Before patrons even set foot in a restaurant, the first thing they see is the exterior. Prior to seeing the menu or tasting any food, they experience the interior design of the space. Therefore, the physical design of the restaurant is the first thing that starts to shape the customer's overall dining experience.
Creating a unique restaurant design and concept can include more effort and commitment, but it can help develop a strong brand, create hype, and draw in more foot traffic. For restaurant owners and operators, a unique restaurant design can be an outlet for channeling their interests and creativity.
Unique Restaurant Criteria and Review
There are around 660,936 restaurants in the United States, and most operate out of pretty standard spaces. A unique restaurant design can set your establishment apart from a sea of sameness.
Here are just a few components that can be a part of crafting a unique restaurant design:
If you're building a new structure for your restaurant, then you have full creative freedom to design a unique structure. If buying or leasing a space, you then have the option to redesign, refurbish, and redesign certain components of the building.
A restaurant located on the Main Street downtown seems ideal, but what if your eatery was set up in a cave? Or, floating on a river? An incredible location can provide the “wow value” curious diners are looking for. A less traditional setting for a restaurant may require additional permits, so consider this factor and what that process may look like.
Themes can be as broad as a certain time period in history (like the 1920's) or something more niche, like a particular movie (see Cafe Jack below). Choosing a theme can help guide the design process of both the interior and exterior.
The outdoor space
In a less traditional restaurant concept, the outdoor space can actually be the main focus. With the help of an outdoor landscaper, you can make your guests feel like they're dining in a botanical garden, or a traditional Japanese tea garden.
20 Unique Restaurants Across the United States
Once a stop on the stagecoach route, Cold Spring Tavern is now a restaurant and bar tucked away in the Los Padres National Forest. The restaurant structure, made from wood logs and stone, was constructed in 1860 and is surrounded by several other historical buildings, including a jail, a water bottling plant (now turned into a themed bar), bunk house, and several buildings transported from a nearby ghosttown. They also have some amazing BBQ on the menu.
The theme of this bar reflects one of the key attractions of the city: its accessibility to nature and camping. The outside space of Forest Room 5 is lush with birch trees and foliage, with tables tucked in between groves, next to fire pits, and inside pitched tents, while the interior is rich with eclectic outdoorsy decor.
Cafe Jack - Los Angeles, California
This Korean restaurant operates out of a boat model in the middle of Koreatown, and all of the interior decorations are a homage to the movie, The Titanic. The restaurant owner was so moved by the movie, he legally changed his name to Jack, after the main character.
This establishment takes the meaning of wine cave to the next level: the dining area is built into rock that features a natural spring. Truly a unique dining experience that is perfect for date night.
This 14th century village recreation, set in a forest clearing in rural Washington, also happens to feature a restaurant that serves historically accurate food from Medieval England. Not your typical American-fare restaurant.
Apothéke - New York City, New York
This may be the only drink establishment in the country that operates out of a former opium den. To get to this NYC speakeasy, you'll need to find the unmarked entrance in Chinatown and step through a 200-year old door, which will lead you to a dimly-lit intimate space with a gold leaf ceiling and a marble bar.
This may be one of the most well-known unique restaurants in America, as Voodoo Doughnut operates as the only doughnut shop and wedding chapel in the country. The bakery's bright pink and voodoo magic-themed branding is impossible not to recognize, and its locations often boast neon signs that can be spotted from blocks away.
As the name suggests, Launderette operates out of a former laundromat. While you won't find washing machines and dryers here now, the chic brunch spot maintains a polished and retro feel. A must for any foodie.
If you don't mind sipping on a cocktail surrounded by the dead, then Captain Tony's Saloon in Key West, Florida is worth a stop. The most surprising feature of this bar is the living tree in its center, where an estimated 75 people were hung for piracy. Actual tombstones and a dressed skeleton decorate the bar. What you can't see: the undetermined amount of graves under the floorboards from when the bar used to be a morgue.
