One of the most rewarding things I like about designing restaurants is returning after the doors open and experiencing the space as a guest. It’s amazing how quickly you learn as a user of the space.

Is the seating you designed comfortable and welcoming to all body types? Go order a drink at the bar or wait at the food expo area for your order to come up. Is it crowded? Do you feel like you’re in the way?

At PCA, our purpose is to design places for people, to make them feel welcome – and maybe even a little inspired and want to return to, again and again. The idea is to create a space that comes to life as an engaging, go-to destination.

How do we make this happen? I’ll share some lessons from PCA’s recent designs:

Elevating the Dining Room Experience: Guest expectations for the dining room are changing, a shift that requires an intentional, more flexible approach to front-of-the-house design.

  • Excellent sightlines: We see heightened interest today in more active and open dining rooms. It could be pandemic fatigue, but most of us want a view of all the activity in a restaurant space. Feeling a connection to the activity at the bar while still having an intimate and personal dining experience is a much better alternative to sitting in a walled-off dining room.
  • Inclusive design: Our clients want the design to establish a welcoming experience for every guest. For example, lowering a portion of the bar height to offer an accessible wheelchair space is an ADA requirement. Designing this space as an appealing, comfortable place where every guest can enjoy an appetizer or a drink with a friend is what makes it equitable.

Improved Lighting: A Strategic Advantage: A well-conceived lighting design will become a defining characteristic of the guest experience. It is one of the best investments an owner can make.

  • Beautiful lighting is a powerful design tool in setting the mood of a space that can elevate and enhance all the elements within a space that also elevates the food, since that’s the main reason they are there in the first place. The most expensive furnishings and finishes in the world can’t save your project from poor lighting.
  • Today’s flexible, tunable LED lighting options can provide a wide range of brightness, color, and warmth. For example, a restaurant with two bars can offer a different color temperature and brightness level to create a distinctive feel and function for each space. In addition to its significantly lower energy demand, LED lighting continues to evolve, allowing for warm dimming protocols that better replicate the warm glow of traditional incandescent bulbs.

Early Decision-Making: Becoming a “go-to” place where people feel welcome begins with a partnership between the owner and the design team. Early in the planning and programming, we love working together to establish a vision that leads to the kind of restaurant experience our client wants to create. Questions to resolve early include:

  • What will the experience be like? Is it an open-kitchen inspiration or a boisterous and active-feeling restaurant? Or does your target customer prefer a quieter ambiance with a closed-off kitchen? Is it table service or counter service, or perhaps both? Will there be a bar, and if so, how prominent is it? Deciding this upfront will inform many of the choices to follow.
  • What fixtures, equipment, and materials can we order ASAP? Long-lead items, including crucial kitchen equipment that can take as long as nine months to get, are examples of why early decisions matter. Lingering over these decisions delays the target opening date.

Sustainability Gains: Today’s restaurant owners and guests look for a sustainable, socially responsive experience. Sustainability includes a series of large and small decisions, such as whether to reuse or cover an existing concrete floor. Most of the time, a few surface repairs followed by sealing the floor is not only less costly, it’s also a more sustainable and natural way to go. Other lessons:

  • LED Lighting dramatically contributes to energy savings, as much as 40% over traditional lighting options.
  • While popular because it looks like wood, vinyl plank flooring often presents issues. The installation process and some of the materials in these products can be toxic.
  • Carpeting, another popular option, requires the continuous use and disposal of toxic cleaning solvents and stain removers. When carpeting becomes worn from heavy use, it usually ends up in a landfill. Carpet accounts for 2 to 3 percent of all landfill volume and can take 50 years to decompose.

When a restaurant’s design supports the brand idea, the food, and the craving for a memorable, Instagrammable experience, its guests will not only come back, they will also let everyone else in on the discovery of a new favorite place.

Lindsay Bach is an associate at PCA. In addition, she led the interior design efforts on the Tenderoni’s Fenway project. You may reach her at