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The mise-en-scène of dining

Can a restaurant’s aesthetic have an even bigger impact than the food has on its guests? Xanthe Clay explores what makes for the perfect design when it comes to fine dining

Words by Xanthe Clay

The dining room at The Ritz
The Collection
The design has been a draw at places like The Ritz for decades

What do you remember about your last meal out? Was it the wine? The menu? The service? Or was it the room, the atmosphere, the stunning flower display, the extravagant chandelier or the view?

Restaurateurs are increasingly putting their money on the latter, an opportunity to thrill not with the dishes or the sommelier’s knowledge. It’s an area over which they have more control – a chef might have an off night; staff shortages are rife in the industry in Britain, meaning the front of house could be overstretched; customers are notoriously fickle in their vinous preferences. But hire a good designer, make your customers’ jaws drop as they enter the room, and you have a high chance of a hit.

CETO restaurant
Capitalising on the sunsets at Ceto has helped seal the relatively new restaurant’s status (Photo: Matteo Carassale)

It could also make the food and wine taste better. Tableware matters; research by scientists such as Oxford University’s Professor Charles Spence shows that a strawberry mousse on a white plate tastes sweeter and more flavourful than the same mousse on a black plate. A study by the University of Arkansas goes further, comparing the same food eaten in different environments – laboratory, cafeteria, gourmet restaurant. Participants preferred the food when it was served in the restaurant.

This goes for wine, too. Spence has conducted studies showing that background music and lighting affect our perception of wine flavour. (We prefer it when the lighting is red and the music ‘sweet’.) Even what we are touching plays a part: wine tastes fruitier and sweeter when we touch soft surfaces rather than rough. Velvet wine glasses can only be a season away.

A good restaurant design should make you feel at ease, relaxed and welcome rather than in a showroom – Russell Norman

Science aside, diners have always loved a magnificent room. The murals and chandeliers of the sumptuous Ritz in London have been thrilling customers from Aretha Franklin to Aga Khan since 1906, while travellers like Salvador Dalí and Coco Chanel have revelled in the Art Nouveau opulence of Paris’s Le Train Bleu since 1900. Would they have gone if the rooms had been ordinary? Hardly. It’s a marvellous backdrop in which to be seen.

Social media has amplified this. Sure, the successful reopening of London’s Quaglino’s in the 1990s lay largely in the buzz created by the vastness of the room, the entrance-making staircase and the ceiling that glowed with stars at night. But now it’s the shots of Mexico’s bird’s-nest style Kin Toh in Tulum or the sunset over Monte Carlo from Mauro Colagreco’s rooftop Cote d’Azur restaurant Ceto that fill Instagram.

Oteque in Rio de Janeiro, where acoustics and air conditioning were key considerations for chef Alberto Landgraf (Photo: Rubens Kato)

In the end, though, it’s how the restaurant makes you feel. Robin Hutson, of the successful rustic Pig Hotels group and of the Lime Wood hotel in the New Forest, is adamant that good design is about more than the right chairs and light fittings. ‘It’s the whole environment, so very basic things like temperature, like comfort, like level of noise are really important.’

Alberto Landgraf, whose Rio de Janeiro restaurant Oteque entered the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list last year, put those aspects at the forefront of the restaurant’s design. ‘The air conditioning was number one; and number two was the acoustic ceiling. In Rio, you spend most of the year at 40°C, so you want to create a good ambience. But I also have a lot of issues with noise. I did those first, then designed the rest of the restaurant.’ His vision: a theatrical space, with the kitchen as a dark stage, and just six tables in front.

Make your customers’ jaws drop as they enter the room and you have a high chance of a hit

Landgraf employed an acoustic expert who works in theatres to optimise the double-height ceiling in the 1930s building to make the perfect sound volume. Air conditioning was tricky because, with an open kitchen, there needs to be a higher temperature in that area, and it’s also important that the kitchen extraction doesn’t pull the cool air out of the restaurant.

