Writer Virginia Woolf summarized the place where food was reserved in her life with her famous quote, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Modern dining today is quite different than in Ms. Woolf’s generation, which I imagine to be a quite simpler time, where good food, atmosphere and conversation were easier to come by without today’s constant interruptions and competition for our attention.

Dining out evokes so much. It can be a distinct memory of a place, time or person. When done right, the food and atmosphere combine to create an unforgettable experience. This isn’t to say dining out has to be overtly fancy, just representative of something special.

Dessert from The Brown Palace Hotel.
Dessert from The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver.

Courtesy of AIA Colorado

These days, as a society, it seems we must be wowed. Today, the evolution of food culture puts it squarely into a form of entertainment. When one goes out to dinner, it’s not just about what’s on a plate – far from it. Restaurateurs know this, so they are bridging the gap between incredible food and an incredible environment to create an unforgettable night out.

There are many people involved in the creation of a restaurant. Chefs, designers, architects, contractors and staff all collaborate with so much work done behind the scenes to define a restaurant’s identity with the structure and feel of a place before the doors even open. In general, there is a real yearning for memorable experiences when going out, especially since there are so many choices of where to spend time.

Several organizations throughout the U.S. are aiming to give diners an integrated dining and design experience unlikely achieved on their own.

I am on the Dining by Design committee in Atlanta, Ga. On the last day of July, we had our inaugural event on Atlanta’s sustainable development project, the BeltLine. The event, spearheaded by architect John Bencich and the firm he and his wife Vivian own, Square Feet Studio, brought forth the notion that good food and good design should be on the same playing field in the restaurant industry.

The event, attended by designers and chefs alike, convened a thoughtful discussion on collaboration, restaurant design and the partnership between food and space.

“Design critique and discussion often skews either too ‘soft’ via lifestyle publications and blogs or too ‘hard’ via to the trade publications,” Bencich explains. “I think there’s a need for plain talk about how everything is designed and, like it or not, it impacts how you go through life. That’s the space we want to occupy with these conversations.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) also wants to change the perception of dining beyond what’s on the plate. In 2001, the Colorado AIA chapter hosted an event in Denver to bring the topic of food and dining to the table. Chefs were asked to create a dessert inspired by a local design. Similar events were held annually for about 10 years, and the program has now segued into a true Dining by Design program with an experience that combines top architects with top chefs.

This program pairs restaurants designed by architects to tour and lecture about the space, but also present cutting edge food. Ultimately, it shows off Colorado’s experiences. One event coordinated pub crawl with bike pedal bars throughout lower downtown. The experience was paired with dinner at a restaurant designed by an award-winning architect, who was present.

In the past, the Colorado AIA hosted tours of the city’s three pro sports stadiums, ending with a meal at football legend John Elway’s steakhouse.

A Love Letter to a City

The experiences the AIA chapters and Bencich’s committee in Atlanta are creating are love letters to their respective hometowns. They showcase the “best of the best” of what each city does well.

But, it’s not merely food and design that take a meal from good to out of this world. It’s the pace of a meal, the energy of the kitchen, the ambiance, the music, how often a sever makes him or herself known, and so many other factors.

Michael Lennox of Ladybird talks about the importance of location and design in Atlanta.
Michael Lennox of Ladybird talks about the importance of location and design in Atlanta.

Courtesy of Blake Burton / Square Feet Studio

Nicolle Thompson, director of programs and sponsorships at AIA Colorado, says of their program, “It’s showing people how design influences everything around you.”

She adds, “Now I think there’s such impetus to work with an architect when you design your restaurant… the interiors, the location, and the way you design the customer experience of a restaurant.”

Many in the design industry (interior designers, architects) responsible for creating memorable spaces want restaurant culture to be on par with going to a museum – a rich, cultural experience can be enjoyed by many.

Atmosphere is nothing new. Just watch any restaurant scene on Mad Men. Don Draper goes to places to see and be seen – places with good design. From Hanoki and the Bird in Los Angeles, whose hard-to-find Century City location says just as much about the idea of design before you even get a peek inside, to Maison Premiere in Brooklyn or SoHo’s Balthazar – these are places that celebrate more than what’s on the plate. It’s the experience of dining by design.

So the next time you dine out, notice how the restaurant space matches the food to create an experience that brings design to the table.