A welcomed addition to the neighborhood...

When Sogno Toscano opened around the corner last year, the value of their presence in our neighborhood was felt immediately.  It was a reminder of how important local shops and restaurants are to a community.  They are often reflective of the culture of the immediate area, but also reflect back upon it.  Without them, the entire area can dull, as we witnessed during the first months of the pandemic.  Sogno Toscano's bright, cheerful storefront filled with authentic Italian specialties is a nice introduction to a glowing interior, where friendly faces welcome you in to shop or dine.  Throughout the winter, they maintained a vibrant outdoor setting to enjoy a sip and a bite, many times with live music that could be heard blocks away.  We were so happy to see that they were included in the Shopkeeper’s best shops for 2021, and wish them all the luck!


Sogno Toscano

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The Psychology of Restaurant Interior Design, Part 5, Architecture

A gorgeous, breathtaking space that diners flock to is every restaurant owner's dream.  As an architect or interior designer, however, it falls upon you to explain that a pretty interior (and exterior, for that matter) is only the tip of the iceberg.  Some of the most important elements of restaurant interior architecture, in fact, are meant to go unnoticed.  

The Most Important Element of Restaurant Interior Design

Like we discussed in an earlier installment of this series, restaurants worth their salt don't try to cater to everyone.  Instead, they have a very clear picture of who their target customer is.  For Jo Sampson, creative director of restaurant design studio Blacksheep, the customer is the most important factor in designing a bar or restaurant.  "How are we going to attract them, how are we going to give them an amazing experience and what's going to make them come back?"

The Pink Room, Gallery Restaurant at London's Sketch complex. Image: Via Tolila
With this firmly in mind, you can now start building your brand around customers' perception and the experience it will create for them. 

The Restaurant Design Narrative

Tom Strother is the co-founder and creative director of interior design firm Fabled Studio.  According to him, there are two things he initially considers when starting to design a restaurant. 

The first is the concept and story behind the design.  "This is important to us to make sure that there is a strong narrative that is carried through the details of the design, ensuring each detail plays its part but without feeling contrived or superfluous to the design."

In designing Margot in Covent Garden, for example, Strother echoed the fine Italian cuisine through fine Italian crafts and traditions, such as Palladian flooring.  Warm copper accents were also reminiscent of the copper pans "Nonna" (Italian for "grandma") used cooking pasta.

Copper accents at Margot are reminiscent of Nonna's pans.  Image: The Spaces
An important thing to do in order to crystallize and strengthen the narrative is to ask your client: "What do you do?" "Who are you?" and "Why are you doing it?"

Pearl Group's Jim Sullivan emphasizes how important it is to the restaurant's success to know yourself. "Restaurants fail because they have an identity crisis.  They don't know who they are."

What about trends?  Sampson prefers not to follow them, but to define them instead.  What does this mean?  "Research for concepts isn't based on what is out there now or what's current, as this will be dated by the time our work comes to fruition.  We stay one step ahead so our work has longevity."

The Other Side of Restaurant Interior Design: Operations

The second element, and equally important to diners' experience, is operations.  Strother asks important questions: "How do guests arrive at the restaurant?  What route does the food take from the kitchen to the guests' table and how is it delivered?

"If a restaurant doesn't work properly from a functionality point of view - it doesn't matter how beautiful it is, it will never be a success."

Sampson agrees: "The location of all the elements, from circulation spaces, to seating areas to the bar, all contribute to the operations of a space.  If people can't get a drink or the food is stone-cold, then the space fails, and that affects the business."

Here are some practical points to consider:

