The Evolution of the Dining Room: Design & Hospitality in Today’s Front of House

Communal seating. Chef’s counters. Bare tables. The dining rooms at today’s best restaurants are unrecognizable from those of 20 years ago — and so, often, are guests’ expectations.

The OpenTable team spent last weekend in Brooklyn for the annual Taste Talks conference, where we hosted a panel on the evolution of the dining room. Joining our own New York District Director Mark Cornell were Dana Cowin, Chief Creative Officer of Chefs Club; Demian Repucci, designer and restaurateur behind New York City’s Bruno; Daniel Rose, chef of Spring in Paris and Le Coucou in NYC; and Journee‘s Anthony Rudolf, who moderated the discussion.

As Anthony noted, over the past decade dining has transitioned from a spectator sport to one in which guests are active participants. Inspired by the conversation, below we’re sharing 10 ways today’s front of house is evolving, and what those changes mean for the future of dining.

1. The wall between the kitchen and the dining room is down.

First, chefs crossed over into the dining room. Next, they became TV celebrities. Now, Dana said, we have open kitchens and chef’s tables, and guests can literally sit and eat with the chef. That shift brought about a whole slew of other changes.

When designing Bruno, Demian said he wanted to blur the lines between the front and back of the house with plenty of counter space. “I wanted to try and connect diners to the kitchen as much as possible, because it heightens the experience for both,” he said. “Diners get to interact with the chef, to ask questions; the cooks get to see people enjoying their food.”

2. A table doesn’t tell you everything about the quality of the food.

It used to be that you knew you were going to a fancy restaurant with exceptional food by looking at the table: there were linens and candles and fine glassware. Today, you can walk into some of the best restaurants and not necessarily know what you’re going to get. “The casualization, visually, of a restaurant was really transformative,” said Dana.

When Daniel opened Spring he stripped away many of these indicators of fine dining — not because he thought it would create a vibe, he said, but because he couldn’t afford to hire anyone.

When you have tablecloths you need to pay somebody to receive them, you need to pay somebody to count them, you need someone to pay the bill for them, you need someone to fold them, you need someone to take them away, and you need the space to put those things,” he said. “It’s very complicated and I didn’t know how to do that.”

He partnered with renowned restaurateur Stephen Starr for Le Coucou, which allowed him to incorporate those elements. This time, he worked with someone who knew how to make it work. Why? “I think wine looks better on a table with a tablecloth. I think conversation looks better. I think people’s faces look better.”

3. Restaurants have multiple experiences under one roof.

Two decades ago a restaurant offered one idea, driven by a single chef with a single vision. Now, a restaurant may have a lively bar or a communal table, or two restaurants may share a single kitchen. The space is broken up into distinct zones for entertainment and personalization, and diners can choose which experience they want to have at a given time.

Daniel has several restaurants now, and he said people often ask him which one they should visit. His response: “What do you want?” The goal is always for guests to feel taken care of, which restaurants can achieve in a number different ways: tablecloths or no tablecloths, chopsticks or steak knives. “People no longer make a distinction between the joy they get from a $150 dinner and a $5 something,” he said. “And they all take a picture of it either way.”

4. You can book a reservation at the bar.

Mark noted that OpenTable’s Table Categories pilot in Chicago was a direct response to some of these changes. With more communal and high-top tables available for different experiences, restaurants need a way to ensure consistency and fill the house. OpenTable’s challenge is to set expectations for the diner before they even walk in the door.

Anthony said that while working at Per Se he was always weighing whether he could seat someone at the bar when they were expecting a full experience. Now norms have changed, and people are comfortable dining at a countertop.

5. Guests are going to take pictures — it’s up to you whether you facilitate it.

Demian designed Bruno to be bright, open, and transparent. Some people loved it, while others compared the lighting and atmosphere to a cafeteria. (He prefers “art gallery.”) Seeing that guests want to be involved in the experience — to be photographers and publishers — he decided to design around that.

“Why not just allow it and be a part of where our culture is going? And why not help it look as great as possible?”

6. The rise of the chef hasn’t been matched by the rise of the dining room professional.

Per Daniel’s point that he didn’t have a partner in the dining room to include everything he wanted to at Spring, Anthony noted that some innovations, such as the chef’s counter, have come about due to a lack of talent rather than a conscious decision to eliminate service. It took him a year to find an Assistant GM at Per Se, let alone someone who could replace him.

7. Cooks can run food — and we need to kill tipping.

Demian opened Bruno with his cooks running food, even further breaking down the wall between the front and back of house. Then he ran into the issue: If the cooks run food, are they servers? That’s where legislation becomes relevant and dictates who can be tipped. An unintended consequence was moving to a no-tipping model at the restaurant. “We need to innovate in the service space,” he added.

Anthony, too, was adamant that the industry eliminate the tipping system and favor “gratitude, not gratuity.”

8. There can be a place for technology in service.

But what’s next? Demian wondered whether every server needs to know every detail about every wine on their list. Almost everyone has a smartphone. “Maybe we can take knowledge away from the server and take away the need to pay servers a ton of money and train them. We’re used to a model of what service looks like, but does it need to look the same everywhere?”

Anthony remembered when Per Se adopted an iPad wine list to keep the inventory up to date more easily. “We were printing 12 wine lists a day to make sure there were zero 86s. We thought no way was it going to work, and after day two, we printed zero.”

9. Innovating in real estate can change the economics of the industry.

Questioning some of the common assumptions about what a successful restaurant looks like can also make the business more financially successful. Anthony flagged a need to train consumers to go up or down a level (to the second floor, for example) instead of only considering spaces at street level. The difference is $50 versus as much as $250 per square foot. That would allow owners to pay cooks more, source better ingredients, and keep menu costs down.

Eliminating tipping and raising prices keeps everything flat,” he said. “Lowering real estate costs by one-third actually leads to profit so you can pay people more.”

10. If humans are serving us, we have to be willing to pay them.

Diners also need to realize it costs more to eat out, Demian said. “Tipping keeps prices artificially low — we’re under-paying servers. Diner thinks it’s one thing, but it’s not.” If guests want the important touch points of hospitality, they need to understand what the costs really entail. 

“I’m obsessed with robotics,” Dana said, noting that every day there’s news about robots replacing humans in some aspect of the restaurant experience — food delivered through an automatic system that cuts out personal connection. If we want to preserve the human experience, she said, we need to be willing to pay them.

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