Both interior restaurant design and exterior restaurant design come with a lot of rules. Rules for color, rules for seating, rules for lighting. Accessibility codes, restroom requirements, building restrictions.
But there is really only one rule that matters. If you base all your decisions on this rule, your restaurant design will likely be a success.
Every decision you make should be about creating the best experience for your guests.
Yes, you will choose colors that reflect your personal taste. You will design your seating to maximize profits. You will choose lighting fixtures that reflect your brand as a business.
But in making these decisions, you should always remember that restaurant design is ultimately about creating an unforgettable and comfortable customer experience. When people talk about the “great vibe” of a restaurant, they’re in part talking about an experience that has been guided by design choices.
In this section we’ll walk you through every decision you’ll need to make about your restaurant design, including:
- Seating arrangement
- Kitchen layout
- Bar layout
- Outdoor seating
- Signage and awnings
- Menu boards
While we cover building codes, accessibility, and inspection preparation in another section, this section is more about the design aesthetic and function of your restaurant, and how you can properly create an atmosphere that will leave the right impression. You’ll walk away from this section knowing how to make design decisions that are beyond just your personal taste.
Interior Restaurant Design Ideas
Interior restaurant design serves several functions:
- Creates the ambiance of your restaurant
- Maximizes workflow for your staff
- Encourages word of mouth
- Reinforces your restaurant brand
- Optimizes internal staff culture
Here’s how to make sure your interior restaurant design decisions properly serve these primary functions.
When you’re designing your seating arrangement, you’re engaging in the careful balancing act of maximizing profits and ensuring customer comfort.
As a business owner who cares about the bottom line, you’ll want to fit as many seats as you can in your restaurant. As a business owner who cares about customer experience, you’ll also want to make sure your guests don’t feel cramped in your space.
So how do you achieve the best of both worlds?
You should first understand some general square footage guidelines. Depending on your concept, you’ll need to allow for a certain number of square feet per customer. Some guidelines to follow are:
- Fine dining: 18-20 square feet
- Full service restaurant: 12-15 square feet
- Fast casual: 11-14 square feet
- Fast food: 11-14 square feet
So if you’re aiming for a more spacious experience for your 1,200-square-foot full service dining room, you would have approximately 80 seats – but you could have as many as 100. Anything more than 100 seats would start to feel cramped for your guests.
Restaurant experts recommend leaving at least 18 inches between each chair and 42 to 60 inches between each table. But if you want to save even more space, consider booths, diagonal seating, and deuce tables.
So those are the basics – but you’ll also need to consider the nuances of your concept when designing the finer points of your seating arrangement.
Go back to your business plan and remind yourself what you’re trying to achieve. Ask yourself the following questions:
What type of dining experience am I offering?
You’ve probably noticed that some fine dining establishments use a sparse seating arrangement to ensure their guests have maximum space to enjoy their meal. This minimalist approach to seating is no accident; when food is art, your guests should enjoy their experience without distractions – including the conversation at the table beside them.
On the other hand, if you’re a farm-to-table restaurant with a brand that is all about bringing people together for a meal, you may want to literally bring people together with communal seating.
Think about the interactions you want to create (or discourage) at your restaurant, and design your seating arrangement to encourage moments between guests that align with your vision.
Where are my potential safety hazards?
Restaurants are full of safety hazards: your bartenders break glasses, your chefs are literally playing with fire, and your servers will likely drop a plate or two.
When designing your floorplan, you’ll want to build in space between your guests and “disaster hot spots”. Just as people aren’t too keen on sitting close to the restrooms, they may not want to sit close to an area of high activity like a busy bar (unless the theatrics are part of your concept). If a glass breaks and your guests are seated too closely to the bar, you could be looking at a lawsuit. So make sure to identify any danger zones and minimize seating in those areas.
What kind of furniture will I be buying?
If your concept is focused on maximum comfort, your furniture will likely follow suit in the form of larger chairs with fluffier cushions. If you’re opening a coffee shop, for example, you may want to section off an area of your seating for larger chairs and fewer guests.
Don’t think your seating arrangement needs to reflect an either/or scenario: you can play with different styles for different areas, and use larger furniture for some sections while making up seat numbers with smaller chairs in other sections.
How will my servers move through service?
While your guests are always going to be your top priority, your servers shouldn’t take a back seat when you’re designing your seating arrangement.
Your servers should be able to move through every section with ease, without struggling to fit large trays through small cracks between seats. And while mobility is important for the comfort and safety of your servers, it’s also crucial for an optimal guest experience: fast-moving servers means fast customer service.
What are my projected sales based on my number of seats?