  • The general rule for space allotment is that the dining area takes up 60% of the space, while the kitchen, storage, and restrooms take up the remaining 40%. 
  • Spacing between tables should be enough to make it comfortable to move around.  However, this has different meanings depending on the type of restaurant.  If you're opening a fine dining establishment, 20 square feet per person is a good rule.  For fast-food restaurants, you'll only need 10 square feet per person.
Ruya Restaurant, Dubai. Fine dining restaurants require more space than fast-food establishments.  Image: Conran and Partners
  • Diners need to see and be seen by the staff, for obvious reasons: Diners should feel that their every need can be attended to at the soonest possible time, while staff need to be able to anticipate diners' needs.  This is an important consideration when balancing privacy and the openness of the layout. 
  • The current trend is to not have several stations and hostess desks, making for a more inclusive experience and smoother-flowing traffic.  However, there are undeniable benefits to having those tools at your staff's disposal - so if you're including them, make sure they're in areas that have the least customer traffic.  For example, don't put server stations near restrooms.  The center of the dining area is the ideal place for it. 
The server station at Eleven Madison Park is right in the center of the dining area. Image: Forbes
  • Speaking of restrooms: They must be easily locatable as asking for directions might be uncomfortable for diners.  If they are located behind walls or hallways, signs that are easy to see will be a big help.  Don't put them right beside the kitchen, either: Your operations might be extremely sanitary, but patrons will still think that the food might be dirty if the kitchen is right beside the restrooms.
  • Lighting, of course, also has several practical considerations aside from aesthetics.  They must be safe and low-maintenance, easy to control throughout the day, and must meet the highest energy standards possible. 
  • Traffic is one of the trickiest elements of restaurant interior design.  "We have to get you in quickly and serve you quickly, so flow for customer and staff is crucial," says Sullivan.  Unless you have a really large entrance, the hostess desk should always be to the side.  This allows customers to leave unhampered while you're assisting the ones that just arrived. 
Architecture also plays a big part in the ambience of restaurant interior design, and therefor diners' behaviors. 
  • Because all restaurants want to make a good first impression, the design of the restaurant's entrance is of course all-important.  However, it's also interesting to note how some establishments with multiple entrances create different, but similarly inviting experiences.  Diners at Mount Kisco's Winston who enter through the rear entrance are led past the glass-walled pastry kitchen, which offers an intimate invitation to the goodies that await. 
  • Low-tempo music, dim lights, and warm colors all invite customers to relax, linger, and order dessert, coffee, or an extra glass of wine.  You can encourage this behavior even further with seats that will keep patrons supported and comfortable over a long period of sitting.
The seats at Faith and Flower are very cozy. Image: LoveLuxeLife

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The Psychology of Restaurant Interior Design, Part 4: Acoustics

Of all the elements of restaurant interior design, acoustics probably needs the most delicate balancing.  Too loud and you'll irk diners who can't hear each other over their hors d'oeuvres; too quiet and guests will be uneasy worrying that the next table can hear everything they're saying.  What is the right level of restaurant acoustics?

When Restaurant Acoustics are Too Loud
In 2011, a Zagat survey of over 47,000 readers showed that restaurant noise is customers' second most common complaint, coming only after poor service.  

There are many causes of excessive noise:
  • Poorly planned architecture and interior design where noise generators and amplifiers face each other.
  • Using too many hard surfaces which amplify sound.
  • Open kitchens.
  • Live music
  • Crowded spaces in which patrons are too tightly packed together.
Untitled, New York.  Hard surfaces, open kitchens, and lack of tablecloths contribute to noise.  Image: Pablo Enriquez for The New York Times
Of course, if diners can't hear each other over the din, they resort to raising their voices, which in turn raises noise levels even further - this is called the Lombard Effect.  Sabato Sagaria, the chief restaurant officer for Union Square Hospitality Group, says that the art of conversation cannot be overvalued.  "People dine out to socialize."

Perhaps even more important: Loud noises actually distract diners from smelling and tasting their food to its full effect.  
The Lombard Effect is when people have to shout to be heard above the noise, making it even louder.  Image: Colorado Springs Gazette/Getty Images
Meyer Sound acoustic engineer Pierre Germain has the solution.  "You want to be able to have a pleasant dinner, where no one is shouting, but at the same time you want to feel like you're in a social environment.  It should sound like there's stuff happening around you, but you're not bombarded by it."

