The world of restaurant interior design is becoming increasingly competitive, as outlets across the Middle East vie to serve up both style and substance, says Lucy Taylor
The booming Middle East hospitality industry has drawn some exceptional food and beverage talent to the region over the past couple of decades – from head chefs to outlet managers and pastry experts to sommeliers.
But before front- and back-of-house teams can turn an outlet into a real dining destination, they need just the right setting.
Restaurant design is serious business with hotels prepared to invest big bucks in F&B concepts that will both entice customers and last for the long term.
That means designers must be in touch with what people want, but also be prepared to innovate, as each project raises its own unique challenges.
According to Tamer Mansour, chef de cuisine at the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah, an outlet’s design is “as important as personality is to a human”.
“It’s so much more than just fancy interiors and lay out,” he asserts. “Restaurant design has to highlight and communicate the concept, while keeping in mind the need for operational functionality.”
Amongst its F&B offerings, this palatial UAE property boasts a slice of Asian style in the shape of Japanese restaurant UMI.
Michael Melnick is the general manager of the company behind thefit-out, AMBB Interiors.“The theme of the restaurant is pan-Asian with Oriental influences and a contemporary Japanese fusion menu,” he explains – with a design that pays tribute to these origins.
The fit-out places significant emphasis on texture, employing a variety of materials – from organic, tactile finishes such as walnut timber, through to more modern polishedstonesurfaces, forwhichNero Assoluto and Chinese Yellow granites were used to reflect Japan’s combination of natural beauty and modern style.
Mansourbelieves the food and design “complement one other, giving the restaurant an identity allof its own”.
Across the water in Qatar, there’s a very different take on Asian styleat Spice Market Doha – the brainchild of renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, located at the W Doha.
According to outlet manager JozefPesta, design is “your identity and style, with which your guests connect or disconnect”.
“It won’t get you anywhere in the long term if you serve good food and drinks in a restaurant that lacks identity,” he warns.
The firm behind the Spice Market fit-out is United Designers; founder Keith Hobbs expands: “Inspired by the vibrant street life of Southeast Asia, the outlet is made up of two halves, one raised and one lowered, open in parts and intimate in others.
“United worked very closely with Jean-George to select colours, textures and details for the restaurant. It’s a sister outlet to his restaurant in New York, so we used deep reds and oranges, great big light fittings and a specific layout for the furniture.”
The result is an elegant and varied space, with flickering candlelight, dark wood flooring and plenty of warm colours.
Today it’s an attractive dining destination – but there wereinitial challenges to overcome, as United Designers’ Hobbs explains: “As such a vast space, the restaurant had to be designed carefully to ensure that it never felt empty, in spite of that size.”
Back in the UAE, at Dubai’s MadinatJumeirah, Perry &Blackwelder’s Original Smokehouse is a recent addition. General manager Anthony Soethoutbelieves design is the all-important first step in building a successful restaurant concept.
“If that first step’s not genuine, you end up with just another gimmick – and gimmicks don’t last,” he insists.
“The idea behind P&B was to bring real Americana to Dubai, from the layout to the menu to the music. It had to be warm and friendly –a ‘T-shirt and jeans’ mentality in a five-star location.”
The job of delivering on that vision fell to The Johnson Studio, as Eric Chiarellifrom the company explains. “We expanded on this outline with imagery and a palette of finishes that evoked a very rustic, casual barbeque shack,” he says.
The theme isfurtheredwith diner-style booths, barstool seating, warehouse light fixtures and exposed utilities. “To cap it off, a giant barbed-wire composition was commissioned as a centrepiece, referencing the ranching culture of the South-West,” adds Chiarelli.
Perry &Blackwelder’sSoethout says the completed design “brings it all together” – but admits thathe and the design team had to work hard to ensure authenticity.
“I was raised in the States and spent many years in the South, eating real barbeque – so it was sometimes challenging agreeing on a reflection of true America,” heobserves.
