The Upside Down Approach to Restaurant Design

A little while ago I wrote this thread on Twitter about how chefs with a dream need to approach design and construction of their first restaurant (or one of their first few, for that matter). I was triggered by a story in the local news about yet another chef teaming up with a firm that has a long history of shaming chefs into spending more money than they should (or even have) on elaborate, crazy expensive designs with almost no project management to steer those designs to reality on schedule and on budget.

Now I’m triggered to expand on my Twitter thread by a tweet from Carl Quintanilla about restaurant chains gaining while independents are losing during this pandemic-induced recession. Not to digress (too much), but what it’s really about regardless of whether we’re talking chains or independents is places that serve amazing food (or even just so-so food) and make it effortless to get delivered or picked up curbside will kick ass right now, no matter if they’re big or small. For example, independent fine dining will suffer if they turn their nose up at this notion of delivery/takeout. Or big chain fast/casual will suffer if they don’t quickly pivot to a tightly integrated delivery experiences with phone apps and fast, reliable service. Almost everyone will suffer this winter, so we need to float restaurants during these months of shitty weather with bailouts too. Just give the people what they want…in a pandemic without any bullshit: restaurant food without the whole going into the restaurant part of it. Anyhoo…

…All of this adds to the pressure of a chef opening a one-off restaurant. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the disciplined approach to restaurant development that’s needed by independent operators, but my Twitter thread reflects what might be a better way of saying essentially the same thing. So let’s dig into the details of that now!

First Thing: The Space You’re Going Into Costs More Than Just the Rent

Setting aside the number one most important rule of real estate (location), the space you’re renting for your restaurant needs to be able to accommodate a restaurant. That’s potentially easier if it’s already been a restaurant in the past, even if the last tenant wasn’t a restaurant. I say potentially because it needs to have the infrastructure in place (presently or at a time in the past) specific to YOUR restaurant — and that infrastructure is driven by your menu, so your architect can help figure out what you’ll need based on what you’re serving. If you’re cooking at all, then like 99% of what fucks up your budget if you pick a space that doesn’t lend itself to restaurants is cooking exhaust — getting all the grease-laden smoke from cooking to the outside. This kind of exhaust is super expensive to design, construct, and maintain, so the shorter the duct going from the cooking appliances to the outside, the better off your budget will be. Spaces that don’t lend themselves to short, straightforward runs of grease exhaust duct get insanely expensive real quick. Another space-related money trap is who’s below your tenant space. If it’s anyone other than dirt and worms, it gets spendy to put in underfloor plumbing and make sure your very wet kitchen doesn’t leak into the neighbors below.

There’s all sorts of things about a space that can make it cheap and easy to build out or expensive and difficult. It’s not sexy, and it gets in the way when all you want to do is start putting your dreams “on paper” with your architect, but having your architect perform a thorough assessment of the premises is like having a mechanic look over a used car that you want to buy before you pull out your wallet. So do this before signing a lease if you can, that way you can talk the landlord down on rent or get other concessions based on what your architect discovers. The architect will also do a regulatory assessment to understand all the red tape that you’ll need to cut through to get this restaurant to the finish line — research that saves you a ton of time down the line when a contractor is engaged and the big bucks are getting spent on the job site. All of this research is the most important (if not glamorous) step in the entire development process. Do it!

Second Thing: Everything You Don’t Want to Talk/Think About is Most Important

More unsexy stuff: plumbing, HVAC, and electrical. Restaurants have gobs of this stuff (only hospitals have more and we all know how expensive they are). Almost your entire budget will be gobbled up by the guts of your restaurant. Cold, hard fact right there. This is another place where if you aren’t careful about how your restaurant gets laid out in the space you could screw your budget up before construction even starts. The most important money-saving moves you can make with expensive plumbing, HVAC, and electrical will be related to the initial design of the restaurant. Never let the contractor design this stuff for you, because not only does that disconnect expensive stuff from a design process that could save money, but very few contractors have the foresight to understand the consequences of their own on-site design decisions, which will have them coming back to you for more moolah after they’ve realized their design choices aren’t going to fit the budget and/or schedule. You always want these systems engineered up front while the restaurant is being designed by your architect. That’s smart spending.