You’ve likely completed a sales projection spreadsheet for your restaurant. When you were drafting the spreadsheet alongside your business plan, you were doing a lot of guesswork when estimating your number of seats and extrapolating sales projections from those numbers.
Now that you’re working with real square footage and real formulas for designing your seating arrangement, it’s time to go back and review your sales projections.
If the numbers more or less match up, great! If you’re seeing a large misalignment between your initial projections and your revised numbers, you’ll need to make some decisions about your floorplan. Maybe you use smaller chairs to accommodate more seats or use more booths to comfortably squeeze in more guests.
pro tip: use smartdraw to help you design your seating arrangement. the tool can also help you design your kitchen layout.
When you’re designing your kitchen layout, you’re thinking about one thing: workflow.
You should be thinking about kitchen layout as you think about your inventory. Your inventory will dictate your food prep, and your food prep will determine your kitchen layout. See how that works?
When you know what’s required for your food preparation, you’ll be able to map out the equipment you need to design your kitchen. You should group your equipment into the following categories:
- Food preparation tables and counters
- Electrical equipment for baking, cooking, and frying
- Refrigerators, freezers, and ice machines
- Equipment for washing dishes and cutlery
- Storage spaces for smallwares
Once you group your equipment into categories, you’ll more clearly see which kitchen configuration will work best for your desired workflow. Here are three kitchen configurations to consider.
A popular configuration among fast casual restaurants, the assembly line configuration is ideal if your dishes are simple to prepare and you’re not super concerned about presentation.
- Assembly line begins with refrigerator and freezer, with dry storage behind the assembly line
- All meal prep is done in one area
- All meal cooking is done in an area next to the preparation station
- A warming station may be placed at the end of the assembly line
- Cleaning and washing areas are placed behind the assembly line
When you’re primarily concerned about maximizing workflow for fast service and staff well being, you’ll design your kitchen with ergonomics in mind. You may decide to sacrifice energy efficiency for workflow efficiency by placing your cold refrigerator next to a hot fryer, just because you want your chefs to have quick access to ingredients as they’re cooking.
- Smaller cool storage spaces, such as an undercounter freezer, beside the deep fryer
- Taller prep tables
- Counter space close to the refrigerator
- Dish storage area near the dishwasher
- Dividing kitchen tools into most commonly used and less commonly used
A popular configuration among fine dining restaurants, the zone configuration is ideal for restaurants with many courses. The stations in your kitchen will mirror your menu courses, such as hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, mains, desserts, etc. The preparation, cooking, and plating of these items take place at the station, and each chef is responsible for its maintenance and execution.
Interior restaurant design features:
- Several prep stations and cooking stations
- Cooking equipment in close proximity to prep counters
- Major equipment located near walls
- Center of the space is open for optimal communication between back-of-house staff
- Refrigerator is placed away from all sections
Option: You may consider modifying the zone kitchen configuration to an island kitchen configuration, which places the ovens, ranges, fryers, and grills together at the center of the kitchen, with preparation sections of the kitchen surrounding the walls in their proper station order.
The bar is often the forgotten sibling of the restaurant layout family. Your dining room layout will directly affect profit and the customer experience, your kitchen layout will affect food quality and speed of service, and your bar layout will… what?
If great cocktails are a staple part of your restaurant concept, your bar should be designed with efficiency and ergonomics in mind. While many customers are willing to recognize the effort that goes into a well-made cocktail with a lot of ingredients, no one wants to wait an eternity for a drink. And think about your bartenders; they’re arguably some of your fastest-moving staff who produce a lot of output, so you’ll want to make sure your bar is designed with ergonomics in mind.
The ideal bar layout will ensure the following items are within arm’s reach of each other:
- Liquor (bottom shelf in the liquor well)
- Glasses (various kinds)
- Shaker and other smallware
- Beer taps
- House wine bottles
- Blender (optional)
While you’ll want to make sure your bartender has room to move, a key principle of bar design is squeezing a lot of items into a small space. Consider designing your bar in an oval shape rather than a rectangular one; that way your bartender can stand “inside” the bar rather than in front of it, which facilitates better movement and ergonomics.
When designing your bar, you’ll also want to carefully consider your building materials; while marble may look great, wood results in fewer broken glasses.
The most important features of restaurant flooring are:
- Slip resistance
Slip resistant floors will keep your staff safe and prevent lawsuits from customers.
Inflammable floors will mitigate damage to your restaurant in the event of a fire.
Durable floors will save on long-term repair and maintenance costs.
When you’re shopping for restaurant flooring, make sure you’re looking at commercial flooring, not residential flooring. Residential flooring may not be inflammable and durable, while commercial flooring is built to sustain larger amounts of foot traffic.
