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Recipe For Successful Design

By Julius S. “Jack” Baum

When the owners of Sushi A-Go-Go found a retail space available directly across Broadway from Lincoln Center, they thought it would be perfect for their new Sushi concept. Even though the landlord would not allow any cooking that used an exhaust system, the preparation of Sushi seemed an ideal solution for this long narrow space in a neighborhood with a deficit of restaurants. The only problem was they didn’t know if their concept would fit into such a small space. The store measured out to approximately 1,100 square feet.

When they called in our firm, we were able to show them how they could fit their concept into the space and still get the maximum number of seats allowed by law. We helped them to express their notion of making a Sushi restaurant with its own unique character loosely based on American 1960’s pop expressionism combined with the current Japanese anime style. They were willing to allow us enough artistic freedom to meet their expectations and yet develop a distinctive design which would catch customer’s attention and leave everyone with an enhanced appreciation of the food and an overall unique dining experience.

Recipe For Successful Design by Jack Baum

Anytime a chef or restaurateur decides to take on the potentially monumental project of opening a restaurant, it helps if they know what their goals are from the beginning. Using a restaurant designer, even for the smallest job, can enhance the final results and should help the owner to spend his or her money more efficiently. But beware, using a designer or architect doesn’t automatically guarantee success. Don’t think that by hiring a professional, you’re off the hook concerning the design and layout of your new restaurant. Without clear direction and participation from the owner any project will be on the road to potential failure. How many times have you followed the opening of a new restaurant only to witness its closing a year or two later? Great food and service by themselves are not always enough to guarantee success in today’s highly competitive New York restaurant environment. Without thoughtful design to raise the odds of success, many otherwise innovative concepts can fall by the wayside. Planning, logic and common sense go a long way in the world of restaurant design.

The Owners Goals

Before any owner calls in a restaurant designer it’s important that they do their homework and know their objectives. Three areas where the owner can prepare themselves before working with a designer are to first, decide upon and know what their Food and Service Concept will be and second, to have a general idea of how the restaurant should be laid out to serve the concept (for example, does the concept call for an open kitchen versus a closed kitchen). Finally, based on your budget, to understand what challenges you may face during the construction process.

Knowing your concept from the start will help both you and the restaurant designer develop a design scheme that can enhance the menu and service. The actual Interior Design is going to be important, but one should also consider the psychology of the diner when deciding on a style. Eating can be a very personal experience for some people so it’s key to make restaurant customers feel comfortable in any social dining environment. The owner should be able to provide the designer with a clear design direction and concept but be willing and amenable to the designer’s ideas. Ultimately, the diner’s comfort should be everyone’s ultimate goal.

Every restaurant owner should understand the value of developing a logical and workable layout. The staff is there to service the customer, not to get in their way. But, for greater efficiency, back-of-house areas should be designed to accommodate the staff and make their work flow as smoothly as possible. The ultimate result will be better service and satisfied customers. As an owner, you should be prepared to work with a designer to achieve the best possible layout to satisfy the presentation of your concept.

Construction in New York can be a challenge for anyone but building a restaurant can be most challenging given the coordination required to install a kitchen within the limitations of most city spaces. Between union and non-union construction, confusion reigns. These days, one suspects some contractors might intentionally make the process confusing as a means of increasing their potential profit but when working with a designer and a set of well documented construction drawings, the chances for more honest pricing and shorter construction times increase.

Interior Design

Living in New York, many of us get caught up in the whirlwind of style. Tastes and styles are constantly changing and designing a restaurant purely on the latest trends can be a risky venture. An Ohio State University study tracked new restaurant openings from 1996 to 1999 and almost 60% went out of business within their first three years. An owner should be prepared to provide clear direction to the designer on the right style for their new restaurant but also be willing to allow the designer some artistic freedom to develop a unique and appropriate style.

