A space odyssey

Eating out isn’t just about the food, but also the interior atmosphere.

How many times have you been to an Italian restaurant and found the walls plastered with vistas of Rome, Pisa, Florence, perhaps interspersed with olives and faded snaps of pizzas? Similarly, why do fish restaurants feel the need for boats and nets hanging everywhere?

Are these tired clichés an attempt to whisk you away to another land, or simply reassure you that yes, you are indeed in an ‘insert-appropriate-theme-here’ eatery?

Themed restaurants aside though, it begs the question: how much do we need the interior design of a restaurant to have some continuity of the food served to us to understand it and want to eat there? If our first impressions by the design, atmosphere, and vibe of the venue aren’t met when it comes to sampling the food on offer, it can often leave us feeling disappointed.

Looking through window into The Garden at FACT.

The Garden at FACT, Liverpool. Image courtesty SB Studio.

Benji Holroyd of design brand consultancy SB Studio, emphasises the relationship between brand, design and menu, and how they contribute to its brief on a new commission.

“What’s important is working with what the consumer wants and when they want it,” he says. “Restaurants aren’t just about selling food and drink anymore.”

The firm has worked on some of Liverpool’s most popular dining destinations, with a diverse portfolio including city centre tea shop/bar Leaf, sister project The Garden at media art centre FACT, and the current rebranding of the popular and sought-after 60 Hope Street.

While he believes the menu is always a good starting point, he says it should never influence the brand entirely – to allow for seasonal flexibility or even the day-to-day changes that are proving popular at many independents offering fresh, regional produce. His ethos is that space should never be restricted to a narrow food market, and this flexible thought process towards brand and design is why Leaf in Liverpool’s boutique Bold Street is thriving.

By not narrowing to one clientele, the venue covers all bases. By day, it’s the perfect place to take your Nan for a cuppa, then as the lights go low it’s a happening busy bar for a pint and maybe even a boogie on the table.

When you look at that initial branding, it’s clear how it has helped Leaf adapt so fluently to different groups of people.

Leaf Liverpool interior

Leaf’s interior design caters to a wide range of clientele

For example, with the table layout, the design team consciously placed a couple of large banquet tables seating 14 among a scattering of small tables for two, and sofa areas for those who want to only drink. These strategically segregated areas are not to create a statement but because that’s what consumers want.

Benji compares the needs of diners 10-20 years ago, where four chairs would be crammed around a small table to today’s cafe culture, where consumers often dine as individuals for a cup of coffee with their laptops to do work.

The Garden at Fact - tables in cafe space

The Garden at Fact Liverpool, image courtesty SB Studio.

At the firm’s latest completed project – The Garden at FACT – the menu focuses on vegetarian options as well as the large variety of Fairtrade loose-leaf teas that made Leaf so popular. The small space design really reflects the menu’s ethos – lots of natural ‘raw’ woods for table tops and simple colours. But the perfectly placed herb pots and plants dotted around feels homely and welcoming, rather than gimmicky.

But in this economic climate with so many eateries closing every week across the country, what really makes a restaurant a success and stand out from the crowd?

The answer, says Benji, is in offering more than just a place to eat or drink. Leaf does this by becoming a space that is “more than just a cup of tea.”

Whether it’s selling art, putting on live music or hosting clubs and events, the success of the initial branding has companies queuing up. They want a slice, so much so they don’t even need to do any of their own marketing.

Trends are just fashions that come and go out of date so quickly. The key element to a successful design is the way in which people use and navigate within the space. Even the positioning of the bar towards the back of the space drives people through. If placed at the front it would be easier for the diner to make up their mind, turn around and walk out.

Even down to the service from the staff, “If that’s not right – it won’t matter how good the product is,” says Benji.

Ultimately the product, experience and atmosphere sell the space, not the interior. Although looking good is important, it’s incomparable to the vibe of the venue. But it seems that more and more all have a role to play, with menu, design and atmosphere coming together to create the perfect place to eat.

So next time you’re tucking into your dinner, look around you, and ask whether all of those little details – from product, to floor layout, to lights and possibly even the cutlery – are coming together to maximise your experience.

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