Good Looks Aren't Everything

5 common restaurant design problems—and how to fix them

When it comes to design, it’s easy to be seduced by the come-hither flicker of sexy lighting or the alluring legs of a chair.

While modern lighting and boho accent pieces can look stunning in a studio setting, choosing the wrong design element can impact the flow of service, or worse, dampen a customer’s experience with unappealing ambiance. To save you from finding out the hard way, hospitality designers offer solutions to some of the most common problems.

1. INSUFFICIENT LIGHTING

Ambient lighting is great, but the intended effort will be lost on customers if it’s too dim to read menus and they have to flag down servers for help. Yet too much lighting can make a space look unappealing. Fluorescents and LEDs—popular for kitchen and prep areas—are some of the main offenders.

The solution is layered lighting, according to Karen Herold, vice president of design and partner at Chicago-based firm 555 International. “We’ll often combine different levels of light, such as spots directly above tables with warm, glowy lamps or a custom chandelier to create a warm atmosphere,” she says. 

Robert Polacek, partner and chief creative officer for Puccini Group, a San Francisco-based restaurant consulting and design firm, suggests task lights and dimmer systems to achieve this effect. “Restaurants can manage four or five different light settings for different times of day and purposes from a computer,” he says. 

2. BAD ACOUSTICS

A restaurant’s acoustics are one of the most overlooked—and subsequently problematic—design elements, says Josh Held, president of Josh Held Design, a hospitality design firm in New York City.  

“Elements like wood floors and glass cabinets look great, but they’re less absorbent and cause sound to bounce around a room,” he says. “A noisy restaurant makes it hard to communicate with servers and other diners, and detracts from customers having a pleasant experience.” Padding the undersides of tables with acoustic foam using sound-absorbing upholstery and adding sound-absorbing panels to high ceilings can be helpful, Held says. Some operators caution against panels on ceilings because they can detract from the grandeur of a space, so be sure to consider what’s right for your restaurant. 

3. CONFUSING MENU DESIGN 

Menus shouldn’t try too hard, Polacek says, adding that the best ones are straightforward and clean. “No one likes looking at a menu that’s too tricked out with graphics or uses a font that’s not easy to read,” he says. Try to-the-point descriptions in a type that’s simple, legible and large, and complements the decor. When diners need assistance with reading the menu because of poor layout and design, it can affect the overall experience, he says.

4. POORLY DESIGNED SERVICE STATIONS 

Generically designed stations often lack storage for china, glasses and silverware, and don’t reflect a restaurant’s concept, Polacek says. This can lead to slower, noisier and less efficient front-of-house service. “There needs to be a coordination of effort between operation and design when it comes to creating service stations,” he notes, adding that plate sizes, station placement and the necessary number of stations are important considerations. 

For casual concepts, Herold suggests making service stations a part of the design instead of hiding them. “Bring them to the front of the house—put everything you need on a big, round table to give the feel that you’re walking into someone’s dining room,” she says. Along with creating a comfortable ambiance, this prime placement helps servers and bussers access items quickly and expedite service. 

5. INEFFICIENT KITCHEN LAYOUTS 

When a restaurant kitchen doesn’t flow properly, this inefficiency slows down the line and impacts every aspect of the dining experience. 

Emphasis should also be placed on creating a traffic flow pattern that’s as efficient as possible, one that keeps staff from having to walk or even reach across another person’s work area. Each staff position should be considered when designing a kitchen, with an understanding of the exact position of every cook on the line. 

“It’s all about creating an efficient path of travel,” Held says. “Things should move as directly and straightforward.”


Judy Sutton Taylor is a Chicago-based editor and writer who appreciates the utility and beauty of smartly designed spaces.