The perfect environment, therefore, should be similar to a gathering at home: There's carpeting, drapes, and table linen, all of which absorb some of the sounds, so you don't have to shout to be heard across the table.  If you're designing a more upscale restaurant, this shouldn't be a problem, as nice linen is the norm. 
W.A. Frost is one of Minnesota's most romantic restaurants.  Chair cushions and rugs help mute sound.  Image: CBS Minnesota
What else can be done? 
  • Consider whether you want an open kitchen or not.  If you do, have contingency plans for when it gets too loud. 
  • Booths with high walls can mute sound, especially if the backs are padded. 
  • Look into high ceilings, beams and porous acoustic plaster that absorb sound.
  • If you can afford it, consider investing in a microphone and speaker system that samples room noise and adjust sound levels accordingly. 
  • If road noise is a concern, you may need soundproof paneling for your walls and doors.
Slats of cedar help to reduce noise at the Four Horsemen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Image: Hiroko Masuike for the New York Times
Live music in the form of a piano player is also a simple, obvious solution.  Its elegant and sparse sound, coupled with a lower volume and slower tempo, are relaxing and encourage modulated tones.  Positioning the piano near the entrance will help set the tone immediately.

Keeping the lights on the warmer, dimmer side is another way of creating an atmosphere of intimacy and relaxation.  Like we mentioned in a previous article about restaurant lighting, relaxed patrons will tend to linger and order more food and drinks. 

Loud Isn't Always Bad
If you agree with the general consensus that most restaurants are too loud, then it may seem counterintuitive that some restaurant owners and chefs actually seek out the noise.  Why is this?  They believe that it signals that the establishment is popular, and that it produces a sense of conviviality and hospitality.

Although this is up for debate, there's evidence that a loud environment is actually profitable.  Hard Rock Cafe, for example, has the practice down to a science.  Just like bright lights, loud, fast music cause patrons to talk less, consume more, and leave sooner.  
Hard Rock Cafe isn't exactly conducive to intimate conversations.  Image: Wedding Wire
This strategy seems even more beneficial for bars.  A study on music in bars (McCarron and Tierney) found that people drink soft drinks faster when popular music is played at 88 decibels, significantly more than when it's played at a more reasonable 72 dB.  A study in France observed that patrons ordered more drinks when music is at 88-91 dB instead of the normal 72-75 dB.  

When Restaurant Acoustics are Too Quiet
On the other side of the spectrum, we can see why restaurant owners are partly justified for gravitating toward noise.  A too-quiet restaurant gives off the sense that nobody likes to go there.  If guests do come in, too little noise can actually be distracting, in that they can become hyper-aware of the sound of other diners' silverware and conversation. 

The right amount of noise also helps fill up lulls in conversation - again, because dining out is a social activity, anything a restaurant can do to keep interactions comfortable helps.  Background noise also creates a sense of privacy: If guests are unable to make out what other diners are talking about, they'll feel relaxed enough to carry on their own conversations. 

Here are some ideas to try: 
  • Install a fully open or partially open kitchen (the addition of delicious smells wafting into the dining area is a bonus).
  • Consider a piano player, especially in the evenings. 
  • Strategically place sneakers in walls of ceiling beams to provide just the right amount of background noise.

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The Psychology of Restaurant Interior Design, Part 3: Lighting

Le Corbusier, patron saint of architecture, design, and urban planning, has this lesson to impart to restaurant interior design projects (any design project, actually) “Light creates ambience and feel of a place, as well as the expression of a structure.”

There’s much to be said about how a space is constructed and what color paint is on its walls, and how both these things lend to creating a restaurant’s atmosphere. However, it’s also important to note that without light to see them, these things are essentially useless.

However, according to Raimundo Gaby, associate professor of business management at the Culinary Institute of America, lighting is the first thing that restaurant interior design gets wrong: Think about all the times you’ve walked into a dimly lit establishment and have had to hold up your phone to read your menu.

Besito in Chestnut Hill actually provides mini flashlights to their guests so they can read the menu. Image: The Boston Globe
Stephen Zagor, dean of business and management studies t the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, would go so far as to say that lighting is the most important element of interior design.

Types of Restaurant Lighting
There are three main types of lighting, divided according to their purpose:

Ambient Lighting – This is the general illumination of an environment. As its name suggests, it’s also responsible for a restaurant’s overall mood. Low lighting creates an intimate, upscale atmosphere, especially in a restaurant’s bar and lounge areas, where patrons are more apt at to lean close together.

ZONA Wine Bar and Restaurant, Budapest. Image: Remodelista
Bright lighting, on the other hand, produces a more brisk and lively mood. This type of lighting is well suited for more casual establishments like a pizza joint.