None of this has anything to do with finishes or layout function. An experienced restaurant architect will be able to juggle all the expensive guts while considering finishes and layout function in a way that preserves your budget by planning in great detail up front while things are cheap to do “on paper” so to speak, rather than figuring it out on the fly while you have a dozen or more laborers on site charging you thousands per day even when they have to sit around waiting for a decision to be made. This leads us to the next thing…

Third Thing: Applying Detailed Planning and Thought to Bare Minimum Documentation

Just like everything else, you need to be smart with how you spend your money on architecture and engineering services. We’ve discussed having your architect perform thorough assessments of the premises and regulatory conditions, and this is where you want to concentrate your professional services dollars because these services are all about uncovering as many of the potential money pits and schedule bombs as possible up front so that the rest of the project can be delivered with these hazards in mind and without excuses later on that blow up budget and/or schedule.

But you still need some documentation to go and get a permit and health department plan approval. This is where your architect can develop a bare minimum set of drawings to get you through these pre-construction entitlements. All of the important knowledge gained from the assessments can inform a simple, spartan architectural floor plan, reflected ceiling plan, and room finish schedule. The engineers will add a plumbing plan, HVAC plan, and a power and lighting plan with necessary schedules. That room finish schedule and reflected ceiling plan will include bare minimum finishes for the kitchen and restrooms to appease the health department, with all other finishes to be determined later. Spatially, the architect can still layout an interesting front-of-house in anticipation of finishes. Light fixtures can also be placed based on some desired level of illumination and then left to be specified later. Basically, the last thing that will happen on your restaurant project from a design perspective will be selection of finishes, furniture, and light fixtures because we’ll back into what you can afford for those things after two big milestones: 1.) signing a contract with a GC; and 2.) getting through the rough-in stage of construction. Getting through framing and utility rough-ins is a critical stage of restaurant construction because if there are any more unpleasant surprises to be uncovered once construction starts, they’ll likely all of been found (and more importantly, paid for) by this time. Then, and only then, do you have a sense of what kind of money you’ll have left over for all the fun stuff you envisioned when you first had the idea to open your own restaurant.

A quick note on what happens in between finishing those bare minimum construction documents and starting construction. You’ll go and secure your permits and approvals yourself and you’ll do that feeling well-informed thanks to that regulatory assessment your architect did a while back. At the same time the permitting is happening you’ll want to bid out your project to GCs. Talk to your architect about the pros and cons of having them involved in your bidding process. It all depends on your comfort level and willingness to not bend on the contract after your GC is underway with construction. Sometimes it’s best to have your architect go over bids with a fine tooth comb and make sure there are no omissions or other surprises while also qualifying the GCs. Other times, it’s better to have the owner play “dumb but firm” and if a GC comes back after contract execution saying they didn’t include something that owner can force their hand — it all depends on who you are and how willing you are to be firm.

Fourth Thing: Everything Else That Wasn’t Important Earlier in the Development Process

What the bare minimum construction documentation does is embed all the intelligence gained from detailed research into a quick and cheap set of documentation that can be quickly permitted and built. In a worst case scenario, you use up your entire budget just getting to the point in development of having a built out space with a raw dining room, but you’ll have an operating restaurant — even if you have to start delivery only or fill the dining room with card tables and folding chairs sitting on bare concrete like a garage, this joint will be up and running and able to generate revenue — let your great food and hospitality speak for itself.

But it’s more likely you’ll have a little bit to spend on finishes and furnishings. In exchange for a meal or three at your new joint, your architect would be happy to steer you towards selections that are appropriate to whatever’s left of your budget and schedule at this point. The best part is that this is all stuff you can likely order direct and even install yourself if you have to in order to save time and money. Because your architect planned everything so carefully up to this point, you’ll get good results with their guidance to get you over the finish line too.

In Conclusion: Don’t Fall for the Trap

The trap is anyone: architect, contractor, investor, whoever — that focuses you on the daydreamy part of your restaurant (think: sexy dining rooms with stainless- and copper-clad exhibition cooking lines roaring away in the background) rather than the harsh reality that this shit is expensive; and no, we’re not talking about the contract quality imported furniture (though that’s expensive too). The most important thing when you’re starting out is to get open fast so you can get cooking so you can get revenue so you can stay open. Don’t screw up the opportunity before you serve that first meal because of poor choices in the development process. Let an experienced restaurant architect help you avoid the pitfalls.

Everything in the process outlined here can be done quickly and inexpensively. Remember: the less you have to spend, the more carefully you have to consider and plan out each design decision up front.

Fun with Design Budget Austerity

Here’s the design challenge: You’ll use the exact same palette of building materials that everyone else working on a design in this particular building typology is using. Your only variables are the color/pattern selections you make for these materials and the way you work with the materials in the space.

