Restaurant Design with Ben McCormack: Everything Starts with Taste

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Fox Quarterly Spring 2020

Feast Your Eyes

It can help a restaurant’s fortunes if its food is Instagrammable, but everything starts with the taste, says Ben McCormack

Sir Terence Conran said that the first designed restaurant that he was aware of was Mr Chow. Since the Knightsbridge Chinese opened on Valentine’s Day in 1968, it has wowed fashionable London with its Peter Blake artworks, Giacometti lighting and Carrara marble floors.

Conran clearly took note. As the restaurant boom of the 1990s took off, no one did more to emphasise that the theatre of eating out has as much to do with one’s surroundings as what is served on the plate. With the advent of Instagram, however, not only does eating out offer endless opportunities for #designinspo, every diner is now a food stylist, too.

Elle Decoration’s Bethan Ryder, whose 2004 book, Restaurant Design, remains the seminal work on the subject, says that although current trends have moved away from the lavish turn-of-the-century spaces that came in Conran’s wake – not least because of the ever-increasing importance of sustainability – design still has a key part to play in the dining experience. 

“Restaurant design is vital for so many reasons, a lot of them hidden,” Ryder says. “A well-designed restaurant is predominantly about making it function well, but it also helps immerse you in the entire experience. Restaurants are not simply about feeding people, they’re about food, service and ambience, and design unites all three.”

The world’s most famous restaurant designer is David Collins Studio[PG-FC1] , which was founded by the eponymous designer in 1985 and has been responsible for some of the most timeless-looking restaurants in the business, from The Wolseley and The Berkeley hotel’s Blue Bar in London to its latest project, New York’s TAK Room, which evokes the traditional, mid-century grill rooms of chef Thomas Keller’s childhood in the ultra-modern surrounds of the Hudson Yards development.

“Our skill is being able to marry reference and style to ensure a unique perspective,” says Simon Rawlings, creative director of David Collins Studio. “Timeless design is key, and if achieved will feel fresh and authentic many years later. The Wolseley is a perfect example of this; the restaurant opened in 2003 and today serves 1,200 covers a day – a testimony to investing in timeless design. We are not followers of trends and instead focus on the authentic story of each restaurant and seek to deliver that as a 360’ experience.”

Restaurants, of course, are not just pretty places to hang out. Jason Atherton, the Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur behind the Social Company, which operates 18 restaurants and bars in Europe, North American and Asia, says that the look of a restaurant needs to echo the food on offer. “You should find the same story in the details of the restaurant’s design that you see on the menu.”

Instagram, however, has re-framed the narrative of that story. “A dish needs to be either really beautiful or really ugly to work on my Instagram feed – anything in-between tends to get bad traction,” says Dominic Rowntree, a London-based influencer whose Samphire and Salsify Instagram account has 28.2k followers. “Take a beef stew, for example – dark brown, sludgy and ploppy but you just know it tastes amazing. You can almost taste it from seeing the picture. A thin piece of steamed salmon with boiled potatoes on the other hand is neither gorgeous nor ugly and wouldn’t get many likes.”

Rowntree, however, cautions chefs and restaurateurs from planning the look of their interiors and menus solely around Instagram. “I don’t think it hurts to design your restaurant with Instagram in mind but dishes need to be absolutely delicious first and foremost. If you have an ugly dining room and your food looks gross, forget about Instagram, you probably won’t have any customers anyway.”

Alex Dilling is the chef of The Greenhouse restaurant in London’s Mayfair. Not only has he maintained the two Michelin stars the restaurant has held since he took over as executive chef in 2018 but the chef has brought The Greenhouse to the attention of his 17.5k Instagram followers.  

“I love when you see a dish on Instagram and you can immediately tell exactly who the chef behind it is,” Dilling says. “It is something really special when you can see the chef’s personality on the plate. Not many chefs can pull that off.”

Dilling is far too modest to say so, but his Instagram feed – caviar piled on top of an avocado gateau like a savoury princess cake, say – couldn’t belong to anyone else. He posts all of The Greenhouse’s new dishes on Instagram, but says that although Insta has been a positive influence for restaurants – “it’s a great promotional tool” – he would never design a dish solely with Instagram in mind. “Food is naturally beautiful. As long as we keep the integrity of the main ingredient, it’s quite easy for dishes to be visually appealing.”

It’s a point echoed by Atherton. “The key thing to consider about how food looks is always simplicity. You need to show off the main ingredient to its fullest and to tell a story of seasonality through the combination of ingredients. People eat with their eyes.”

All the same, sight is just one of the senses. “There can be an issue with the Instagram-able ‘moment’, that one aspect that defines a space,” warns Rawlings. “It can be disappointing when you arrive and discover that it the only special thing about that space. You cannot capture the essence of one of our spaces with a single photo. It is so much more than that; it is an emotive experience.”

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. “Through design, we can stand apart from one another and have some individuality,” says Dilling. “But the most important thing about food is and always will be how it tastes and how it creates a memory for you.”

A picture might tell a thousand words, but how something tastes will always have the power to leave you speechless.

Spring 2020

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