The Secrets Behind Restaurant Design. How A Restaurant's Design Can Make You Stay Longer And Spend More

Restaurant Design
Designer Paul Kelly at The Bourbon, Kings Cross

Interior Designer Paul Kelly looks around and his eyes squint a little. "The lights are doing something" he says detecting an almost imperceptible change in the intensity of light in the restaurant that he designed.

Much of the dining public perhaps have no idea of how a restaurant's design impacts their experience. Certainly they may know when a space isn't quite right, or when they feel comfortable or not, but designers like Paul who has designed 200 sites in Australia and Asia have some tricks up their sleeves.

Restaurant Design
Custom made table at Black

Paul looks over at the $12,000 table at Black by Ezard, a restaurant he designed in 2011. The enormous table was originally a tree found in the Oberon area of NSW. One of his scouts found the tree and it was sliced in half and the rippled sides carved using a chainsaw and smoothed down. It's the first sight that diners see when they enter Black and it is raised up looking down on diners.

"People who sit at this table want to be seen" he says. He clarifies the behaviour of groups a bit further. "If there are two people with a view often they have nothing in common and if it's a table of four, usually two are out of towners and the two others want to do business." And what of booth sitters? He explains that they're often people who have brought other people to the restaurant and will often order for them. "The people in the middle of the room, they didn't book ahead" and says before adding that all of us are all of these people at times.

Restaurant Design

Psychology plays a huge role in restaurant design work. According to Paul, the key for a successful restaurant where people feel comfortable is to have lots of options. A bar often brings people in and if they're comfortable, they may take a look at the menu. A one dimensional space like a single rectangular room lacks the necessary nooks and crannies needed to make customers want to stay. "People don't like logic, people like chaos. It's about discovery and excitement. This is adult entertainment, a fantasy world."

Customers also need to be able to be seen by waitstaff to get served. "The design has to work" he says for both the customers and the staff. "If you need to use signs, then the design isn't working" and toilets should be located logically. "Nobody wants to ask where the toilet is" he says.

The bugbear for most customers is noise. So why are restaurants so noisy? For some, it's deliberate, some want a buzzy vibe and Paul tells us that some restaurants deliberately noisier sections that others. Acoustics are expensive costing up to $200,000 to do properly.

Restaurant Design
Wine cellar at Black by Ezard

It's also an area that is misunderstood and often an after thought. Fit outs are expensive and some clients want to focus on the things that bring in money like the bar and kitchen rather than sounds. Treading the carpet at Black, he tells us that the carpet has an underlay with double filling to absorb the sound. Generally if people can talk more, they stay more, eat more and drink more. "I can make back my fee and make people spend money" he says matter of factly.

Which brings us to another customer complaint often heard-why are restaurants so dark? "The darker the better" Paul says. At the beginning of his 16 year career when he designed nightclubs, dark was better. "When it's dark, you can see the textures" he says.

Restaurant Design

Lighting is vital for customers and according to Paul, 2700 kelvin temperature is ideal. They position the lightbulbs just so to avoid customers seeing the dreaded shadows that elongate people's noses and make them look as though they have bags under their eyes. This encourages them to stay longer rather than dashing home thinking that they've had one too many.

Restaurant Design
Shatter proof cow heads outside Black

Things also need to be practical and this may mean customer proof - specifically aggressive customer proof. Outside he shows us the cow's heads that flank the walls. Originally made in ceramic by an artisan in Adelaide, he brought these to his client. To his shock, his client took to them with a hammer. Unsurprisingly, the cow's head smashed into tiny pieces and his client's response was that they needed to be hammer proof. They are now made of resin.

Restaurant Design

Which brings us to another of Paul's projects: Sokyo. The design brief was "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and he pitched for the business against designers in Los Angeles and New York. Each pitch involves a lot of time and effort costing around $40,000 per pitch. At the moment he is working on 15 projects with his six staff.

Restaurant Design
Hand dipped ropes

As we walk past the bar he looks up and I notice the doll on the ceiling. These tiny dolls were painstakingly photographed by a doll collector. We walk through the restaurant and he shows us the back room with 7 kms of hand dipped Indian rope designed to simulate a Japanese mountain range in reverse. It seems almost a shame that most people won't see it in the back room.

