5 Interior Design Tips to Make Your Italian Restaurant Pop
From light fixtures and outdoor seating to bartops and glassware, there’s money in the details.
When it comes to interior design, Italian restaurants aren’t always at the forefront of implementing the latest styles and trends. For many operators, adopting the stereotypical decor featuring red-and-white gingham table cloths, jolly chef figurines, and paintings of grapevines or olive oil seems like the safest choice. But these days consumers are looking for a well-rounded dining experience that not only appeals to their senses of taste and smell, but also to their sight and, like it or not, their Instagram followers.
“To today’s customer, it’s irrelevant where in the country a restaurant is,” says Tony Lutz, president and CEO of Elkay Interior Systems, a restaurant design firm headquartered in Milwaukee. “Diners enjoy and expect higher levels of design, so it’s important that operators don’t underestimate the sophistication that you see in the rest of the market or the standards set by influencers on social media.”
For example, Il Mulino Prime, a long-standing staple in New York’s Soho neighborhood, eschews the traditional cellar-like atmosphere of many Italian restaurants and opts instead for a clean, stark aesthetic: white tablecloths below white plasters on white walls peppered with quotes like “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
In this case, there’s little to distract guests from the food, which comes to the table in bright contrast to the restaurant’s blank palette—eggplant, octopus, frisee, caprese, and more. The modern look of Il Mulino Prime results from a redesign that took place a few years ago under new ownership, but operators looking to spruce things up a bit don’t have to resort to an overhaul in order to upscale their restaurants’ interiors.
Design can be large or small-scale. It can happen during a restaurant’s first opening or 30 years into its tenure. The addition of accessories or plants throughout can help add dimension to a space or elevate the decor with eye-catching accents. What’s important is to stay true to the brand, no matter what direction a team of stylists might try to direct you.
“Restaurateurs should always remember that the design is their investment,” Lutz says, “and they should feel comfortable making decisions that pertain to their restaurant.”
Here, we offer five ways to use interior design to scale your business and keep customers coming back for more.
1. Update Your Wine Display to Increase Sales
When restaurants operators start thinking about how to drive up beverage sales, interior design probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. The reality, however, is that an impressive wine display can help to generate huge lifts in sales.
At Cibo Wine Bar in Miami, the two-story enoteca spans 40 feet across and boasts more than 3,500 bottles, all kept perfectly chilled by the case at 60 degrees. The dramatic display, designed by VintageView, has no ladders—instead, the highest shelves are accessed by a so-called “wine angel,” a sommelier who straps into a harness in order to move through the air and retrieve choice bottles of wine. This added flair results in such a unique wine display that it attracts both local residents and visitors to the area.
“The display really does improve our wine sales,” says Nick Di Dinoto, president and CEO of Liberty Entertainment Group, which owns the Cibo locations. “It makes people think about our wine and indicates to guests that we take our wine seriously. Our sales are much higher because of that.”
By implementing a bit of innovation and creativity, operators can emulate Cibo’s success and attract new customers while also increasing average tickets. An effective wine display should highlight a restaurant’s selection in a way that engages diners and hopefully evokes a conversation about the menu in general. Pro tip: Look for interior designers who match your style but also have an understanding of needed functionality.
2. Change Out Your Light Fixtures to Create a Mood
Whether an Italian restaurant is dark and brooding or bright and airy, the lighting is telling guests a particular story. It’s therefore important that operators make intentional decisions when it comes to the design and fixtures used throughout the dining room and other areas.
For example, a cluster of mason-jar lanterns or Edison bulbs from a specialist like CMBC Lighting Solutions in Indianapolis can provide interest and warmth to a space, inviting guests to linger and increasing average ticket prices.
When choosing fixtures—from chic chandeliers to sleek track lights—it’s important for operators to consider the overall effect, once the lighting interacts with other design elements such as wall color and even mirrors. Dimmer lighting and darker paints will create a more intimate ambiance. Big windows, lighter colors, and natural light will likely produce a livelier atmosphere. Lighting is one of the biggest determinations of ambiance in a restaurant and it is therefore not something that operators should neglect during the design or redesign process.
3. Elevate Your Barware to Add Interest
These days, restaurant guests want a full experience wherever they dine. They’re looking for a measured pace, great service, delicious food (of course), and purposeful ambiance. Younger generations are looking for a sophisticated experience that they can share with friends and social media followers alike, while older demographics are leaning in to modern takes on nostalgic classics.
