04 February 2009


The evolution of the restaurant, at least in the West, is inextricable from two related developments: the growth of cities and the increasing need or desire to replace the homemade meal. I would argue that, since the restaurant's inception in the late eighteenth century, these twin drivers, the city and the home, have had a lasting influence on the physical design and typology of restaurants.

The territories of the city and the home have always been opposites. Urbanism involves being among strangers, of sharing pathways and landmarks but only optionally words or glances, and of reveling in the totality of commercial or public spectacle. The home, by contrast, is the sphere of aesthetic and social intimacy, where secrets may be shared in cozy proximity with family, friends, and furniture.

The opposing influences of city and home have manifested themselves throughout the history of restaurant design. If there has been one constant theme, one persistent preoccupation of restaurant architects and interior designers throughout the restaurant's history, it is how to balance the promotion of strangers' conviviality or communalism and the accommodation of diners' privacy--in other words, how to balance its dual, and potentially conflicting, DNA strands of public street and private home.

Restaurant designers and historians have constantly spoken of designers' efforts to make the diner feel "comfortable." By this they mean at ease eating, and sharing once-domestic rituals, amid strangers and courtesy of the kitchen of strangers. Establishing trust has always been the first task of any restaurant design.

Because reconciling communalism and privacy, the city and the home, has been a central historic challenge of restaurant design, it is possible to understand any restaurant as occupying some point along the spectrum of "home" and "city." All restaurants are some combination of the two types. You can tell which way they lean by what they emphasize in their design.

"City" elements in restaurants include spectacular design features that can be seen throughout the restaurant--a large sculptural installation, an open kitchen, a water feature in the center. These are like landmarks, the Times-Square-billboard-and-skyscraper effects of urbanism brought into interiors. They cultivate communal experience, serving as common points of reference. Long communal tables, as in some gastro-pubs, or counter seating, as in many diners, also offer a sense of urban communalism but without the spectacle of a centralized figure.

"Home" features in restaurant design include strong design distinctions and more space between the zones occupied by private tables. They also may include relatively lengthy or aesthetically transitional thresholds. One may be between the entrance door and where the seating begins. Others may be found between groups of tables. The more "home" the restaurant is, the more it is divided into several smaller dining zones, each with a distinct character and shielded from the others by literal or optical barriers, aesthetic differences, and/or sound buffering. "Home" style cultivates distance and offers transitions between tables or groups of tables, thus fostering intimacy and privacy among people of individual parties.

So long as the restaurant is the functional result of urbanism and home replacement, it will manifest the tensions and points of harmony between the city and the home in its design.

Copyright Alison Pearlman 2009. All rights reserved.

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