The building type is a restaurant, and this challenge explains why so many restaurant concepts in the fast food and fast casual market segments look similar (if not identical). It’s primarily driven by money (shocking, I know), because no matter where a given restaurant chain is at relative to their average unit volume (AUV, or revenue generated per location on an annual basis), the calculus used to determine the amount of money to invest in a new location essentially backs the design and construction teams into a budget number that’s identical to the number reached by every other concept with the same AUV. That AUV is the determining factor of the investment amount. From there, you get a lot of follow-the-leader in terms of design cues, which exacerbates the sameness of it all, so do try to avoid the cliches with your design proposal…if you can.

I find it a welcome challenge to work within these confines and sometimes wonder what architects and firms accustomed to much larger budgets would do with these kinds of constraints.

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the material palettes relative to AUV so you can think about how you’d use them for our challenge — remember, everything is a design opportunity…

Note: Though everything I’ve discussed thus far affects exteriors too, we’ll focus on interiors for this exercise. I’m excluding the kitchen and restrooms to really zero in on the dining rooms. Also excluded are construction methods to help us focus on finishes. Know that these exclusions do vary by AUV too, and I may cover them in another article.

💰 Low-End of AUV Range = $700K

  • Flooring = Vinyl (sheet, tile, and/or plank) or Quarry Tile
  • Wall Base = Vinyl or Quarry Tile
  • Walls = Paint
  • Wall Protection = Wainscoting made from Plastic Paneling or Vinyl Wall Covering
  • Ceiling = Lay-in Gypsum Acoustical Ceiling Panel in Steel “T” Grid, up to 20% Painted Gypsum Board Hard Lid
  • Lighting Budget = $2.50/square-foot

💰💰 Low-End of AUV Range = $1M

all finishes from $700K range available plus…

  • Flooring = Polished Concrete, Porcelain Tile, Epoxy
  • Wall Base = Metal, Porcelain Tile, Wood
  • Walls = Wood Planks or Ceramic Tile
  • Wall Protection = Wainscoting from Metal, Wood, Porcelain Tile
  • Ceiling = Exposed Structure, Architectural Lay-In Ceiling Panels in Atypical Sizes with Steel Reveal Grid, up to 50% Painted Gypsum Board Hard Lid
  • Lighting Budget = $5.50/square-foot

💰💰💰 Low-End of AUV Range = $2M

Who cares! It’s so luxurious that it’s not a challenge to be different and cool.

The Labor Factor

No matter what the budget, labor is of course a major factor to be considered by the designer. There’s often a desire to express these limited material palettes in unconventional ways as a means of differentiating a design; but that too is limited, particularly at the lowest budget tier where labor is the driving force behind the selection of particular materials. So keeping the installations inline with industry standards is key. Sorry.

Global Economic Forces Will Screw Up Everything

Stuff like labor disputes, natural disasters, global pandemics (ahem), recessions, trade disputes, and corporate bankruptcies can screw up supply chains for all projects, but wreak a unique havoc on chains as they look to maintain consistency of cost, lead time, and appearance. So designing a backup plan for your look is mandatory in this challenge, since you can guarantee you’ll have to alter something in your material palette as soon as you debut your masterpiece. These are the forces that further limit the available materials too, so even if you find a unique material not listed here that fits the price point, it has to be widely available with reasonable lead times from a stable supplier with a good reputation since you’ll be going back to them over and over for more orders over time.

You’ve Got the Kit, Design Your Space

We’ll skip them for the purposes of this challenge, but there’s even more variables that can impact these budgets. For example, the amount a concept chooses to spend on equipment, food, and labor can take a restaurant with a higher AUV and shift its budget for building materials into one from a lower AUV (or vise versa). Another variable is material quantities — commit to a big enough order and expensive materials suddenly get more affordable. I tried my best to be very middle-of-the-road here. So go forth and see if you’ve got what it takes to stand out despite the constraints. Tough challenge, right?

The Restaurant Dining Room Design Dilemma – Part 2

In Part 1 I explained why I think using restaurant dining rooms for their intended purpose during a pandemic is a bad idea. For restaurant operators stuck without a dining room full of customers, making up for all of that lost revenue is an unbelievably tough challenge. Some restaurants just won’t be able to find an alternate revenue stream. Others will eke out a meager existence on reduced revenues from take-out and delivery.

The idea we’ll look at today requires an investment of capital up front to make it a reality, and I know that’s not going to be a good fit for every operator out there, but for those with access to capital, or who can team up with others in the business to pull together funding on a partnership, this might be worth considering.

