Food & Drinks

The People Defining How Restaurants Look Now

At Under, diners sit in a room immersed 16 feet into the frothing seas along the craggy coast of Lindesnes, Norway, eating ingredients like sea arrow grass and salty sea kale, as if to confirm that they are indeed at Europe’s first underwater restaurant. At Copenhagen, Denmark’s Alchemist, housed in the former set workshop of the Royal Danish Theatre, guests spend the duration of a 50-course tasting menu under a domed, planetarium-like ceiling on which projections of the ocean or a twinkling night sky move and change; it’s one of several design elements meant to form a holistic experience that engulfs the diner. And at Carbone’s new South Beach outpost, painted beams mimic malachite and the walls are sheathed in a custom velvet damask — cinematic touches that make the guests themselves feel like the star of a meal.  

“A restaurant environment is a lot like theater — on a stage, the actors need to have a clear pathway so they don’t fall, and the audience needs to ‘read’ the cues of what to expect,” says Ellen Fisher, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the New York School of Interior Design. At a restaurant, design takes into account not just the visual set dressing but also every element that dictates how diners will interact with the space: how they might press their bodies together to fit into a booth, how the weight of a dining chair feels when they pull it from the table, how much their pupils dilate in response to dimmed lighting. These are the all-important cues that tell an audience of diners “this place is expensive,” “this place is intimate,” “this place is welcoming.”

Design firms are often the ones tasked with subtly (or not so subtly) creating those cues, and frequently, they’re pushing the proverbial envelope when it comes to what dining experiences can be. It was the Oslo, Norway-based design firm Snøhetta that managed to create the feeling of being comfortably shipwrecked at Under; Studio Duncalf crafted an upscale planetarium at Alchemist; and Ken Fulk is the designer responsible for making Miami’s Carbone feel like the place to be.

Because the first thing you register when you step into a restaurant is the way the space looks, restaurant design is often discussed in terms of the immediate: the biggest trends, the recurring atmospheres, and the vibes that both respond to and drive how diners want to interact with restaurants right now. Here are five of the design firms at the forefront of that conversation: 

History Reborn with Roman and Williams

When chef Daniel Rose’s Le Coucou opened in New York in 2016, diners flooded Instagram with images of its Francophile-leaning interiors by Roman and Williams. Founded in 2002, the New York City-based firm designs restaurants as well as residences, retail, and custom pieces, such as handsome walnut dining tables and burnished-brass and glass-pendant lights made in France. 

Roman and Williams is renowned across the globe for its “eccentric neo-traditional” work, says co-founder and principal Stephen Alesch, and it has won myriad awards, including the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. “We like to flow with a continuation of historical approaches and not destroy them or wipe them away,” Alesch says. “We prefer to build on them and play with them and invent new forms with them.” 

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