With the resurgence of highly-crafted cocktails, barware and glasses have also been upgraded. From copper-toned taps and elegant mixing carafes to designer countertops and artistic servingware, bars have become an experiential and visual focal point for many successful restaurants. In 2019, the darling glass of choice among mixologists is the coupe—a simple yet evocative vessel for signature beverages.
“The vintage coupe with modern design gives cocktails a touch of history and mystery,” says Bruno Molfetta, bar manager and partner at Bar 314 in New York. “It harkens back to the glamour of times past and offers and elegant and tight presentation.”
Another popular trend for upgrading drinks is the use of ceramic cocktail mugs like those made by Bespoke Barware, a U.K.-based company that began supplying restaurants in the U.S. in 2016. At Kingfisher, a speakeasy that will open later this year in Durham, North Carolina, artist and co-owner Michelle Vanderwalker is crafting original ceramic tiki mugs and plates to service the bar.
Crafted in a variety of designs and made from kiln-fired molds, ceramics support a homier aesthetic, and are also surprisingly functional for serving cocktails and wine—the weight of the mugs make them less likely to spill or topple over, reducing breakage costs and loss. In addition, they provide a unique level of temperature control, which typical glassware lacks, meaning guests can sip their drinks and converse to their hearts’ content.
By upgrading barware, either with sophisticated glasses or unique artisan craftsmanship, operators can generate increased interest in their menu offerings and ultimately convert more sales.
4. Invest In Your Outdoor Seating to Attract Customers
One of the areas that gets most neglected in terms of design is a restaurant’s outdoor dining space. For many operators, the wear of use and weather discourages investment, however this is a mistake.
In the milder months—and even during summer or winter, if the space is properly equipped with climate controlled features such as fans and heaters—outdoor seating is a huge draw for restaurant guests who want to enjoy good weather while spending time with family or friends. Operators who invest in the design of their outdoor seating areas inevitably improve their restaurant’s curb appeal, thereby attracting more customers and increasing sales.
“Outdoor furniture, for example, sets up expectations for the quality of a restaurant from the exterior,” says Lindsay Kissel, vice president of sales for national chain restaurants at TUUCI, a Florida-based provider of commercial-grade patio umbrellas. “Attractive design increases the draw for customers who may be driving by a restaurant and think, ‘That looks like a nice place to visit.’”
When investing in outdoor dining areas, it is critical for operators to invest upfront in restaurant-grade furniture, such as the Fiji dining arm chair from Source Furniture, which is designed for high traffic use and made to outlast inclement weather.
“Outdoor furniture is an asset,” Kissel says. “If you have to replace it frequently, you drive up the cost of the asset. Investing in a high-quality product that can withstand the harsh restaurant environment for a number of years and even be repaired on site greatly reduces the overall cost of outdoor furniture.”
Operators should therefore prioritize the quality and the design elements of their outdoor dining space, in order to see the largest return on those investments. Consumers will reward a comfortable experience with repeat business, which further necessitates the need for quality products.
5. Showcase Local Art to Build Community
Finally, one way that many restaurant operators are using interior design to engage their guests is by featuring local art. A static collection sends a message to diners that the brand supports the local community, while a rotating gallery provides a platform for local artists to display—and perhaps sell—their work.
Deborah Rust and Barbara Weatherford, for example, are the owners of Tellers Gallery and Bar in Columbia, Missouri. As the name suggests, they work with local artists to carefully curate a selection of artwork that they think will appeal to their clientele. Similarly, Uprise Bakery, also in Columbia, features work from artists across the midwest, curated by Hannah Reeves, the director of Sager Braudis Gallery.
Another benefit to using local artwork in an Italian restaurant’s interior design is that it creates a more dynamic atmosphere than what guests have come to expect—for example, a gallery wall featuring photographs of the restaurant’s chef at work or familiar scenes from the neighborhood are much more engaging for guests than the more typical framed print which may or may not read: Vino Classico.
Incorporating local art is a cost-effective way to elevate the design of a restaurant and create a dialogue with guests. And when guests feel like a restaurant is an intrinsic part of their neighborhood, they will want to keep coming back.