The Restaurant Dining Room Design Dilemma – Part 1

I’ve resisted writing on how restaurant design could be modified during the COVID-19 pandemic even though I’ve been keeping myself up-to-date on all of the latest science and design trends out there. The science of how this disease spreads and case examples are fascinating to me. But this science also reveals a harsh new reality when it comes to the restaurant dining room.

The Bad News

It’s not that I haven’t tried writing about designing restaurants for safety in a pandemic — I have — multiple times even. It’s just that I come to the same conclusion each time: a restaurant dining room is no place for anyone to be during a pandemic, period.

That’s the depressing truth and unless some new scientific discoveries are made around how COVID-19 spreads, it will remain the cold, hard truth. Few spaces that architects design are as ideally suited to aid in the transmission of a wildly contagious disease that spreads though airborne respiratory droplets that people naturally expel (and inhale) like a restaurant dining room. Everything about dining rooms are ideal for COVID-19 transmission: lots of people packed into a room for a few hours at a time, lots of talking or even shouting over the din of background noise and music, and no way to use face masks. We shouldn’t be using dining rooms in the time of coronavirus.

I didn’t always feel this way, but as I dug into the science and tried to apply it to design, I quickly changed my mind. Spending time rejiggering dining rooms with shields and spread-out tables and whatever else is a waste of time.

Based on the current understanding of how the virus spreads, outdoor dining is a workable idea in theory, but it could quickly devolve into a situation almost as dangerous as the indoor dining rooms. Some of the ways outdoor dining becomes unsafe include:

  • Lax discipline in seating layouts. Spacing groups is super important, even outdoors. Restaurant operators have always had a tendency to pack people in to maximize seating — that’s a tough habit to break.
  • Restroom facilities can quickly become virus spreaders. Restrooms are always the weakest link in outdoor dining and poor management of the movement of people in and out of them can make it even worse.
  • Restrictive tent structures. It’s important to understand how tents, canopies and even large umbrellas impact natural air circulation around a patio dining area. The most aggressive approaches use tents with side walls which is no better than an indoor dining room.
  • The longtime trend of opening up dining rooms to the outdoors using articulated wall products like NanaWall does not make those spaces “outdoor dining.” But if you try to tell that to any operator who dropped change on these designs, you’ll get shot down faster than you can say respiratory droplets.

The Good News

We’ll be able to use restaurant dining rooms again someday, hopefully sooner than later. In the meantime, we need to combine the energy and resiliency of the restaurant world with the creativity of restaurant architects. Pour all of this energy and effort into everything BUT dining room modifications!

When considering how architecture can help restaurants get through the pandemic without using their dining rooms, it’s important to keep in mind what we understand about how long this outbreak will last. No one can say for certain when it will be over, but all of the informed guesses out there suggest it’s not going to be over in 2020 or 2021. Even if a vaccine is developed, that will take considerable time to deploy and then for populations to then develop herd immunity. My point is, we should be considering design interventions and investment in those interventions that reflect longer terms than just a few months. Whatever we design will be a solution that we need to live with for a while. Avoiding coronagrifting must be our top priority when brainstorming alternative ways for restaurants to make up for the lack of on-premises dining. Otherwise, everything’s on the table.

The reality is that unless restaurant dining rooms are banned outright by some level of government, some restauranteurs will continue to be tempted to make a go of it, despite safety concerns. This too is a design opportunity, because everything we come up with as an alternative to the dining room should be evaluated against the way that dining room worked under the original business plan minus whatever impact from operating at a reduced capacity. Those that work within or even exceed in-place business plans are the alternatives we need to start rolling out.

Part of the good news here is that the kitchens are generally safe places to work during the pandemic — they have all the necessary infrastructure for avoiding the virus since they were designed to be well ventilated and sanitary from the start. Add in some specific protocols for COVID-19 and you can still crank out food for take-out or delivery quite safely. So, with these parameters in mind, we can explore alternate uses for those dining rooms that still drive income or relieve expenses.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a look at one possibility that I keep coming back to as I reflect on alternate uses for the dining room.

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