Consider the decades old restaurant in midtown that five years ago underwent a complete redesign by one of the most cutting edge architecture firms in the country. The restaurant reopened to a virtual avalanche of publicity largely based on the merits and innovation of the new design. Fast-forward five years to the present. Styles and tastes change and what was cutting edge then may now just be another starkly cold, modern design that is a little worn around the edges. Not only that, but hear from the owner how difficult it is to maintain those minimalist details or change a light bulb behind a resin panel.

Is is very important to consider from the beginning how well the design will maintain it’s relevance in an environment such as New York’s fickle patronage. Also, always keep in mind how easy will it be to maintain the finishes and materials and keep the restaurant in top working order in the years to come.

Three years ago the owners of The Old Homestead in the Meatpacking District approached our firm to renovate their restaurant, which happens to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Manhattan. Their goal was to elevate the design and service within the context of the original 1868 design. While never closing down their business, we were able to completely design and build a new kitchen on the lower level while adding new dining rooms upstairs and completely redesigning the existing dining rooms in a gut renovation. Using many of the original design elements and colors with all new lighting in the spirit of the original, many of the old customers don’t even know for sure that anything has changed but everyone notices the improvement. Kind of like the man who shaves off his mustache after twenty-five years but everyone thinks he’s lost weight and looks fantastic.


In New York City these days, every restaurant owner is paying very high rent so it makes sense to layout a restaurant in the most logical way to make the best use of that valuable real estate. Where possible, one should offer their customers the most desirable space filled with such things as with views, light, and high ceilings. Locate your back-of-house services in the least expensive space such as basements or the windowless rear of the space.

Sometimes it takes the imagination of a designer to help an owner make the most of seemingly unusable space. The New York restaurant Suba by Andre Kikoski takes what was a windowless basement space and by creating the illusion of a dining platform suspended over a flooded subterranean grotto turned it into a desirable dining room.

Sometimes, without close scrutiny from the owner, a design might get carried away with trying to make a statement and fail to meet the needs of the restaurant. Recently I stopped by Times Square Brewery to sample their beers. There, a monumental stair dominates the center of the restaurant blocking easy passage into the main dining room and reducing the potential of the bar and lounge space. The mezzanine is completely cut off from the rest of the restaurant by the stair and as it reaches the second floor, the dining area there is cut into two sides, making it very difficult to seat private parties who would otherwise seek out such a space.

Good restaurant layout should be a logical response to the criteria posed by the space itself and the owner’s operational goals. The location of the kitchen to the dining room and the routes the staff take versus the routes the customers take without crossing paths should always be a key consideration. If funds are limited, I always advise owners to develop the best layout possible even if it means spending money to remove existing obstructions. As designers we can always make a restaurant look good but a bad layout will inevitably impact the successful operation of any restaurant.

Documentation and Construction

Opening a restaurant, whether it may be brand new construction within a raw space or the redesign of an existing restaurant, is a very detailed and precise type of construction project. There are many seemingly small and simple concerns that can add up to a complex whole. Owners should seek out a designer who can translate their design concept into documents that allow for a smooth and orderly construction process. In my twenty-five years of experience designing restaurants, I’ve never had the opportunity to work with a client who had an unlimited budget. Allowing the designer adequate time to think out the problems posed by designing a restaurant in any particular space will ultimately save money for the owner. Making changes in the middle of the construction process will always either add to the cost of construction or lessen the design.

Working with a restaurant designer allows restaurant owners the opportunity to visualize and solidify their concept and to ultimately create the most appropriate solution given the constraints of space and budget. Working with a restaurant designer also allows the owner to potentially catch any costly misjudgments before they might occur. When an owner has prepared thoroughly before working with a designer, they will ultimately encounter a smoother process with less difficulties and greater rewards, and as a result, should end up with the restaurant they envisioned for themselves from the beginning.

Jack Baum is the owner of Tree House Design on 8th Avenue in New York City
Tel: (212) 367-9660

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