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Designing for a Post-Covid World: Restaurants

Almost four months ago, the way in which we lived, worked, and in particular, socialized dramatically and suddenly changed. The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of social distancing and safety precautions. Amongst the hardest-hit industries were restaurants and dining culture. Before the pandemic, we were entering into a golden age of food, restaurants and dining. Chef-owned and -operated restaurants proliferated while fast food culture dissipated. People were going out to eat at sit-down restaurants more than ever as high quality, well-prepared food became more accessible and sought after. Sparked by a fascination with food culture, restaurant design was focused on being more engaging and open.

At RODE, many of our clients were pushing the boundaries for open kitchen designs (Fox & The Knife), informal social seating (Southern Proper), and food hall configurations (Coppersmith). When restaurants around the world were mandated to close doors, chefs and owners quickly had to pivot towards delivery and takeout services, minimal staff-to-customer interaction, and the ability to effectively prepare food in as sterile an area as possible. For some restaurants, these requirements were not realistic, given a number of factors including layout, size, kitchen enclosure, and ability to isolate customer pick-up. How do we design restaurants to be adaptable to the current social-distancing culture while preparing them for any future crises?

There will likely be three primary factors to consider:

Maximize Flexibility and Adaptability of the Space

Seating arrangements and types need to be adaptable and movable. Southern Proper (pictured left) is a good example of modular seating. Fixed banquets, booths, and extended bar seating might need to be reconsidered as movable seating pods or be designed with barriers or enclosures to isolate each dining party. Tables that can be adjusted as two tops, four tops, or combined to be six or eight tops might be more commonly used.

Outdoor seating will also be an important element to incorporate in all restaurant

designs. One consideration might be to dedicate an area as an indoor/outdoor flex zone with a deployable enclosure. Dorchester Brewing Co. (pictured right) is utilizing their roof deck to increase their space while instituting for proper distancing. The exterior portion can be tented, allowing it to be utilized all year round. Overall, the goal should be to allow as much flexibility as possible for seating arrangements so that the capacity of the restaurant and the isolation of each dinner party can be controlled. RODE has been working with local establishments to strategize plan for re-opening their establishments post-Covid-19. The plans below show how space can be reorganized to properly social distance sections and patrons.

Privatize the Dining Experience

Before Covid-19, there was a significant paradigm shift towards communal dining experiences, whether that be communal table seating, food halls, or an emphasis on liquor/kitchen bar seating. The most obvious shift in dining philosophy will probably be focused on the reduction of these seating types. Bars, in particular, have commonly been social hot spots, commonly supplemented by standing areas and drink rails to condense as many patrons as possible. The design of bars as a central social element of a restaurant might be reconsidered entirely. Should we design bars now in the same way we design the kitchen, as less of a social gathering node and more of a functional component of the BOH (back of house)? One consideration could be to design smaller “bars” or drink rails that could either be socially distanced or movable.

Control the Sterile Environment and Avoid Customer Contamination One of the most important factors involved in designing a safe dining experience will be the ability to control the sterile environment in the BOH, It will be imperative to protect the restaurant staff as much as possible, in order to prevent any spread of contamination. This might include more touchless payment options, separate circulation paths for wait staff, and dedicated bathroom circulation for guests. RODE designed the restaurant plan below to help our client address separate circulation paths for customers and servers, as well as take sanitation into consideration.

Open kitchens and kitchen bar seating will have to be reworked. One idea might be to have a large window that looks into the kitchen, like one utilized at French Laundry by Snohetta in Napa Valley (pictured left). The window provides protection while also preserving the interactive dining experience. Another consideration might be to isolate the dish pit and bathrooms as a dirty zone and provide dishwashers and cleaning staff with adequate PPE to protect themselves. We might also design towards single-use bathrooms with a dedicated disinfectant station.

If done correctly, following Covid-19 safety precautions and strategizing restaurant design to conform to new standards should not have a negative effect on the dining experience. The new normal will seem strange in the beginning, as with any new system, but restaurateurs, chefs, architects, and designers are coming together like never before, to ensure dining out is a pleasant and safe experience for everyone.

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