Restaurants design in many ways is like service: when it's good, you don't notice the nuances. But when it's bad, it can be glaring. Even if the food is delicious, an uncomfortable chair, an icy draft or a lousy soundtrack might keep you from coming back.
Rachel Hutton, senior editor at Minnesota Monthly magazine, says good restaurant design can turn a mere meal into a dining experience.
Tom Crann: Restaurants seem to be putting more effort and money into their design. What's the most impressive here in the Twin Cities?
Rachel Hutton: The big attention-getter this year was Union, in downtown Minneapolis, which has a rooftop dining room that's enclosed in a glass dome. When the weather is warm, the dome can be retracted. It's pretty amazing! There isn't another restaurant like it in the country.
Tom Crann: What's causing restaurants to keep one-upping each other?
Rachel Hutton: I think it's largely driven by diner demand. As diners take greater interest in learning more about food and become more adventurous eaters, a meal can become an act of discovery. It's no longer enough to simply be fed. Diners want to be entertained.
Tom Crann: Can you give me a few more examples of cool design elements that help create these sorts of experiences?
Rachel Hutton: At World Street Kitchen in Minneapolis there's a large communal table in the dining room, so maybe you shared it with another group and met some new people. Or you went to Masu in northeast and you played pachinko, which is like a Japanese pinball game. Or you went to Barrio in downtown St. Paul, where they have a huge collection of tequila bottles displayed behind the bar. If you order off the top shelf, the bartenders climb a ladder to fetch your selection.
Tom Crann: What do these have in common?
Rachel Hutton: Well, besides being fun, high-energy places, all the designs I've mentioned were actually created by the same Minneapolis firm: Shea Design.
I just wrote a profile of the founder, David Shea, for the upcoming issue of the magazine and in doing so I learned how he has come to design nearly half of the restaurants on Hennepin Avenue.
Tom Crann: What's his secret?
Rachel Hutton: Two main things. First, the firm takes a holistic approach to the design process. They can start with creating a concept, or a brand, for a restaurant and then their staff of architects, interior designers, and graphic designers creates all the pieces together so the designs are very cohesive.
Second, Shea travels frequently. He told me he logged about 200,000 miles last year. He picks up ideas from cultures around the world. He acts as a sort of cool-hunter for chefs, because they're working all the time.
Tom Crann: So what's next for Shea, how will he top Union's retractable glass dome?
Rachel Hutton: The firm's next major project is the restaurant in the Le Meridian Chambers hotel in downtown Minneapolis. This is a big deal because the space has already sunk two high-profile operators, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and D'Amico Kitchen.
I toured the space, mid-construction, a couple of weeks ago and it was stripped down to concrete and drywall. But I've seen the plans and the design they are proposing is going to change the look and feel of the space quite dramatically. The sleek lines and gallery-white walls are gone.
Tom Crann: Sounds intriguing. When can we check it out?
Rachel Hutton: The restaurant is called Marin and, assuming all goes well, it's expected to open in June.