The dramatic expansion of quick-service and fast-casual restaurant options has made dining out even more popular. In 2013, 83 percent of U.S. consumers ate a meal or snack at a quick-service venue, and more than 68 percent dined in a casual-setting restaurant.
In that same year, however, consumers reported in an industry survey that they planned to spend less on dining out in 2014—roughly 9 percent less. Whether these consumers followed through or not, this signifies a more competitive market. Hoteliers and restaurateurs competing for dining dollars will need to stay a step ahead of the competition.
With that in mind, consider these trends impacting venue design and menu composition.
Visibility, transparency. When money is tight, diners may not want to take chances. This puts restaurants that obscure their best features at a disadvantage. Exposure to the street, mall, hotel lobby, or casino floor encourages passers-by to linger. Open kitchens are nothing new, perhaps, but now even fine-dining establishments are putting their dining rooms on view.
Moonlight Noodle House in the Sands Macau in South China provides an excellent example. For fast-casual noodles and dumplings, the casino floor-adjacent location is prime. A recent renovation replaced the solid walls with large “moon gates”—circular openings borrowed from Chinese garden traditions. One gate serves as the entrance while others feature lattice-like shelving, and all of them offer glimpses into the chic and inviting dining room. The renovation turned an unassuming venue into a much-talked about winner.
Experimenting with fast-casual menus. While diners may want to avoid unwelcome surprises, an increasing number have cultivated an adventurous palate and crave new experiences. The newly opened Despaña on Princeton, N.J.’s tony Nassau Street serves as proof. Carved from an industrial/retail location, the Iberian eatery serves a brisk lunch trade with manzanilla olives, Manchego cheese, Serrano ham, exotic preserves, and authentic paella along with wine and sangria. The location also features a deli counter in the sun-drenched lobby, so visitors can take the flavors home with them. Fast casual isn’t just for burgers anymore, and new tastes aren’t just for big-city dwellers to enjoy. The tapas spot, with rich Spanish finish materials blending with the exposed industrial features, is also popular for dinner and utilizes custom-designed tables that move quickly from counter-height at lunch to table-height for evening service.
It’s important to note that tapas are not just for Spanish food anymore. The taste-and-share service style is increasingly popular, and venues are experimenting with small plate fare: vegetarian-only, Asian, sliders, and even farm-to-table and organic options are populating tapas or small plate lists.
Dessert, elsewhere. Fine dining in Europe and Asia (particularly France and Japan) is notable for the occasional dessert room, a separate space within the venue where patrons adjourn for the final courses. At Waku Ghin, which serves an eight-course seasonal dégustation menu of traditional Japanese cuisine atop the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore, patrons are escorted after dinner to a room with spectacular views of the bay and skyline—the better to enjoy a cold lychee-strawberry soup or perhaps a mini cheesecake. Dessert rooms have yet to make much of a splash in the United States (there’s one at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, Fla.). But restaurateurs looking to set themselves apart with diners interested in unique experiences should consider getting out in front of the trend, as they also boost the bottom line by allowing the servers to turn tables more quickly.
In addition to these big changes in restaurant and hospitality design, here are a couple more trends to watch for:
• Newer restaurants are consulting with designers about making the best use of space. In many cases, the best option is creating flexible space: incorporating partition solutions in the ceiling, or concealed in a wall, that offer options for customers who may prefer a private dining room, yet easily revert to conventional dining space when needed.
• Casual diners, especially those who are eating solo, are enjoying self-service venues more often, some with kiosks for ordering on a touchscreen or iPad. The next step, as we’re starting to see, is for hotels to offer self-service with the swipe of a room card: guests can order a meal to be picked up from a counter and enjoyed while seated in the lobby.
Joshua B. Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is the principal of Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D) in Princeton, N.J.
Photo courtesy of Sands Macao