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Restaurant Design

By Glen Coben

Restaurant Design, By Glen CobenOne of the first questions I ask a restaurateur after we have been hired is: “How long do you plan to have the diner seated at the table for the meal?” In design school, we are taught to design from beginning to end. We are trained to give everything we have in the name of design. Sitting at our drafting tables, pulling all niters in battling deadlines, we try to squeeze out that extra drawing or model. However, we were never told how collaborative the design process should be. Attending my 20th College reunion recently reminded me of the passion I have about design; but I am equally passionate about providing a service that is about impeccable design and delivering on the promise of seeing that vision jump off the paper into reality.

How to select a restaurant designer?

Obviously, previous work is the key. Don’t get wrapped up in press but rather, focus on the intangibles. Ask if the designer can collaborate: Is the designer willing to work with the client rather than only bring his or her ideas to the table. A healthy collaboration means checking one’s ego at the door.

Our first big break was in 2001. Jonathan Waxman called me to meet at the former Rose Café space on the corner of 5th Avenue and 9th Street. Ultimately, Jonathan hired me not because I was less expensive, but because he heard that I had the ability to provide a service without my ego getting in the way. The opening of Washington Park was a very proud moment for me as both Jonathan and I could sit back and enjoy the fact that we both participated in the process and became friends.

Beware of the designer who says, “All of our projects came in on budget and on schedule.” I was once asked if I would sign a contract guaranteeing a completion date and a final budget. I replied by saying, “good luck.... and please invite me to the grand opening!” There are no guarantees. Period. A set of drawings can be flawless, but unforeseen conditions such as plaster falling off a ceiling that was there for 50 years will affect not only a project’s timeline, but also its budget. When developing project budgets, we recommend that clients be honest with their designer about the budget goals, and then keep a separate “what-if” contingency fund for issues that come up during construction. The key is being realistic with both time and with money.

What is a realistic goal for a first time restaurateur?

Put together a team that is as passionate about the project as you are. At the 11th hour, you want to have a team that will do what it takes to make sure your vision is realized. Speaking of vision, the clearer you are about what your goals are for the project, the better prepared your team will be to answer the hard questions and issues when they arise. We love to get involved early in projects in order to assist clients in evaluating potential spaces, and to assist them in reviewing their leases. This service goes a long way in showing our commitment to providing a “full service” to our clients. We aren’t experts in lease negotiations, but sometimes an extra set of eyes can save some money or time later down the road.

A key member of the team is the builder. A great builder can make a mediocre designer look great. Conversely, a mediocre builder can make the most talented designer look terrible. We strongly suggest that someone on the team should have a previous experience with the selected builder. It goes without saying that the experience should have been a positive one!

How important is design when it comes to restaurants?

I believe design is as important as the food or the service! Personally, the places I like to go with my friends and family are the ones where the food and service are great. Sometimes though, the design is lacking. One such place asked me to redesign it. I said “no” because the atmosphere couldn’t get any better!

A few simple rules:

• A restaurant’s design must support the food concept.

• A restaurant’s design has to function from the back-of-house to the front of house. A restaurant that is designed from the front to the back will most likely be beautiful but have challenges operationally.

• The restaurant must have comfortable seating, a bar that is the correct height and bathrooms that make the guest smile!

Why do I ask about how long the diner is going to sit for the meal?

The answer will determine how comfortable the chairs need to be, and how much money we will need to spend on furniture! A person’s tush will really hurt if they sit for too long on an uncomfortable chair!

What have we done and what are we working on right now?

Glen & Company’s completed hospitality projects include restaurants for such noted personalities as Jonathan Waxman (Washington Park), Marcus Samuelsson (Ringo), Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich ( Del Posto), and Yumcha a new Chinese haute cuisine restaurant in Greenwich Village. Also in the works are an Italian Steakhouse in Hartford, Connecticut for Geno Auriemma, The Grand Colonial in Perryville, NJ and Restaurant Sascha, a reinterpretation of classic American dining in a landmark building on Gansevoort Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Glen & Company is an architectural and interior design firm founded in 2000 by Glen Coben to create customized hospitality designs that realize each client’s vision, while challenging and engaging their customers.

Glen & Company’s experienced group of design professionals have a unique understanding of the special needs of the hospitality industry - - from cultural and geographic considerations to strict budgetary and programming requirements. Additional services include art procurement, graphic and signage programs as well as uniform and tabletop design.

Glen & Company projects have been published in Hospitality Design, Metropolis, Interior Design and have been cited in The New York Times. In 2002 the firm was a Gold Key Award Finalist for Guest Room Design (Flatotel) in the competition sponsored by Hospitality Design magazine and was recognized by Hospitality Design magazine as one of The New Breed in 2003.

Mr. Coben can be reached at 212-689-2779

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