Rustic restaurants with barn wood accents may still have some life, but the influx of new styles, materials and designs could shorten the run. The latest trends incorporate custom light fixtures and seating, larger bars with extended areas, industrial materials and brighter, lighter walls conducive to the power of Instagram.

Bar None

Where’s the bar? It’s the first question clients ask Karen Herold, principal of Chicago-based design studio, Studio K, when a project starts. Cocktail culture and the increased emphasis on the bar as a moneymaker has evolved, which means allotting more real estate for it. Herold is building her bars a bit deeper, often by 6 inches, she says. 

An extended high top attached to or near the bar is also preferred, says Herold, a tactic she took at The Betty and Embeya in Chicago. “Instead of everyone sitting next to each other [like at] a lot of restaurants, we end with a communal table,” she says.  “It creates a nice dialogue where you’re in between dining and hanging out at a bar. I call it a peninsula.”  

Shoot in Style

“A sparse, more minimalist design seems to have replaced some of the more ornate or anachronistic interiors that became popular in restaurant design,” says Nicole Gates Anderson, editorial manager of Modern Magazine, a design publication. 

Designers like Sarah Carpenter, a partner at the New York-based architectural design firm Carpenter & Mason, say that the trend is influenced by Instagram and the current photo-obsessed culture. 

“It’s becoming such a heavy Instagram culture in restaurants that doing a more neutral or a brighter, lighter palette allows the food itself to become more prominent in the photographs,” says Carpenter, whose bright, sunlit work can be seen at Seamore’s in New York.

Light the Way 

Why rely on a string of bare lights to create a mood when you can go a step farther? Bulbs encased in an industrial-looking custom light fixture offer utility and style, says Stephani Robson, a professor who teaches restaurant design at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.

“The cage fixtures evolved from that relationship [with the Edison bulb],” says Jun Aizaki, founder and principal at the New York-based design firm, Crème, best known for their work at Jose Garces’ restaurants in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, New Jersey. 

“Sometimes [the fixtures evolve] because it has an industrial feel. Sometimes it invokes a basket, sometimes a fishing net,” says Aizaki, who created fixtures in this style at New York newcomer, Lupulo. “They are a departure from a bare bulb yet still simple and give off a warm glow while casting an interesting array of shadows.”

Customized Seats

Restaurants are hiring design firms to create a more cohesive aesthetic, which includes customized seating, Anderson says. Metal-accented wood chairs are popular, like the Exchange Chair, which Aizaki designed and customizes for his restaurant clients.

Customized booths and banquettes are also popular, Robson says. “People are trying to create interesting spaces for people to sit,” she says. “You’re seeing a lot of banquettes that curve at the corners, which is a much better use of the corner.”

Pourable Surfaces 

Concrete, stucco, and plaster are replacing barn wood in many restaurants. These materials give the space an industrial vibe and are also durable, says Carpenter, who created a concrete bar at Seamore’s. Bonus: they’re less expensive than many other materials and can be turned around on a tight timeline.

“Concrete bars are great because the contractor can just pour on site,” she says.

Gloria Dawson is New York-based writer who loves a well-lit restaurant.