Huber's - Portland, Oregon
As Portland's oldest restaurant (established in 1879), Huber's resides in the historic Pioneer Building in the city's downtown, and contains original features such as a pewter wine stand, cash registers, and clocks. Guests can enjoy Spanish coffee and a turkey dinner under the arched stained-glass skylights.
This previous Roman Catholic church, formerly called St. John the Baptist Church, was built in 1902. It closed as a church in 1993, and after several years of restoration, reopened as The Church Brew Works in 1996. Highlights of the building include stained glass, brick arches, high wood ceilings, and brewing equipment built into the altar space.
Campfire - Carlsbad, California
A “glamping” theme is omnipresent throughout the restaurant, from its menu to the exterior and interior design. The contemporary establishment is housed in a steel quonset hut, and features a teepee, outdoor decorations, and a 12-foot wood burning hearth. The ambiance of camping but with great food.
The Grey - Savannah, Georgia
This elevated Southern food establishment resides in a refurbished 1930's Greyhound Bus Terminal in downtown Savannah. The exterior retains the original Art Deco design, while the sleek interior features retro swivel bar chairs and a skylight.
Westward - Seattle, Washington
Located on Lake Union, this Mediterranean seafood restaurant draws its inspiration from Wes Anderson's movie, Life Aquatic. The restaurant has its own dock, so guests can reach the restaurant by foot, kayak, or boat.
The Mayor of Dushanbe, Tajikistan visited Boulder, Colorado in 1987, and decided to present the city with the gift of a teahouse to celebrate being sister cities. The ornate teahouse, which sits alongside a river in Boulder's downtown area, is constructed from hand-carved and hand-painted ceiling, tables, stools, columns, and exterior ceramic panels from more than 40 artisans.
Located at the heart of LA's downtown, this historic multi-level establishment originally operated as a pay-what-you-can cafeteria (the establishment claims that 170 million customers have been served in its premises). All four floors are dedicated to different whimsical themes, and one of the most impressive features is the 40-foot faux redwood in the center of the building.
Dining at this high-end tiki bar will make you feel like you're on a movie set - and that's because a Hollywood set designer created the interior. A glowing lagoon, carved wooden walls, artificial rain and thunder, and a boat for bands to play on are just of the trademarks of this establishment that sets it apart from really anywhere else.
Built in 1860, this restaurant and event space was constructed by Irish and Switzerland masons out of limestone to replicate a traditional Irish castle. The stone shell of the building is original, but all of the oak flooring and interior has been redone due to two fires.
Located inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, guests can experience indigenous dining culture in a circular adobe building with views of the Sandia mountains. The interior of the restaurant features art from local Pueblo artists.
This eatery and bierhaus features a beer hall that is decorated and designed to make you feel like you're drinking a pint in Munich, Germany during Oktoberfest. Everything from the space to the menu is meant to give the feel of a traditional german party.
Other Restaurant Idea and Concept Inspiration
Opening a restaurant is a creative endeavor, and there are so many ways owners and operators can draw inspiration for the design of their restaurant. Restaurateurs should consider what inspires them while in the process of designing a restaurant. It may be nature, their home, places with special memories, restaurants they ate as a child, or even a movie.
A few ideas to start with:
- Consider using design elements from the region of whatever cuisine your restaurant serves.
- Look into the history of the geographical region where you are opening your restaurant - how can this be incorporated into your establishment?
- Draw inspiration from your home, birthplace, and culture. A restaurant can be used as a channel to share this with others and represent different backgrounds.
- Think about how this design incorporates into your restaurant floor plan.
- Use the local natural landscape around you as inspiration.
- Turn to art.
If you don't quite have a solid idea in mind yet, start looking into architects, interior designers, and/or outdoor landscapers. This will give you the opportunity to pursue their portfolios, and determine what elements you do and don't love.
Other Concept + Idea Resources
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Ashlen is a freelance food writer and founder of Future Foodie. An online publication geared towards the future of food, dining and more. She has contributed to top publications such as The Spoon.