Task Lighting – This helps customers and employees perform tasks, like reading the menu, being able to clearly see the table setting and food, and cooking in the kitchen. In a place that’s generally low-lighted, a salad bar or buffet station needs task lighting to help it stand out; this is also helpful for illuminating pathways. It also helps with seeing reflections clearly in the restrooms’ mirrors.

The task lighting right above the tables is very apparent in ABC Kitchen Restaurant. Image: Style Junkies
Accent Lighting – More decorative than functional, accent lighting is used to draw attention to specific areas and objects to create visual interest. Paintings, sculptures, fountains, and bars are typically illuminated by accent lighting.

Accent lighting bring focus to the tree in the center of Fera in London, and the alcoves on either side. Image: Restaurant and Bar Design
How to Create Atmosphere and Perception with Restaurant Lighting
An upscale restaurant during dinner time should have warm-colored, low-intensity lighting. This creates a leisurely, intimate, and relaxed atmosphere. A pleasant mood is created using wall lighting, instead of light coming down directly from the ceiling. To make a space seem spacious, evenly distribute high-intensity lights.

Use color, but sparingly. Lighting can help reinforce branding, but using too many colors will put your restaurant at risk of looking like a nightclub or circus.

How Restaurant Lighting Affects Diners’ Behavior
Besides branding and targeting consistency, there are important distinctions between fast-food and upscale restaurants: influencing diners’ behavior.

During lunch hour at quick-service restaurants, for example, bright lighting helps increase customer turnover and facilitates traffic. This is especially helpful if you want to maximize the midday rush.

Hunter Gatherer, Shanghai. Image: Retail Design Blog
In general, bright lighting at fast food restaurants can also overstimulate guests and create a tendency to eat much more than they intended.

On the other hand, low, warm lighting in an upscale establishment creates a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere, inducing patrons to linger and increasing the chances that they’ll order dessert, coffee, or an extra glass of wine.

Low, warm lights create an intimate, relaxed atmosphere at Le Coucou. Image: TimeOut
Dinnertime is also rush hour — therefore, creating a relaxing mood through lighting is important to convincing guests to stay.

Another good example is the difference in restaurant interior design between McDonalds and Starbucks. The two chains serve demographics that have huge overlap, but you can see how the lighting reflects the intent of each: McDonalds is brightly lighted to stimulate customers and facilitate turnover, while Starbucks encourages guests to linger over coffee and pastry.

McDonalds restaurants are sleeker and more thoughtfully designed than before, but they still retain the same brightly lit interiors. Image: McDonalds EU

Starbucks cafes are always softly lit. Image: ARE Design Awards

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The Psychology of Restaurant Interior Design, Part 2: Scent

You may have heard it said somewhere that you never really know the smell of your own kitchen. That’s fine if you’re a homeowner, but it’s a very different case if you run and/or manage a dining establishment. Scent, as a component of restaurant interior design, can influence not just diners’ opinions of your business, but also their spending habits.

Why Scent is Important
Smell is the most primal of our five senses; that is, smell is the most basic and primitive method of collecting information from our surroundings. As soon as your nose detects a smell, it triggers the olfactory neurons in the upper part of your nose, sending electrical impulses to a part of the brain called the olfactory bulb. These impulses are then passed along to surrounding areas, collectively known as the limbic system. The limbic system plays a major role in regulating mood, memory, behavior, and emotion. It’s also widely regarded as the primitive part of the brain, because it has been found in the brains of the very first mammals.

Scent, Memory, and Emotion
The sense of smell is very closely linked to memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. Think of certain foods you’ve eaten a lot as a child. If your mother often baked a lot of bread, passing a bakery may bring you back to afternoons spent in the kitchen of your childhood home, triggering happy, comfortable memories. On the other hand, you may hate broccoli today because its smell reminds you of all those battles of will waged at the dinner table. Any bakery owner worth their salt knows this: It’s why many bakeries are laid out similar to retail stores, with bread lining the walls and propped up on tables. Not only will the loaves tempt you with their beautiful, burnished surfaces, their aroma will also surround you. Many bakeries will even have burlap sacks of flour lying around for that homey effect.