Engineers worked with the air flow, so that there is an exact point in front of the kitchen where there is a change in temperature. ‘It is really crazy, because it’s an open space. There’s no physical barrier whatsoever,’ says Landgraf. His new London restaurant Bossa opened this summer and also has an open kitchen. But ‘luckily, in the UK we don’t have to worry so much about keeping the restaurant cool enough’.

Russell Norman’s Brutto in Farringdon, London, where the restaurateur has procured vintage furniture to make a design statement

Design is vital, agrees restaurateur Russell Norman, who built the Polpo chain in London before setting up Brutto in Farringdon. ‘It baffles me that people don’t put as much attention and detail into design as they would for a brilliant dish or fantastic service. The three go hand in hand. In my restaurants, of course the food is important, but it’s not necessarily the star of the show.’ Even the loos get special attention, with a different atmosphere, tongue-in-cheek signage and a more upbeat soundtrack.

‘I like to make my restaurants appear as if they’ve evolved over time,’ Norman continues, ‘which is why I painstakingly source antique furniture, rather than new.’ Other facets are even more subtle: old building techniques, tongue-and-groove panelling rather than plasterboard, and paint applied with a brush not a roller.

Refettorio Felix in London proves beautiful restaurant design doesn’t have to be ultra-expensive

Adding beauty to a restaurant doesn’t have to be ultra-expensive. Refettorio Felix, one of Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s community kitchen projects, is in London’s Earl’s Court and serves meals to vulnerable people, made from ingredients that would otherwise have gone to waste. For the interiors, British design guru Ilse Crawford hung the church hall roof with spherical Chinese paper lampshades. The effect is striking, modern and could be achieved at home on a shoestring. It’s also very much Crawford’s style. ‘She says, have one thing that is amazing,’ Hutson points out; ‘it could be a great chandelier, or a lovely floor, or an amazing pair of curtains… If you haven’t got the budget to really do a restaurant properly, don’t do bits and pieces and compromise – just keep it simple and have one amazing element.’

Helene Darroze
A fine Armagnac collection also fulfils a decorative purpose at restaurant Hélène Darroze at The Connaught in London

Speaking on the Future of Restaurant Design podcast, Steve Starr of Starr Design in North Carolina – who has designed everything from London’s late Planet Hollywood to outposts of Nobu and Vong – says the job of restaurant design begins at the moment people arrive. ‘When a guest walks into a restaurant, you have up to three seconds to communicate to a guest what they’re supposed to do, where they’re supposed to go and what’s expected of them. And if those messages aren’t clearly communicated to that guest, automatically, a neurological message gets sent to the inner part of your brain that says, “Whoa, I don’t know what to do – therefore, I’m uncomfortable. Therefore, I should be careful.” And if you’re being careful, you’re not going to enjoy yourself as much.’

Stunning wine displays can also add a sense of theatre. Best of all is when the setting and menu knit together, like at Ceto, where the wine list features barnacle-encrusted bottles of Champagne André Heucq aged 60 metres under the same ocean that diners gaze upon. Or at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, where you can dine in a nook surrounded by a collection of Armagnac that dates back to 1888, before ordering a baba drenched in a choice of three different ages of Armagnac.

Le train bleu
Salvador Dalí and Coco Chanel are among the guests to have revelled in the opulence of Le Train Bleu in Paris

What about the future? Post-pandemic, some restaurant designers are looking to break up large rooms to create semi-private dining areas where guests can socialise in small and medium groups without feeling exposed to all and sundry. We are looking for cleaner spaces, but with an earthy spin: plants, natural fibres, and – yes, that 70s favourite – rattan furniture are all on the up. The buzz design word is biophilic: nature loving.

A good restaurant design should make you feel at ease, relaxed and welcome rather than in a showroom. Russell Norman sums it up. ‘Our job as restaurateurs is to make you feel better about yourself and the world than you did two and a half hours before.’ To create a little positive fantasy? ‘Yes! Otherwise, you might as well stay in and order a pizza.’