There are many things that make you return to a restaurant. Food is the number one reason, but great service and a pretty interior space also up the appeal.
Even as the pressure is always on being tops in the cuisine department, restaurateurs are increasingly splashing out on interior design for the complete dining experience. What with Singapore raising its game as an F&B destination thanks to its stable of Michelin stars, the newer crop of eateries in town have raised the bar decor-wise, which makes dining out now a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.
Restaurateur-chef Beppe De Vito of the il Lido Group is one who doesn’t believe in stinging on interior design. He spent about S$1 million fitting out the one Michelin-starred Braci at Boat Quay, another S$1.5 million on Amo at Hong Kong Street, and a cool S$5 million on Aura at the National Gallery Singapore.
The design of a restaurant sets the tone for the experience and concept, he explains. For example, Braci is an intimate restaurant designed to replicate how Chef De Vito creates a home-cooked meal for his loved ones. Except that it is elevated to Michelin star standards with exquisite dishes, top-notch produce and refined techniques.
“Diners do not simply focus on the food and service alone – many regard the ambience and design as an important part of the dining experience,” says Chef De Vito.
When chef Rishi Naleendra and his general manager Gareth Burnett were conceptualising Cloudstreet at Amoy Street, the design of the restaurant was one of their top priorities.
Chef Naleendra says that the biggest issue he had at his old restaurant Cheek by Jowl was that, “it was always a good meal, but I never thought it was an amazing experience because of the layout of the dining room.” He adds, “Gareth and I talked about how we had to make dining at Cloudstreet a better experience. We knew we could deal with the food, the wine and the service. But how could we make dining here more than just a meal?”
They agreed on a lounge area so that guests could sit down, feel welcomed and have a drink before moving onto the dining room. Also on the wish list was an open kitchen and a private dining room.
Annalissa De Vos, design director at greymatters created a space that is “all about sticking to authenticity.” For example, kopitiam tables and Peranakan tiles hint at Singapore’s heritage; there’s a bit of jungle feel to reflect the chef’s Sri Lankan heritage; and the homey vibe is meant to reflect Cloudstreet – the name of a house in the titular book which the restaurant is named after.
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Stand out with design
In a country like Singapore, where food is always a popular topic, Lim Hui Nan, co-founder of Empire Eats Group says, “restaurant design is almost as important as the food in a competitive industry like ours, where diners are spoilt for choice. A well-designed spot could be what persuades a diner to step in and give the place a try.”
Veteran restaurateur Yuan Oeij founder of the Prive Group says, “Most people think they are visiting a restaurant for the food, but they do not realise how much everything else matters to them, perhaps even more than food. How they were made to feel is the overall deciding factor of whether they enjoyed their time, or return for another visit.”
His restaurants’ designs are driven by concept, location and market positioning. For example, Prive Wheelock is in a location with high traffic, so Mr Oeij was inspired by Parisian cafes and their “watch the world go by” concept. Designer Lim Siew Hui, founder of Hui Designs created the restaurant to have a light and airy feel, with a row of street-facing seating. “When we opened in 2017, people really loved it, and to this day, I still have people coming up to me to say how much they love the street-facing tables and chairs that we have,” says Mr Oeij.
American design firm, AvroKO, which designed Publico and Marcello at InterContinental Robertson Quay, has a trademarked approach to restaurant design which they call Hospitable Thinking. One of AvroKO’s four founding partners, William Harris, explains that “Hospitable Thinking addresses human needs and aspirational desires that meld to create a dynamic experience.”
Some needs that he considers are security, surprise and significance. ‘Security’ includes details such as seating plans so guests feel grounded and protected. ‘Surprise’ brings a sense of unexpectedness such as a free pink champagne bar in the ladies’ room at Beauty & Essex in New York; while ‘Significance’ makes guests feel like part of the restaurant. “These fundamental needs of humans, if appropriately handled, create the best hospitality experience,” says Mr Harris.
Dutch architect Camiel Weijenberg goes by the philosophy that “a good restaurant design considers the people and the space as much as it is about the people in the space”. Mr Weijenberg, who designed Cure on Keong Saik Road and RAW in Taipei, says that it’s about people getting together, enjoying themselves and people working together.”
RAW has won international design awards including Restaurant & Bar Design Awards 2015, and reddot design winner 2015. Guests are greeted by an organically sculpted wooden structure, which merges to form the centrepiece of RAW in the main restaurant. They sit at bespoke tables with lighting that creates a stage for the food.
Attention to details
While designers and restaurateurs have different approaches to restaurant design, sometimes it is the little details that matter. Hui Design’s Ms Lim always specifies the colour temperature of the restaurant to her client. “There can be no white light in any of the restaurants or cafes I design,” she says.
Poorly thought-out lighting is her pet peeve. “White light in restaurants make the dishes look unappetising and the diners look flat,” she says. “It is important that the lighting is warm, which in turn makes the food and diners look more appealing. When diners look good, they feel good.”
For Cloudstreet’s Mr Burnett, “nothing is worse than the first guest coming in and feeling alone.” That isn’t a problem at the restaurant as greymatters’ Ms De Vos has designed the restaurant to have a theatre-like feel, with the open kitchen as centrestage. Regardless of where a diner is, he is always able to feel included.
Chef-restaurateur Willin Low who owns Relish restaurants says that lighting, music and temperature should all be complementary to the concept of the restaurant. “When I walk into a restaurant I like to feel like I’m taken into a different space, where for the next hour or so, I can forget the daily woes and enjoy a meal with good company,” he says.
Even restaurant chains are jumping on the design bandwagon. Crystal Jade Palace recently unveiled a fresh look, designed by Parable Studio. A new feature is a courtyard, inspired by a Chinese garden and complete with a modern moongate entrance. Its senior manager for marketing communications, Irene Goh, says “After 26 years, refurbishment works are necessary to create a new and modern dining space for guests. Regulars appreciate the updated surrounds, while the new look appeals to younger diners.”
Diners take notice
All the effort that goes into restaurant design is not lost on frequent restaurant-goers. Food critic Kyoko Nakayama, who writes for Forbes Japan says while the flavour of the food is what she looks out for most, “the interior is also very important. It showcases the character of the restaurant and something we see before the dishes appear on our table.”
She is particularly fond of Inua in Tokyo, with its dining room which blends Nordic and Japanese elements while evoking a sense of quiet luxury.
Justin Teo, a financial risk specialist, who dines at restaurants almost everyday says, “although the food may be more important than the ambience for most occasions, the ambience affects the experience, which in turn affects your perception of the food.” He adds that for special occasions, “ambience could be the primary factor when choosing a restaurant, although the food should be decent to begin with.”
Architect-turned-restaurateur Hoang Ha, who runs the popular Mrs Pho eateries and designed the spaces himself says, “design in F&B is no longer a nicety. It is a must, because customers are getting more sophisticated and are demanding it as a matter of course, just like good food and service.”
He adds that good design may take a little more time and effort but it adds value at multiples beyond the initial investment. “Luckily for us, there is no quota or levy on good design,” he says. “So I say: embrace it and use it to your advantage, because if you don’t, someone else already has.”