The advantage of a bakery over a mere bread store, of course, is the smell of bread as it bakes in the oven.

Freshly baked bread evokes feelings of warmth and comfort. Image: Bourke Street Bakery

There are many scents that trigger similar responses in most people. Lavender, for example, relaxes the brain. Vanilla and chamomile reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Citrus and peppermint increase alertness.

There are many scents that trigger similar responses in most people. Lavender, for example, relaxes the brain. Vanilla and chamomile reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Citrus and peppermint increase alertness.

Crazy BBQ, Kiev. Image: Homedit

Using Scent in Restaurant Interior Design to Create Mindset and Behavior
Those silver plate domes you often see in movies depicting fine dining restaurants? Not only do they keep the food clean and create a sense of mystery and surprise, they also allow the food’s smell to build up and concentrate. As soon as the waiter lifts that dome, the scent of your food hits you in the face with its full strength. Cinnabon actually strategically places ovens near the front of its stores so the scent of baking cinnamon rolls can lure customers in. There’s also a good reason that Starbucks doesn’t allow people to bring in strong-smelling food. For a while, they even stopped serving sandwiches because they overwhelmed the smell of coffee.

Starbucks, Japan. Design: Kengo Kuma and Associates. Image: Masao Nishikawa

Scent is Worth the Investment
If buying restaurant scents sounds outrageous to you, it’s worth noting that the right smells can increase food sales up to 300%. According to a study by the University of Paderborn, scents increased impulse buying by 6%, buying intention by 14.8%, and the length of a customer’s stay by 15.9%. An open kitchen design is another solution. Because there are no walls that separate the kitchen from the dining area, the smells from the cooking food will waft freely over to the diners. There are other benefits to this, as well: Providing patrons with a behind-the-scenes view makes the atmosphere more personal, and conveys a sense of transparency. Having fewer walls also makes the restaurant appear larger and more airy.

An open kitchen design is another solution, with many benefits besides scent. Image: Anders Husa

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The Psychology of Restaurant Interior Design

Part 1: Color

Restaurant interior design is a precise science that aims to tap the diner’s every senses just right. Successful restaurants know exactly who their target clientele are — it’s how they’re able to conceive and build a carefully engineered experience around their needs and desires.

Sight is almost always the first means by which you gather information — and make judgments — on an establishment.

Restaurants know this, and they take great pains to use it to send the right information.

Color, for example, is a powerful tool for influencing customer behavior.

In restaurant interior design, the color wheel can be divided into three sections, according to its effect on appetite: Strong Stimulants, Mild Stimulants, and Suppressants.

1.) Strong Appetite Stimulants

If you’ve ever thought that almost all restaurants use red in some form or shade in their design scheme, well, you’re not imagining things. It’s a well-established fact that red is the most effective color in stimulating the appetite.

Why is this? Red is abundant in nature, and the brain’s reptilian response to it is a carryover from the days when our ancestors were still hunters and gatherers. Red, especially bright reds, would usually signal energy-dense, sugar-packed fruit or vegetables.

That couch, though. Image: Aubrie Pick

Orange and yellow are also appetite stimulants. Yellow is associated with happiness, which is usually associated with a full stomach. When you see yellow, therefore, your brain secretes serotonin in anticipation of the food you’re about to eat.

Orange, on the other hand, elicits feelings of warmth and comfort — emotions that are also tied to the security of an abundant table.

2.) Mild Appetite Stimulants

Green and turquoise are mild stimulants. You might argue that green should be a strong stimulant because many leafy vegetables are green, and you’d be partly correct. Green signals edible, benign, non-poisonous plants. However, these plants are merely fibrous, not sugar-packed like most colorful fruit, which provide a jolt of energy.

These days, green is also associated with health. This is unsurprising, given that, again, most green things are fibrous and don’t have sugar.

3) Appetite Suppressants

Lastly, black, brown, purple, and blue are appetite suppressants. Research suggests that this is because these colors don’t exist in nature — that is, not in the form of food.

Long ago, blue, black, and purple also signaled something that was either rotten or poisonous, which our ancestors learned to avoid by sight. Like our brains’ response to red, orange, and yellow, this is also a carryover from those days.

The Opposite House Hotel, Beijing. Image: Kengo Kuma and Associates