Rethinking themed restaurant design

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By Judy Henderson

We’ve all been to a themed restaurant; perhaps you’ve salivated over smoked beef brisket served by a gentleman resembling John Wayne, or you’ve tucked into moussaka beside a mural depicting Santorini on the Aegean Sea. There’s certainly a place for these kinds of restaurants but as a modern hospitality designer, I tend to shy away. Good restaurant design, in my opinion, doesn’t try to replicate the Wild West or a picturesque Greek island town – instead it evokes an emotional connection to the menu’s origin.

Let’s take Greek, for example. First, forget the wall mural. I’m a modernist, so my approach would be to deliver a modern Greek restaurant using geometric patterns – the key pattern being a classic – associated with Greek art and architecture. I’d consider taking the pattern, scaling it up and using it on the bar. I may even include subtly back lit laser-cut steel.

The cerulean blue and white that makes Santorini so stunning is often used too literally on the ceilings and walls. I’d be inclined to use that colour combination in ways that would surprise – a fabric theme, perhaps? Your choices of tableware can also speak to your theme in subtle ways that leave guests feeling they’ve had an authentic culinary experience.

My process is to first create a mood board – an arrangement of images, materials, pieces of text, etc., intended to evoke or project a particular style or concept. Let’s take a BBQ restaurant, for example. Again, perhaps ditch the idea of having your servers wearing Stetsons (they’ll thank you for it). A quick internet search will return pictures of Clint Eastwood and covered wagons, but where I gather inspiration is from the of the colour of the earth, the texture of raw canvas and unfinished wood.

We’re not trying to replicate the frontier; instead we want to evoke the simplicity of American slow-cooked BBQ. I’d use the colours and textures in a modern way, perhaps using the unfinished wood on the walls and the canvas as seat coverings. Look to the architecture of your space to guide you and to further shape your ideas.

One main tip is to evoke, not replicate. As we travel the globe sampling culinary delights, it only takes a few clues to take us back. I need my thali meal served on a metal plate – I don’t need to be staring at a photo of the Taj Mahal as I eat. Have fun with your theme – take inspiration from texture and colour and use your materials in surprising ways.

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Congratulations Team!

We are so proud to announce that Inside Design Studio took home the Award of Merit for Hospitality Design for our Kwa’lilas Hotel design at the 2017 IDIBC Shine Awards of Excellence event, held on Friday September 2017 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Our substantial renovation of the Port Hardy, B.C. hotel included all major areas; the lobby, guest rooms and corridors, a retail store and meeting rooms. Our brief was to design a modern boutique hotel to support international tourism to the unspoiled North Vancouver Island. Some of the judges comments were, “Crisp modern transformation” “Excellent use of materials”, “Very dramatic renovation.”
Judy Henderson and Lisa Juan accepted the honours on the night with Judy offering this message of congrats, “Many thanks to my amazing team!”







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How to Start Your Restaurant’s Renovation

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By Judy Henderson

If your restaurant is going to survive, you’re going to need to complete a renovation every seven to 10 years. I’m not talking about replacing the fabric on an existing banquet or adding an Edison bulb to an old pendent fixture – that’s maintenance. A renovation is more extensive; a rethink of the front-of-house and perhaps the back-of-house. This process usually calls for the extended closure of the restaurant and is undertaken in order to sustain your business.

A renovation is a daunting thing to do — turn off the revenue tap while spending like a Vanderbilt on what feels like guess work as to your future. It’s so uncertain that many restaurant owners choose to simply maintain what they have. The sad reality is, that decision invariably leads to a slow and often painful death of a once vibrant business.

However, done well, a successful renovation can increase margins and reach new markets that will sustain your business into the future. In the decades that I’ve been in hospitality design, I’ve managed hundreds of restaurant reinventions in different markets across North America. There are four phases to a renovation; follow them and your chances of success are significantly improved:

  1. Planning
  2. Design
  3. Construction
  4. Re-launch

I relish a conversation with a restaurant owner when they talk about market shifts – that allows me to create a design that will endure and be relevant long after re-launch. There’s no design without function and function comes from an understanding of your market and how it’s likely to shift in the future.

A decade or so ago, our dining habits were quite different — you called to make a reservation (for two, most likely), you dressed up and dutifully turned up on time. When you arrived, you were shown immediately to your table and kept your conversation to yourselves while you ate. Today, dining is a more fluid, casual experience. Larger groups assemble over time at the bar and diners are much more willing to interact with other guests, seeking an experience rather than simply consuming a meal in private. My example here might be a little stereotypical, but it serves to show the importance of looking to your market for guidance on when and how to approach a renovation.

The example also demonstrates how a restaurant’s function impacts the design. Today’s modern urban restaurants call for more bar capacity and larger tables. The thought of a communal table would have been comical when I started designing. Now, it’s an element that many restaurants owners consider, and with good reason.

