Dining as Experience

Goodlifer: Dining as Experience

New Yorkers crave new, unique, over-the-top and authentic experiences. This is not so much a revelation as an unspoken compact that is part of the deal of living in this metropolitan city. This desire is manifested in no more visible way than in a New Yorker’s love affair with food and restaurants. It may have to do with many of us living in small apartments lacking kitchens, it could be a result of a high concentration of people with relatively high disposable incomes, or just a plain cultural phenomenon, but the fact is that New Yorkers dine out like no others. And we like to do it in style.

Restaurant design has always been a unique blend of architecture, interior design, graphic sensibility and showmanship that often hovers somewhere between dramatic theatrical flourish, vernacular postmodernism and studied minimalism. Compared to even just a few years ago, restaurant design has gone from thematic window dressing to a more studied exercise in experiential design. Even the dining spots that don’t appear to pay attention to matters of style often create their own nonchalant or perhaps ironic version of “non-design”, the now-closed legendary Florent in the Meatpacking District was an iconic early example of this. Designed by the (also now closed) venerable M&Co., the play on peg-board typography was a spot-on visual reference to a kind of all-American diner experience that took on a new twist in the context of the the nascent Meatpacking district resturant phenomenon.

Florent, the former Meatpacking mainstay. Image by Gothamist.

Florent, the former Meatpacking mainstay. Photos by Michael Dillingham/Gothamist & Getty/New York Magazine.

A few weeks ago I attended a discussion about the relationship between food and design. To (loosely) quote the moderator of the evening, Christine Muhlke, of The New York Times “going out to eat is not just about the food anymore, it’s about having an experience that is better than your apartment.” Restaurants are now fine purveyors of experiences, not just food. They are meeting places, homes away from home, and identity makers. You are where you dine.

Somehow I think we all long for the experience of developing a following with a neighborhood joint where the waiters, hostesses and chefs never change, where everybody knows your name and “the regular” is ordered and delivered to your liking in an unspoken and familiar routine. I wonder if this is even possible in these times of specialty food trends (offal anyone?), transience and short culinary attention spans. Illustrator Cristoph Niemann did a series of illustrations about coffee for the New York Times (appropriately drawn on napkins, with coffee), telling the story of how he wanted so badly to be a regular at the corner deli that he came in every morning, ordered the same thing and eventually achieved this privilege of getting his preferred coffee without having to utter a word. For a while, until the man behind the counter started making the wrong thing every day. It was a funny commentary on our near universal desire to establish an emotional connection with our food and purveyors of sustenance.

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Illustrations by Christoph Niemann for the New York Times

Restaurant design masters AvroKO are known for their all-encompassing visions of the establishments they take on. In addition to interiors, they frequently create the visual identity and all associated graphical elements, giving a consistent expression to the “brand experience.” This unified vision makes total sense in this new dining-as-experience world. Taking it yet another step further they opened Public, a restaurant that they also own and manage, and some time later The Monday Room, inside the same space. Following that success, a second restaurant, Double Crown, was opened on the Bowery. It seems a holistic design view pays off.

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Public, a wholesome design vision. Image by AvroKO.

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The Monday Room, inside Public. Image by AvroKO.

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Double Crown on the Bowery. Image by AvroKO

I recently visited Social House, a Las Vegas dining establishment also designed by AvroKO. In this instance, they did not design the visual identity, and my whole experience was lessened by the weak logotype, menus and amateurish use of typography that, to a trained NYC foodie’s heightened perceptions, detracted from the (very nice) interior. In a world that is increasingly competitive and where people have a heightened visual sensibility, restaurants will no longer be able to get away with coherency flaws. As if the business of running a restaurant isn’t hard enough, a new generation of restaurant patrons expect to see and experience consistently beautiful visuals while enjoying consistently inventive and superior food.

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Social House Las Vegas. Image by socialhouselv.com.

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Social House Las Vegas. Image by socialhouselv.com.

Another design voice that has greatly influenced the NYC restaurant experience is Matteo Bologna and his firm Mucca Design. Freshly arrived in the city (anyone who has heard him speak will know he hails from Italy), he was introduced to restaurateur Keith McNally through mutual friends and landed the plum assignment of creating the identity for Pravda. This turned out to be the beginning of a relationship that has given birth to some of the city’s most iconic restaurant identities, Balthazar, Pastis and Schiller’s Liquor Bar among them. Mucca’s style echoes romantic ephemera, a type of instant vernacular, seemingly from another era but updated for modern sensibilities, which puts a very human face on every restaurant identity the firm designs. Type with a handmade quality always plays a huge role, perhaps in reaction to the over-designed materials we are deluged with every day. As craft and genuineness regain importance in every field, the restaurant business does its best to confirm this.

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Balthazar identity. Image by Mucca Design.

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Pastis in the Meatpacking, identity by Mucca Design. Image by Pastis.

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Schiller’s Liquor Bar identity. Images by Mucca Design.

This resurgence also translates to the food itself. After decades of fast food and supermarket packaged goods, we want to get closer to our food again. We want to know provenance, origins, sustainability, locality on top of nutritional and gastronomical qualities. Dan Barber is an acclaimed chef who, along with family members Laureen and David, runs Stone Barns Center, an Upstate New York working four-season farm, educational center and restaurant “where the rich traditions of community-based farming merge with the 21st century.” The restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns serves food that is grown on the farm or sourced from local farmers in the surrounding Hudson Valley. Their menu is composed anew every day, based on what is currently available, and many patrons frequently drive the 30 miles to Blue Hill from New York City, just for this experience of getting close to the source of what you eat.

Stone Barns center. Image by

Stone Barns Center in the scenic Hudson Valley. Image by stonebarnscenter.org.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, famous for its sustainable take on high-end cuisine. Image by

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, famous for its sustainable take on high-end cuisine. Image by bluehillfarm.com.

However, a meal here does not come cheap, the farmers need to be paid fair price and the business needs to be economically viable. That certainly makes me question the food we find in the supermarket. When did natural become more expensive than artificial? Barber tells an amazing story about discovering a sustainable foie gras farmer in southwestern Spain. Building on natural principles, he managed to, without practicing gavage (force feeding), create the most delicious foie gras that won highest accolades in a French blind tasting test. This to much dismay of French producers (and consumers), who always had the strong belief that good foie gras could only be produced unnaturally, by force feeding. Collectively, we need to throw these old pretensions out the door if we want to change the world for the better

My over-the-rainbow optimistic hopes are that soon we will see nothing but visually pleasing restaurants where, in stunning environments, we can enjoy food that is produced responsibly and prepared with great care (and will never make us gain so much as one pound). Dining is an experience, not just a mere necessity.

Top image via Mucca Design.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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