Once a restaurateur finalizes the lease on a cool old building that will house his or her next concept, it's time to bring in the architects and designers. They're the people who can bring your idea to life in the space you now control.
Deciding which firm to hire isn't easy. Design firms charge roughly the same (figure 10 to 12 percent of the build-out cost), each one seems to be full of clever ideas about how they can create an “amazing space” for your new restaurant and all of them can show you portfolios of the nifty work they've done on other projects. But it's your money that's on the line, not theirs. What should you be thinking about as you listen to the pitches from these firms?
We've found a book that can help you sort through the process. It's Best Ugly: Restaurant Concepts and Architecture by AvroKo (Collins Design, $49.95). AvroKo consists of four college pals from Carnegie Mellon University (William Harris, Greg Bradshaw, Kristina O'Neal and Adam Farmerie). This quartet — two architects, two design types — creates “connected experiences — psychologically, ergonomically and aesthetically” that incorporate “interior design, structural design, graphic design, furniture design, culinary design, interactive design” and any other kind of design that enables them to bring a restaurant concept to life.
Their lingo is a little abstract, but they know how to put their ideas to work in real-life restaurants settings. They've done it six times in a row in New York City (Public, Stanton Social, Sapa, European Union, Odea and Quality Meats). Each of these projects has a feel tremendously distinct from the others, yet all are efficient and highly functional restaurant spaces. AvroKo's work for Public swept the James Beard Awards in 2004, winning both Best Restaurant Design and Best Restaurant Graphics.
The story of how these six restaurants came to life is what this book is about. Readers get a lot more than just pretty pictures of the finished product. The AvroKo folks hired six writers to tell, one at a time, how each restaurant was conceived and developed. Particularly helpful are the brief notes that accompany the pictures documenting the key architectural and design choices that gave each of the restaurants its signature look and feel. This approach lets you know how top designers think, and gives you an idea about what any design firm you might potentially hire should address on your new project.
This book will also make you aware that you don't need a break-the-bank budget or a pull-out-all-the-stops design to get a dining room that keeps patrons talking. As Jen Renzi puts it in writing about AvroKo's work at Sapa, “AvroKo's genius is not just great design, but psychologically charged spaces that always feel new and surprising and never gimmicky. In an era defined by over-the-top gestures, eating-as-theater, and even idiosyncratic gems knocking themselves off ad nauseam, it's very hard to succeed as AvroKo does, trafficking in subtleties, smarts and nuance.”
AvroKo is one of the hottest firms in the business right now, and knowing its mindset about restaurant design can guide your own thinking the next time you create a new restaurant. If you can't afford to hire the firm, at least buy and read their fine book.