So don’t be seduced by a beautiful marble floor. Think practical first, beauty second. Your bank account and staff will thank you later.
Your ideal restaurant flooring options are:
Tile flooring is among the most popular choice for restaurants for its inflammability, durability, and versatility in color, pattern, and texture. Tiles may also be installed on walls as well as floors, so they may be your best option if you want to carry over your floor design to your walls as well. But be aware that tile installation may be a more lengthy and expensive process, as tiles can break more easily during installation if not done properly.
Laminate flooring is also a popular choice for restaurants, as it’s scratch resistant as well as slip resistant and durable. Laminate flooring is also easy to clean and maintain, and it’s available in many colors and patterns. Compared to tile flooring, it is cheaper to buy and install.
Vinyl flooring is a common choice for restaurants for sheer durability and water resistance. Vinyl flooring is easy to maintain, inexpensive, and easy to install. But if you’re an environmentally conscious business owner, be aware that vinyl flooring is not biodegradable and requires non-renewable natural resources such as petroleum and natural gas to produce.
The term “restaurant decor” is as broad as your imagination. A fine dining establishment may use interactive art to impress their customers with an unforgettable experience. A coffee shop may support local artists by displaying their art for sale, with a steady rotation by month. A bar may install old school arcade games as added entertainment for their patrons – which often act as decor in and of themselves.
To focus your thinking, we’ll discuss three core pillars of restaurant decor that will guide you in your creative decisions: color, furniture, and lighting.
Before you choose any of your decor items, you need to determine your color scheme. And while you may have great taste, there are some things you should know about the psychology of color so that you can make informed choices.
While the science of color psychology as it relates to food is sparse, some studies have shown that certain colors have differing effects on people’s appetite. Colors are frequently divided into appetite stimulants and suppressants, such as:
- Strong stimulants: Red, orange, yellow
- Mild stimulants: Green, turquoise
- Suppressants: Blue, purple, brown, black, gray
Red and its variants are said to stimulate our appetites because our reptilian brain associates the color with rich, nutrient-packed food. Black, brown, and purple, on the other hand, are thought to suppress appetite because they signal that food is rotten or poisonous.
So it’s no accident that many restaurant owners choose red as a staple color for their restaurant decor. But it’s also common for restaurants to choose blue: the color has been shown to induce lethargy, therefore customers are more likely to stay longer and perhaps spend more money.
When you’re choosing furniture for your restaurant, think material first. What kind of material will properly align with your concept? For example:
- Wood signals warmth, home cooking, and nature
- Metal signals modern simplicity
- Velvet signals luxury and elegance
- Leather can signal comfort and casual
Your color scheme should be decided before you begin to choose furniture, as materials will often come in certain colors and not others.
When you’re shopping for furniture, make sure you’re only looking at commercial-grade quality furniture. Home furniture is not made for the heavy use sustained at a restaurant, and failing to buy commercial-grade furniture may result in frequent repairs or, worse, customer injury.
Finally, assess whether the right furniture will make or break your business. If your restaurant is truly about providing a comfortable, impressive experience that your customer won’t be able to get anywhere else, you may want to invest a lot of time and money into the right furniture that will contribute to this experience. If your core concept, however, is less experience based and more about other offerings, furniture is where you may want to cut costs. All you really need is for your furniture to be comfortable for your guests – everything above this standard is a bonus.
pro tip: get comfortable with pinterest. here’s a restaurant furniture board to get you started with some inspiration.
Lighting is one of the most important facets of interior restaurant design.
It’s also one of the most common things restaurant owners get wrong.
Lighting is a sensitive topic because it relates to customers’ ability to read your menu. Older customers and vision-impaired customers should not be hindered further because of the too-dim lighting in your restaurant.
But that’s not to say you can’t use dim lighting to set a mood. It just means you need to use the right lighting in the right places. Just as your seating arrangement can encourage or discourage customer interactions, so can lighting. There are three types of lighting used in restaurants, and they each have their own role to play in different places.
Ambient lighting is responsible for the restaurant’s general mood. Use low lighting to create an intimate atmosphere in bars and lounges – anywhere you envision customers leaning toward each other to have a conversation. You can choose to use low lighting in spaces where couches may allow customers to sit closer together. Bright lights, on the other hand, create a more lively atmosphere.
Task lighting is an added layer of lighting that helps a customer fulfill a task, like read a menu or find their way to the restroom. Each table may have a task light above it so that patrons can see their menu … and their meal.
Accent lighting is more decorative than functional, and is used to draw attention to specific objects or points of interest. If you’ve invested heavily in a piece of art for your entrance, for example, you’ll likely want to shine an accent light onto it to guide people’s eyes to the masterpiece on display.