Restaurant Design

Sometimes things work out conceptually and other times not. Paul shows us the metal curtains that shimmer dramatically in the private dining room at Black. The brief for Black was "butcher" so the curtains were based on a butcher's glove, made by the same manufacturer in Germany, just with larger holes.

He points at a beautiful lighting piece above - this is supposed to be based on a cross section of a bull horn. To me, I see Japanese mountain paintings and Paul admits that it's a piece he isn't 100% satisfied with. He is proud of the wine cellar at Black. The dual temperature wine cellar weighs four tonnes and needs to be reinforced underneath and then hung from above in equal balance. I ask him how long a restaurant design should last. "Six to seven years is a respectable amount of time" he says.

To Paul, design is a "mixture of memories" from experiences and travel. He cites New York and Las Vegas as inspirational cities. He describes his style as "layered with classical ties to Art Deco and Art Nouveau theory." The rule of thirds applies and when we visit The Bourbon in Kings Cross, he shows us the windows with black metal frames. He uses the rule of thirds based on a 300mm measurement as it's a measurement familiar to everyone. It's the size of our school rulers, it's a foot and it's also the size of many people's feet.

Restaurant Design
Lighting piece at Black

Paul also has a photographic memory which allows him to recall small details with clarity. "I can draw any room that I've seen" he says. His projects range from $80,000 to $20 million projects. When we are at Sokyo, we look up and he points out the lights above us which are made of hand made rice wine pots - each at a cost of $1,200 each. No matter what, Paul's main projects focus on food and beverage. Why food and beverage? He smiles "I'm greedy. I like steak and wine."

So tell me Dear Reader, what is your favourite restaurant for design and atmosphere? And what entices you to try a restaurant? And do you pre plan it or is it spur of the moment?

Paul's guide to colours in restaurant design:

Black - Good for providing a night-time feel during the day, gives a room a sense of sophistication and power, works well with any food concept.

Brown – Colour of cooked steak, so a really good colour to use when the venue has a meat based menu. Also good to make a space seem wholesome and comfortable.

White – We tend not to use white a lot, unless it is used as a contrast - it can seem a bit clinical for a hospitality space where we want people to relax.

Red - induces hunger – Red tends to make people hungry, there is a lot of red in food, and red is also the colour of excitement and passion.

Green - induces thirst – The first people to use this as a basis for their brand colours was Sizzler. Drinks were not included and they wanted to encourage people to buy them!

Yellow – This is good for fresh, daytime space, great for giving warmth to a room.

Blue – A very difficult colour to use properly, as blue in food is not usually a good sign. It must always be well balanced.

Pink – More beverage oriented colour and obviously female focused, again a daytime colour or club colour.

Orange – like red, a very good colour to get the tastebuds going.

Restaurant Design
Green chairs at The Bourbon

Paul Kelly Design

77-79 Bay St, Glebe NSW 2037
Phone:(02) 9660 8299

Black by Ezard

Level G, Harbourside, The Star/80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont NSW 2009
Phone:(02) 9657 9109
Sunday 12:00-3:00 pm, 5:30-9:30 pm
Monday Closed
Tuesday 5:30-11:00 pm
Wednesday 5:30-10:00 pm
Thursday 5:30-10:00 pm
Friday 12:00-3:00 pm, 5:30-11:00 pm
Saturday 5:30-11:00 pm


Level G, The Darling The Star/80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont NSW 2009
Phone:(02) 9657 9161
Sunday Closed
Monday 4:00-10:00 pm
Tuesday 4:00-10:00 pm
Wednesday 4:00-10:00 pm
Thursday 12:00-10:30 pm
Friday 5:30-10:30 pm
Saturday 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

The Bourbon

22 Darlinghurst Rd, Potts Point NSW 2011
Phone:(02) 9035 8888
Sunday 11:00 am - 3:00 am
Monday 11:00 am - 3:00 am
Tuesday 11:00 am - 3:00 am
Wednesday 11:00 am - 3:00 am
Thursday 11:00 am - 3:00 am
Friday 11:00 am - 4:00 am
Saturday 11:00 am - 4:00 am

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