With a host of restaurants opening in Abu Dhabi this month, we discover that design can play a major role in the success of an eatery in the UAE
How design can make or break a UAE restaurant
When was the last time you looked at a menu and consciously thought about the thickness of the paper, or the quality of the leather on the cover? Possibly never. And yet, subconsciously, your brain may have been making value assessments based on details just like that.
When the Dubai-based F&B consultancy Atelier EPJ was working on the concept for Qbara, a contemporary Middle Eastern restaurant in Dubai, the team spent months getting the menus just right. “Sense of touch is immensely important,” says Elmar Pichorner, one of the company’s co-founders. “I think it took us three months to find the right leather, with the right thickness and the right weight, for that menu. Then we embossed it so you also had that added texture. Do you notice this as a guest, consciously? Absolutely not. But every one of your senses registers quality, consciously or subconsciously.”
Pichorner has worked on a host of restaurant concepts in Dubai, including big-hitters like La Petite Maison, Ruya, Zuma and Fume, and is of the firm belief that a restaurant will only be successful “if it touches all of the senses – hopefully multiple times over the entire experience”. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, this is becoming all the more necessary. “Dubai as a city has one of the highest restaurant saturation points in the world,” Pichorner points out. “We are looking at 8,000 restaurants in the city, which is 29 restaurants per 10,000 capita, twice the saturation point of London. There you have about 13 or 14 restaurants per 10,000 people.”
Consequently, the aesthetics of a restaurant become a key differentiator. Richard Sandoval, founding chef of Toro Toro, has long recognised the importance of design – although the rest of the industry has taken some time to catch up to his way of thinking, he suggests. “Design is an integral part of the success of a restaurant. About 20 years ago, I would say 80 per cent was food; today it’s 50/50 between food and ambience. When I went back to the Culinary Institute of America, where I studied, I told the board that I know we’re educating chefs, but design should be a part of the curriculum moving forward, because a chef really needs to understand and be involved in every aspect of running a restaurant.”
“If you want to create an outstanding experience for the guest, then design must hold great importance,” agrees Philippe Starck, who partnered with sushi chef Katsuya Uechi to develop the Katsuya by Starck concept, a marriage of fine dining and high design. The restaurant opened a branch in Dubai’s Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel in May. “For Katsuya, we would consider design as one of the top three most important contributors to success. Along with fantastic food and the best service, creating a certain ambience through design is key for the all-around perfect experience,” Starck says.
“We want Katsuya by Starck to be an all-encompassing experience; a feast for the senses. Design is absolutely a key component. While the quality of food is vital for us, in order to elevate that and complement our menu, there is equal emphasis on how the restaurant is built.”
In this day and age, restaurateurs are having to appeal to well-travelled, sophisticated, informed, social-media-enabled customers, whose eyes have been trained by filtered Instagram images, and who have a much broader understanding of what’s trending around the globe. So having a name like Philippe Starck attached to a restaurant can make all the difference.
When it comes to design, there’s the visual element, which can cover anything from the quality of the finishes, to what you see in your immediate line of vision. As Chris Galvin, of the Michelin-starred Galvin brothers, puts it: “The first sense of taste is the eye, so it’s important to make the place beautiful.”
But smell, touch and sound also have their part to play. In terms of sound, it’s the quality of the sound and the type of music or, indeed, a lack thereof. “In some instances, you only want to hear chatter or the noise of the other people around you,” says Pichorner, who cites Bar Boulud in Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London, as an example of a hugely popular venue that doesn’t even have a sound system. “Why? Because it’s a small space and has a very low ceiling and was designed to create congestion, and they never opted for background music. It wasn’t necessary.”
Design is important, but it has to be considered – Pichorner boldly states that, in his opinion, the vast majority of restaurants in the UAE are examples of design for design’s sake.
“The golden rule is everything must bear scrutiny; everything must be placed where it is for a reason,” agrees Galvin. “I worked for 10 years with Sir Terence Conran, one of the greatest designers of the 20th century; and he always spoke to me about movement. There must be movement; humans love it. For example, the slow blades of a fan.”
Even Starck (a man known for his outlandish creations) acknowledges the need for practicality in a restaurant environment. “The aim is to ensure to keep everything as beautifully designed, eye-catching and appealing as possible, while also keeping in mind the comfort of both the customer and the restaurant team. This way, you are more likely to have a smoother [experience],” he says.
Much thought is put into how many people are seated in a given space at any given time. As a general rule, Atelier EPJ recommends a density of 1.8 seats per square metre – some popular Dubai eateries average as low as 1.5 to 1.4 seats per square metre. But it’s a delicate balance. Less than that, and people will feel cramped and constrained; and if it is much more, the space will feel a bit empty and echoey. “You will never get a buzz,” explains Pichorner.
“You need to have a certain number of people in a space for the sparks to fly.” So a restaurant like La Petite Maison in Dubai has a relatively small floor plate and a high density of seating per square metre and, Pichorner says, “this is hugely important as an ambience generator”.
How guests are encouraged to move around a space is also key. The next time you’re in Zuma in Dubai, look out for bottlenecks that force people to squeeze past each other – they may not be a coincidence. “Our industry has a lot to do with boy-meets-girl, on various levels; everyone wants to see and be seen,” Pichorner says.
Furthermore, if the wash-rooms are a considerable walk away, that may also not be by chance. Putting them at the far end of a restaurant, or, in some cases, on another floor, encourages people to move around at various points in the evening, ensuring that they can both “see and be seen”.
Ultimately, the role of design is to communicate the underlying story of a restaurant – it has to set the tone and enhance the overall experience. “Does that mean that every surface has to be designed? From our perspective, that’s not always necessary,” says Pichorner. “There are a lot of places that are very expensive and look like they haven’t been designed at all.
“Fume in Dubai’s Pier 7 is a great example. The decision to not finish certain walls, to leave them exposed and make them look as rugged as possible, was important. We took a retro approach to cooking, so the place needed to look like something that had been around for a long time.
“Miss Lily’s in Dubai is another place that doesn’t look over-designed, but is hugely successful. In fact, a lot of thought went into it. It is designed as a glorified version of a street food joint in Jamaica, so you have driftwood, concrete floors and Formica furniture. And La Petite Maison, in an understated way, tells the story of the south of France. You have finishes there that you don’t find anywhere else, like the lacquered volcanic rock finish on the bar, for example.”
For Pichorner, it all boils down to a rather simple point. “How can you turn a space into an experience? I have to underline that. It is not just about intricacy and materiality; you have to create an experience.”