Think of your lighting in terms of your goals as a business. Low, warm lighting induces a feeling of calm and encourages customers to stay longer and perhaps order that extra cup of coffee and dessert at the end of a meal. Bright lighting, on the other hand, encourages faster behavior and so increases customer turnover.
So if you’re a fine dining establishment looking to increase average check size, low lighting is your friend. If you’re a quick service restaurant whose success is defined by the amount of customers served, bright lights are for you.
Exterior Restaurant Design Ideas
Exterior restaurant design serves several functions:
- Draws foot traffic into your restaurant
- Communicates your concept and brand to the general public
- Sets expectations of your business’ role in your neighborhood
- Helps customers make snap decisions about whether to dine at your restaurant
- Increases seasonal sales for your restaurant (if you have outdoor seating)
Here’s how to make sure your exterior restaurant design decisions properly serve these primary functions.
Your outdoor seating should follow the same rules as your interior dining room floorplan – with some additional considerations.
Your patio furniture will likely differ from your interior restaurant designed furniture. While it may be tempting to simply add to your furniture order to account for the patio, resist the urge to do so. Your patio furniture will need to be made of special durable material to withstand the elements, and you’ll need to order tables that can accommodate umbrellas.
Look for furniture that is:
- Easy to clean
- Easy to take down
pro tip: beer suppliers sometimes provide restaurants with free branded patio umbrellas. ask your beer supplier about this perk.
If your patio is open in the evening, you’ll need to invest in lighting made for outdoor spaces. Here are some options you’ll want to consider against your concept:
- Tea lights
- String lights
- Tiki torches
- Fairy lights
If you have menu boards outside, make sure they are lit with LED lighting so that your customers can easily read them in dim light.
And if you haven’t already, make sure you understand the permits you’ll need for your patio. Depending on your location, you may be limited in size and should know about any limitations you might face well before you begin to make design decisions.
Signage and awnings
Outdoor signage and awnings are important for bringing in foot traffic to your restaurant. Your outdoor signage should communicate, in a split second, what potential customers can expect if they choose your restaurant.
When overseeing the design of your outdoor signage, keep in mind that less is more. Many restaurateurs are tempted to squeeze in as much information as they can on their signage and awnings, given that they are the first thing customers see. Owners are tempted to include their contact information and social media handles, on top of the name of their restaurant.
Keep in mind that the sole purpose of your outdoor signage is to pique interest. Nothing more. Your signage design should be original, on brand – and minimal.
While you’ll be limited by the size of your storefront, keep in mind that your sign should stand out in a crowd – so in most cases, bigger is better. You’ll want walkers and drivers to take notice of your business, and part of that may be to have a great big, colorful sign.
You’ll also want your sign to be visible at night, so make sure to consider LED signs that can be seen in direct sunlight and in the dark. You may want to invest in extra LED signs for your door that indicate you’re open or catch people’s attention with a turn of phrase.
The primary goal of an outdoor menu board is to communicate your offerings quickly, with large letters, images, and bright colors.
Outdoor menu boards will need need to be weatherproof, and you may want to consider using a digital sign so you can accommodate quick menu changes.
A-frame menu signs with LED lighting can be a great way to attract attention, and they’re easy to take in and put out when the hour is right. You can use A-frame signs for all types of restaurants, from fine dining to fast food.
Both interior restaurant design & exterior restaurant design is where you can let your creative side show – but with a heavy side of pragmatism to round out the customer experience. Throughout the creative process, you’ll want to keep a few things in the back of your mind:
- Does this design choice improve my customer experience?
- Am I making the most practical choice?
- Am I letting aesthetics get in the way of function?
- Am I allowing my fear of risk to prevent me from trying something different?
- Are my design choices balanced between my personal taste and my customer needs?
- Am I delivering on what I originally set out to do in my business plan?
Don’t be afraid to try new things, especially if they will impress your customer and increase word of mouth! But always make design choices against the question, “How will this actually work?” Towing the line between creativity and practicality will be key to keeping yourself on track and delivering what your customers want.
Interior restaurant design and exterior restaurant design can be a lot of fun to execute, but keep in mind you’ll need to prioritize what’s really important for your restaurant’s brand. Renovations are where costs can skyrocket – so it’s likely you’ll need to make some tough choices and kill some really great ideas to remain on budget.
Remember to think of your interior restaurant design and exterior restaurant design in phases: what you need to do now to open versus what you can install later once you’re making a little more money. When you think of your restaurant design as a work in progress, you may feel less anxious about letting go of that great idea that woke you up at night.