Why More Chefs Are Designing Their Own Restaurants

From Missy Robbins to Abe Conlon, chefs are taking on a new role: designer.

Misi Interiors Missy Robbins Williamsburg
Photo: Evan Sung

When Anthony Strong was building his San Francisco restaurant Prairie, he would sit in the space until two in the morning, obsessing over what to do on the walls. Strong was drawn to a Japanese technique called Aizome, or indigo dyeing, but he was working with a tight budget—and without a professional designer. "I didn't know who to get to do it, and I thought it would be really expensive," Strong said. "So we busted it out ourselves." Strong and his kitchen team dyed wood planks in various shades of blue, creating the central design element of the restaurant. "It's pretty amazing actually, to see walls that we fabricated."

Prairie San Francisco Interior Anthony Strong
Aubrie Pick

Strong is one example of chefs all over the country who are designing, and sometimes building out, their own restaurants. Some chefs design their restaurants out of necessity; maybe they can't afford to hire a design firm, or they need the space to be finished quickly. Other chefs design their restaurants for the fun of it—an exercise in exploring their aesthetic through décor instead of dishes. No matter the reason, chefs who take a leading role in constructing their spaces recognize that dining in 2019 isn't just about the food. Acoustics matter. Seats need to be comfortable. The space should tell a story.

Some stories require imagination. Take Misi, Missy Robbins' pasta restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. You might not immediately know that the space was designed to feel like an Italian streetscape, but if someone points out the elements of that allegory—the narrow walkway from the door to the bathroom that mimics a Bologna street, the tree by the entrance that conjures the outdoor feeling of a piazza, the dark grey floor tiles that pay homage to Italy's cobblestones—you begin to understand the intentionality.

Misi Interiors Missy Robbins Williamsburg
Evan Sung

Unlike Strong, Robbins worked with a designer: Peter Guzy, a co-founder of New York-based design firm Asfour Guzy Architects. Yet Robbins was involved in every step of developing Misi's design, from choosing the Aperol-inspired orange that accents the menus to conceptualizing a break in the chef's counter that allows her to move between the kitchen and the dining room. "The design is one of my favorite parts of the process," Robbins said. "I'm always looking for a creative outlet outside of the kitchen."

The growing importance of restaurant design is reflected in the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Design Awards, which has seen a steady increase of entries over the past several years. There were 168 submissions in 2016, 187 in 2017, 201 in 2018, and 221 in 2019. When the Design Awards were established in 1994, they consisted of two categories: Outstanding Restaurant Graphics and Outstanding Restaurant Design. Those categories were amended in 2013 to Outstanding Restaurant Design: 75 Seats and Under and Outstanding Restaurant Design: 76 Seats and Over.

For the 2019 cycle, the Beard Foundation added a third award category: Other Eating & Drinking Places, including bars, quick-service restaurants, fast-casual restaurants, diners, counter service, food trucks, food halls, ice cream shops, cake shops, take-out counters, pop-up dining spaces, coffee bars, and coffee shops. The additional award might explain the jump in number of submissions between 2018 and 2019, yet it also resonates with the changing restaurant landscape.

Misi Pasta Missy Robbins Williamsburg Restaurant
Evan Sung

"The Design Awards Committee wanted to create a third category that showcases establishments where design is top of mind but dining is not formal," said Moira Sedgwick, the Awards Director of the James Beard Awards. The new category is intended to celebrate the way America eats today—from a waterfront oyster bar to a pop-up that turned permanent. "Good design is everywhere."

One way chefs approach restaurant design is by mirroring the aesthetic of their food. That's what Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo did in their Macanese restaurant, Fat Rice. "In Macau, the food has elements of Portuguese, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and African, so we wanted to reflect that into the décor," Conlon said. The spot they chose, located in Chicago's Logan Square, came with patterned tin ceilings that were too unique to pass up. They decorated the rest of the interior with industrial holophane lamps, walls made of mismatched wooden planks, bright red chairs, metal work stools, and tchotchkes from their travels throughout Asia.

The space is meant to look weathered, sun-bleached, lived-in—like it's been there forever. "There is no specifically Macanese object or style," Conlon said. Oxidized cookware, antique vases, souvenir platters, and ceramic hens pair with curry vegetable samosas, bacalhau da vovó, pork and ginger dumplings, and egg tarts to form a restaurant that's eclectic and energetic. "It's mismatching things that end up being harmonious," Lo said. "Just like the food."

Fat Rice Interiors Chicago Restaurant
Huge Galdones

Annie Block, the executive editor of Interior Design and a member of the 2019 James Beard Restaurant Design Awards Committee, likes when a restaurant has a point of view—whether it's mismatched or perfectly curated. In the Instagram age, design details are crucial, and Block notices even the smallest choices, from background music to business cards.

"I think people are taking into account the environment in which they're eating much more than ever before," Block said. "The design of restaurants has become much more integral. And if chefs are weighing in on that, which I think they are, it just makes for all the better of an experience."

For Shota Nakajima, chef/owner of Adana in Seattle, designing a restaurant is like crafting a menu. "It's your personality," he said. "It's your art. The ambiance has to match the food." Nakajima is currently working to open his second project, a divey bar called Taku that'll specialize in kushikatsu, or Osaka-style deep-fried skewers. He hauled street signs and manholes back from Japan to outfit the new space and took over the design process. Nakajima sketched out how he wanted the space to look, then presented those drawings to a contractor who carried out his vision. In Nakajima's opinion, chefs should always design their spaces. "It's somewhere where you're gonna spend most of your time," he said. "Opening a restaurant is literally buying another house to live in."

Shota Nakajima Bar Taku Seattle
Shota Nakajima

If a restaurant is a chef's second home, or at least an extension of their home, it only makes sense that they would want to influence the way that space looks. Peter Guzy, the designer that worked on Misi, captured the idea well. In his opinion—which is one that many chefs likely share—when a chef walks into their restaurant, they should think, This is where I want to be.

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