UAE’s restaurants banking on interior designers for the ultimate dining experience
Long gone are the days when a good restaurant meal was dependent simply on how the food tasted. While quality ingredients and talented chefs are still necessary for a good meal, today’s foodies are looking for much more than a well-cooked steak. They want an experience – a memory worth tweeting – and that means restaurateurs and the designers they work with have to continually come up with ways to impress customers and, more importantly, keep them coming back.
Restaurateurs and chefs must assume everything in their establishments – from the food on the plate to the artwork on the walls – is going to be shared (and judged) on social media. This fact has many restaurateurs seeking out forward-thinking designers, who can create not just a practical venue in which to cook and eat, but a space that is more Instagrammable and inviting than the competition.
"Dubai, being one of the most phenomenal and fastest growing cities in the world, aims to provide its residents and visitors with the newest, most extraordinary experiences," says Daousser Chennoufi, the founder and chief executive of Dubai-based Draw Link Group, which has designed the interiors of notable new restaurants such as Marina Social and YNot Bar and Kitchen at the InterContinental Dubai Marina Hotel, and the recently opened Mercato Restaurant in DIFC.
According to Chennoufi, comfort, colour, layout and ambience are critical elements that go into any new design as they directly influence a diner’s experience.
"Ambience is created by the lighting, music, artworks and the design theme of a space," he says. "It directs the mood of the guest, which in turn will affect the time spent in a restaurant and the amount of food and drinks ordered."
Restaurateurs are right to be giving design and atmosphere a starring role in their restaurants and the research proves it.
Tina Norden, project director for Conran and Partners – the group behind the newly opened Ruya at Grosvenor House in Dubai Marina – says: "The atmosphere in a restaurant is fundamental to the guest experience and all elements work together to create this. The interiors set the tone, along with the lighting and music [or purposeful lack thereof]".
The colour of a venue is the first thing guests see – and is something designers spend a lot of time on. Warm colours – red, yellow and orange – elicit positive thoughts, and stimulate appetite.
"Colour has to be used purposefully and specifically," says Norden. "There are colours that are less successful for restaurants. For example, green and blue make food less appetising."
Hues can set the tone and vibe for the whole venue. "Colours directly influence your space perception. Dark and warm colours can not only make a space look smaller but create a more personal and intimate feel," adds Chennoufi. "Appropriate lighting completes the design thought, making the right accents on the furniture and all the objects within the space," he says. "Brighter lights can decrease the range of a meal duration, while dimmed lighting can make the atmosphere more comfortable and relaxed, increasing the time guests stay in a restaurant."
A study published in the Journal of Marketing Research showed that diners who ate in brightly-lit venues were up to 24 per cent more likely to order healthy dishes. The same study showed that those who ate in dimly lit spaces actually ate less than those in bright spaces.
All this being said, most diners have no idea how design, colour and lighting influence their eating habits.
Marie-Josee Caron, a self-professed foodie in Abu Dhabi, says: "What is important is the food; it sounds obvious but the rest doesn’t matter. What brings me back to a restaurant is the food. The interior, decor or atmosphere do not matter much".
Linda Skerry, a food lover who eats out in the capital five times a week, agrees. "I am looking for good value in addition to great food." But, she concurs that some elements, such as colour, do influence her perception of a restaurant. "I tend to gravitate to more monochromatic colour pallets," she says. "To me, it seems cleaner. I like a more cosy, intimate setting. - soft lighting and tables that aren’t crowded together."
Skerry isn’t alone in her distaste for crammed in tables. Tightly packed tables that lack privacy make for a completely different experience than tables that are spaced at a more comfortable distance. The comfort of the chairs diners sit in also matters.
"Furniture is an important part of interior design, with features such as comfort and functionality proven to be of a higher value for customers than visual shape," notes Chennoufi. "The majority of restaurant guests would prefer softer and taller furniture."
He also says there is a direct link between climate and furniture preferences. In warmer climes, diners prefer colder furniture, such as leather seating. In colder climates, customers prefer seats with warmer upholstery.
Though less a designer’s responsibility than a restaurant manager’s decision, music and noise also play a significant role on diners’ experiences. Studies show people will eat and drink more when exposed to loud music.
While this may lead to a better bottom-line, it is often what irks diners most – a Zagat survey lists noise as the second most-common complaint for diners, behind bad service. Mario Gutierrez, a Dubai resident, who eats out a couple nights a week, says: "I prefer a quiet place. Fine-dining restaurants with loud music make me want to finish my dinner and leave."
Loud music and background noise has been shown to affect how we taste food, too. In a study published in food journal, Flavour, researchers found "it would appear that noise selectively impairs the ability to detect tastes such as sweet and sour". It claims that "loud noise really can exert a significant (and often negative) effect on people’s perception and enjoyment of whatever it is they happen to be eating".
Even diners like Caron who say food is all that matters, concede: "Loud music is definitely a no-no. We want to be able to talk to each other."
All this aside, even when designers get everything right, it doesn’t last forever; which is why it’s common to see restaurants being renovated. The Yacht Club, which opened at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi six years ago, is one such establishment. "It was getting tired," says Danny Kattar, the hotel’s director of food and beverage. "The culinary industry evolves all the time. As it evolves, we have to keep up with it." In each of his restaurants, Kattar says atmosphere is as important as the food. "One complements the other."
Recent restaurant openings in the capital reflect that ethos. Asia de Cuba on the Corniche is as much about the laid-back, beachside vibe as it is about its distinct cuisine, and when you walk into Bu and Tamba in The Hub at The Mall, World Trade Centre, it’s obvious no expense has been spared. Likewise with Roberto’s at The Galleria Mall, its sleek, chic, modern Italian flair is clearly meant to keep people buzzing.
While restaurateurs want their venues to stand out, designers say it is more important to pay attention to factors that lead to a more enjoyable experience.
"Every component of a meal is important. But it is the surroundings, the ambience and the people that significantly contribute to the memories the guests will take away with them," says Chennoufi.