The more insight you can bring to the table about the type of clients and their expectations, the better. Once we understand what you want to achieve from a business perspective, a designer can truly dress you for success.

Next time we’ll get into planning your renovation. It’s arguably the most important stage, so hold off on knocking down walls until then.

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The Importance of Planning your Restaurant’s Renovation

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By Judy Henderson

Planning a restaurant renovation is the key to success — miss this step at your peril. This process, conducted every seven to 10 years, will keep your restaurant in the game. Here are some things to consider when making your plan:


This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many restaurant owners don’t realistically calculate the time needed to get things done and wind up closed as high season approaches. Optimism has no place in a renovation project. Slabs of granite for the bar top can, and do, crack. Lighting fixtures get held up at customs and your electrician is balancing multiple jobs, so they will inevitably miss a day.

Experience has taught me to plan for life’s little hiccups so they don’t adversely impact the entire project. Get estimates on weeks of work from your designer, contractor, etc. Also, consider permits, city planning, health inspections and staff hiring.

Work back schedules

When you know how long your renovation is going to take, make a work back schedule – working back from the day you want to re-open. Most importantly – build in some contingency. Plan to reopen before high season and build in some time to iron out any kinks.


Keep everyone informed: staff, suppliers, and most importantly, customers. This is a great time to gather customer emails and send out a short survey asking customers what they think about the restaurant space and food. You can use this feedback in your planning and design. Send email updates throughout the renovation process to keep customers informed and excited about the new space and menu.


As well as customer feedback, have a wander around your neighborhood. Observe who’s buying property, have dinner at local hotspots — how would you make your space even better than the competition?

Floor Plans

Every good renovation starts with a floor plan. Unlike menu covers or staff uniforms, floor plans are not easy to modify once they’re in place. Plan your restaurant to look great even when it’s slow. Consider areas that can be screened or sectioned off. Consider private rooms and semi-private seating – these are must-haves for high-end urban restaurants in 2017!

Flow is arguably one of the most important factors of a floor plan. Flow determines the way customers, staff and food move through the restaurant space. Flexibility is also important. Being able to move tables, chairs and even wait stations around allows you to accommodate both large and small parties easily.

Create simple understandable traffic patterns – corridors for ease of movement around the restaurant and clear access to washrooms. Avoid having customers walk past the kitchen entry (staff will thank you for it). Avoid seating guests too close to the front door, as it can be noisy and drafty.

Bar placement needs to be considered — a bar at the entrance of a restaurant can do double duty as a waiting area. A bar in the center of a restaurant is easier for staff to access during the dinner rush. And a bar at the back of a restaurant is more intimate, away from the hustle and bustle of the front of the house. Decide which option is best for your restaurant.

Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.” So make a plan. Next time we will talk design and how to add just the right finishing touches to your reinvented restaurant.


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Giving Your Restaurant an Edge



Ask any restaurateur and they’ll tell you, success is a delicate balance involving a staggering number of variables: location, design, food, service, reputation … the list goes on.

In the decade we have been designing restaurants for the BC market and for hospitality clients across Canada, we’ve found that implementing a successful restaurant design also requires consideration of a staggering number of variables: brand, flow, materials, lighting, acoustic, etc.

Here’s an Inside look at how we provide our clients the best possible design for success.

When working with a new client we must familiarize ourselves with their brand and understand the function of the space – casual café or full-service restaurant & bar? The next step is to determine ‘flow’.

Flow is arguably one of the most important factors behind a successful restaurant. As designers, we must consider flow before we even begin to select colours, fabrics and furniture. Flow determines the way in which customers, staff and food move through the restaurant space. If the flow is correct for the function of the space then customer expectations and brand promise is met. For optimum efficiency in a fine dining restaurant, we recommend an order input station for every 40 seats. We’ve seen too many times, a server line-up at a terminal because too few input stations have been installed. This only leads to delays and unhappy guests.

Functional design is the best design. That’s why we take the time from the very beginning to plan the best flow for the restaurant. Once the flow is determined, the creativity begins. By staying on top of trends in restaurant design we’re able to provide our clients with insight into what’s a flash-in-the-pan (pardon the foodie pun) and what will lend lasting impact to their space.

We also meet with manufacturers and suppliers regularly to keep us up to date on materials – and seek out materials that are both aesthetic and low-maintenance for our restaurant and hospitality clients.

Finally, we lend our talents as experienced designers to create custom, one-off pieces that elevate any restaurant space and brand. For our latest restaurant project, a market style buffet in Bellville, Ontario (pictured above) specified rustic finishes and custom light fixtures to provide a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere, just what the client was looking for.

Let us help you create your next successful restaurant space. Get in touch.

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