it works so well that that’s where I’ll sit next time. Hemingway would certainly have approved.