The Johnson Studio’s Chiarellisaysanother issue was getting an accurate look in a newer building: “It took a lot of searching for just the right items to display and a lot of coordination with the rest of the team to ensure our intent made it through to completion.”
Another Dubai newcomer is GealesUrban Seafood and Lounge, which opened at Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort and Spa last year – instantly garnering publicinterest with its eye-catching interior.
Pam Wilby, complex general manager at Le Royal Méridien and Grosvenor House Dubai, explains: “The concept originates from the UK, however we worked hard with the local team at LW Design to create our own unique and timeless interpretation of the brand here in Dubai.
“Prior to us bringing the concept [here], the team and I travelled to London to visit the original Geales eatery. We fell in love with the concept from the moment that we set foot in it, and felt it would be a perfect fit for the property.”
PiaLakhsmiSen, an associate at LW Design, says they settled on the theme ‘British vintage seaside setting’, but executed“in a more contemporary way”.
“The colour scheme is black and white with accents of pale blue, along with strong graphic marble patterned floors interspersed with dark timber flooring,” she says.
“White painted panels adorn the walls, decorated with framed photos of vintage seascapes. Industrial pendants have been used throughout and vintage bar stools at all the bar counters.”
As it was an existing building, theteam had to design around the structure that was already there. “We had to take the existing beams into account when designing. It meant that in some areas the ceiling had to be reduced quite substantially and we ended up with low ceilings in places,” Sen notes – although she admitsthe end result has in fact “added to the atmosphere and ambience of the outlet”.
Another daunting task in terms of outlet design is giving a face-lift to a popular existing eatery.Pierchic at the Al Qasr Hotel is an old favourite on the Dubai dining scene, and recently reopened after a major revamp.
Outlet general manager Andrea Zampolinicomments: “We wanted to refresh the restaurant and appeal to new customers. The new design allows us to host small groups and a younger crowd in the two new pod bars.”
Looking at the update in more detail, KhaunChew – design principal founder at KCA International – explains: “The theme was simply to enhance the restaurant’s signature seafood cuisine. This is carried through in our choices of timber, symbolising fishing boats; the emphasis on lighting, with blue LEDs and backlit skylights; and the mesh lanterns over the high tables.”
According to Pierchic’sZampolini, the new lay-out helps underline the F&B offering: “The menu is based on the use of sustainable seafood, in a collaboration between three Michelin-starred chef Laurent Gras and our head chef Rosalind Parsk. It showcases simplicity and respect for the ocean – an ethos reflected in the décor.”
A clear vision like this is a big help to the design team, but there’s a great deal that must be taken into account when updating a concept, points out Zampolini: “The challenge lay with introducing a new design without alienating our many regular guests, who have loved the restaurant for more than 10 years.”
KCA’s Chew therefore had to work around existing structures with the ceiling proving the trickiest component.
“We disguised it with cleverly placed timber wraps and reflective mirror finishes in between,” she reveals.
Built to last
A big challenge for designers is ensuring an outlet can stand the test of time. AMBB Interiors’ Melnickbelieves the recipe for longevity is “to design and build with sensible materials that stand up to long-term use, as well as keeping the design parameters true to the concept”.
“Quite often you see venues that have a confused identity, which doesn’t help with long-term popularity,” he asserts.
United Designers’ Hobbsadds: “It’s important for the design to be simple and contemporary, avoiding fads or design trends.”
LW Design senior interior designer Gina Munro agrees that, whether it’s a specialty restaurant or an all-day dining concept, the secret is “creating a timeless interior”.
“If an outlet is executed in a unified approach, it should only require a revamp in a five to seven year period, to keep the design current,” Munro explains.
Overall, F&B design in the region is blossoming nicely. AMBB Interiors’ Melnick notes that the market “has matured considerably,offering diners an incredible selection” when it comes to settings.
The Middle East – with its record-breaking hotels and one-of-a-kind concepts – is not a placeto set boundaries; so when it comes to the future of outlet design,it looks like the sky’s the limit.