Do Restaurant Spaces Exist for Art or Instagram?

Designers explain how they balance intent and aesthetics.

A mosaic dragon wall at Invigatorium
Photo: Zack Benson

Arsalun Tafazoli gets a kick out of restaurant and bar bathrooms.

"Bathrooms are the only place in public where your pants are down, so I just really like to mess with you in that moment of vulnerability," says the co-founder of Consortium Holdings, which operates some of San Diego's most immersive bar and restaurant concepts.

In that spirit, why not blanket the sink and walls in mirrored panels, as Tafazoli did at the breakfast restaurant Morning Glory? Or install a massive, two-way picture window overlooking the city, like the one inside the bathroom at Seneca Trattoria's rooftop patio? Or commission Manuel Cisneros, the city's foremost custom lowrider painter, to paint custom sheet metal installations above the sinks and on the walls in a glittering homage to Chicano lowrider culture? Tafazoli did not expect that his cheeky experiments in bathroom design would coincide with the mid-2010s rise of the bathroom selfie, but these days, his designs prompt long lines of people outside the bathrooms awaiting a photo shoot.

He acknowledges that a bathroom line existing for social media purposes comes with the territory of intentionally over-designing restaurants. For better or worse, everyone can now star in their own curated life on social media. Bright phone lights pollute candlelit mood lighting as diners document their meals; photo sessions interfere with the flow of service.

"Social media gives people agency, and that's powerful; I'm not a hater," Tafazoli says. "But I think it also can go a little too far in that direction where it takes people out of the moment. We have spaces now where people come with photographers, so you're trying to run food and there's a photo shoot. It's a weird thing to come to terms with, but the alternative would be a lot worse, where no one is interested."

The gold bathroom sink at Morning Glory
Shannon Partrick

Who can blame diners, really? We are living in an era of highly transportive and photogenic restaurant spaces — decorated within an inch of their life in millennial pink and twee neon signage, mid-century jewel tones, or mosaics of found vintage tile accented with lush plant life. Documenting one's aspirational life is probably more interesting at a "cool, indie spot over, say, a Chili's," says Ian Jones, owner of Victory Brands, who oversees design for its five Atlanta-area restaurants, which include Little Trouble, The S.O.S. Tiki Bar and Victory Sandwich Bar. He chalks up this trend to how much the role of food and beverage in our culture has changed in the past decade — edging closer to music, film and art as a tangential form of self-expression.

"It used to be date night was driven by 20 chain restaurants out of Florida — you went to Olive Garden or P.F. Chang's," he says. "Now there's just a billion small indie eateries who want to get really creative. You can see how we got here, with younger people who've grown up completely immersed in social media. Restaurants see the opportunity for other people to do their marketing."

Even so, tell a restaurant owner that their place is Instagrammable, and they often reply that they didn't intend for that to happen (even if they delight in the free publicity). But isn't that the first rule of coolness? You don't try to be; you just are.

"No one wants to say it," Jones says. "They're trying to be too cool for school."

Jones's spots are highly Instagrammable, though he's never had so much as a MySpace account. The façade of S.O.S. features huge painted palms and pink neons. The "neon izakaya" design of Little Trouble was inspired by movie sets; the hexagonal neon at the end of the entryway backlights anyone walking in, making it a favorite for silhouetted phone snaps.

"What I love about designing restaurants is you are creating a set where every night is theater; the waiters, waitresses, bartender, and general manager all put on a show," says Kate Towill, founding partner and head of design at Basic Projects, which is behind such restaurants as the serene, whimsical Basic Kitchen in Charleston, and Jaws-esque, '70s nautical Sullivan's Fish Camp in Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. "Creating a space people only spend two to three hours in, we can really push it, from all these things we find and put on walls to the music."

Towill used to build actual movie sets in her former life as a production designer, including for Wes Anderson's coming-of-age film Moonrise Kingdom. Yet she carefully avoids the overdesign Jones and Tafazoli love — a lesson she learned through her time on set. She approaches interiors more like an architect than a decorator, preferring fixtures over throw pillows.

Her thing is lighting, as in 3-foot-wide Italian basket statement lights or a carnival tent lamp sourced in Amsterdam. Lighting that is ideal for restaurant theater — "the kind that makes people want to enjoy another cocktail and feel like they look good" — tends to be dim, and so is less ideal for selfies and food photos. Do people occasionally ask staff to brighten the lights? Sure. But Towill stands firm in maintaining the fantasy. "We keep the lights at a pretty good level," she laughs wryly.

Towill isn't that comfortable with the Instagrammable moniker, either, with an unease that recalls an indie band who refuses to sell out. The difference among these sorts of restaurants, Tafazoli notes, is the genuineness. This is their art form, not a gimmick.

"There's definitely a new genre of restaurant which actually does play to Instagrammable moments," he says. "They might have a wall mural or neon sign with a witticism that says 'You do you.' It's pandering. You can identify it; it's too easy."

Besharam has some tea in front of the Instagram worthy mural.
Besharam

Some design statements reflect their restaurant's raison d'etre. The mural on the wall at San Francisco modern Indian restaurant Besharam is no basic, pandering photo op. The Indian woman with her maang tikka jewelry, cocktail glass and visible cleavage offers a daily reminder of sorts for chef and owner Heena Patel.

"It's a guide for me to tell myself: Are you pushing that envelope as a chef? Are you 'besharam' enough?" says Patel.

Besharam, which translates to shameless in Urdu, is often used as diminishing or derogatory slang in India. For Patel — born in Gujarat to parents who wanted a son — reclaiming the term for herself began as a way to celebrate her own existence in a culture of immense social pressure to be good. Patel felt like an outsider after she got married and moved to the U.S., and even more so when she started cooking professionally later in life than most of her young, male counterparts. The term took on more significance to her, and became a way to break free from the limitations it represents. She named her first solo restaurant for it when she opened it at age 53 in 2019.

"It's something I want to wear as a medal on my chest," she says of the name. "That word shaped me, the way I am. It made me more resilient, stronger. I want to emphasize that, even though I know it can be Instagrammable."

After all, there's power in amplifying this kind of message. Patel is all about connecting to the next generation, especially in the ways they self-express — fast, trendy, loud and colorful, even as they grapple with the same loneliness and self-doubt of their forebears. "I have met so many different generations who've said, 'I've been called besharam or other words similar to that,'" she says. "So let's have a conversation. Those words used to put you down, let's use them as strength."

She's now at work on a bathroom mural that will consist of a collage of stylized derogatory terms like kutri (comparing a girl to a dog) and nalayak (without manners) framing the viewer. Maybe they'll find one that's been personally used against them; maybe they'll gravitate toward one that reflects their own insecurities. Above all, Patel hopes they'll feel seen when they snap that bathroom selfie.

Because isn't a sense of belonging all we really want in the end? Indeed, a part of teenaged Tafazoli — brooding and unpopular, blasting punk rock and religiously reading Dave Eggers — was present when he set out to create a series of spectacular restaurants and bars in his 30s. His younger self was probably the one who advised him to hide "subculture Easter eggs" in the design, like the Wu-Tang Clan "W" laser-jetted into the drainage boards on the bar at Born & Raised.

"Great art creates a sense of community; it can fracture reality in a way that puts words to things that us normies feel but can't necessarily say," he says. "A byproduct in this era of creating engaging environments that connect with people is they become backdrops for their Instagrams."

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