💡I’ve Got an Idea…

Food kiosks of the kind you find at malls, airports, and campuses make a good hack for our purposes here because they’re like tiny kitchens for churning out food and/or beverages. Sometimes the items being served are prepared in a commissary and shipped to the kiosk to be finished and served, while other times very simple meals can be prepared entirely within the kiosk. Kiosks are designed to be safe and sanitary food prep areas that drop into larger spaces which may or may not have been originally intended to be safe and sanitary food prep spaces.

I think an emptied out dining room makes a great host for one or more food kiosks. The alterations needed for the kiosk can be done while the existing kitchen is still up and running. These kiosks can expand an existing menu or take off in entirely new directions with different cuisines and offerings for customers. The kiosks could be rented out to chefs for doing pop-up take-out or delivery shops, or even act as in-house ghost kitchens for delivery concepts that exist only online (and only during the pandemic). For spaces that can accommodate more than one kiosk, there’s even the possibility of dressing up the kiosks with branding and creating miniature food halls where customers could schedule a visit (to control distancing) and peruse the different offerings at each kiosk. The restaurant’s existing kitchen keeps pumping out food too, or it could shift to act as a commissary for the kiosk(s).

The existing kitchen can also handle ware washing for the kiosk(s), or, depending on the food and/or beverage that the kiosks would be churning out, act as additional storage space.

I think that the dining room offers an opportunity to provide storage space too with rolling shelving units and refrigerator units. If the local health officials require it, a smaller, empty kiosk could be provided to house the added storage and provide sanitary surrounding surfaces for the stored goods.

Keeping it Cheap

Obviously, this needs to be quick and cheap to ROI for a restaurant that’s lost some/all of its revenue. As discussed in Part 1, we should be looking at a minimum of two years in this setup. Here’s how I see it working on the cheap:

  • Plan, Plan, Plan: The less money you have to spend, the more carefully you must plan. The restauranteur and architect get together to map out what fits in the dining room and what kinds of food and beverage that would support. This planning informs the scope of work for the dining room (what needs to be moved, changed, etc.). Placement of the kiosk(s) in the dining room has significant impact on their final cost (see utilities section below). Also, everything that goes into this effort needs to be able to fit through the front door, so no large equipment or parts either.
  • Get Your AHJ to Work with You: This is the one time in recent history that building and health officials are going to be extra flexible and understanding, which is a great incentive to meet with them early and often about your kiosk ideas and use their flexibility to make these temporary arrangements an affordable reality for your restaurant.
  • (Very) Selective Demolition: It’s time to pull crap out of the dining room so we can start making it into a revenue generator.
    • Freestanding furniture is easy, just move it out. It can come back when the pandemic is over.
    • Fixed furniture and low walls can be removed by a finish carpenter or even a GC’s laborer quick and easy. It took can go right back where it was after all this is done.
    • Hanging light fixtures can be taken down with their wiring capped so that they can go back up when the dining room is a dining room again.
  • Do You Want a Pickup Window? These can be a good way to make pickup easy for the general public and the delivery services. It also helps reduce the number of people in your space, which can reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Restaurants with storefront systems can easily modify an existing pane with an operable window for not too much moolah. If the restaurant has a vestibule, that could be repurposed during business hours as a sort of pickup window too. A third option is to tack on a temporary vestibule of aluminum and canvas outside of the front door and handle pickups there.
  • Get Utilities Ready: Part of planning your kiosk concept needs to be keeping its equipment lineup as simple as possible. Not only does this save money on the cost of the equipment, but it saves on modifying your existing utilities (water, sewer, natural gas, electricity, and telecom). Keep the focus on small, countertop appliances that run on 120V electricity if you can.
    • Electricity is quick and easy to extend into the dining room overhead (you may even be able to use an abandoned light fixture’s junction box in some cases.
    • The most challenging part for the utilities is going to be hand sink coverage for your kiosk(s). In some layouts, it may be possible to share a nearby hand sink with the existing kitchen. But when you have to add one, be smart about placement (this alone should drive placement of the kiosk to help save money). Water can be brought in overhead easily. The sewer will likely need to be trenched in the floor (unless there’s a floor below the restaurant) from a nearby sewer line to the kiosk — this is why it’s important to place the kiosk in the dining room based on proximity to the existing sewer line. Patching floor finishes (tile, carpet, etc.) can be dealt with now if budget permits or later when the dining room goes back to normal.
  • Bring in the Kiosk(s): Depending on where you are in the country, it may be cheaper to build the kiosk on site or it may cost less to have it prefabricated in a millwork shop and then brought onto the site, so investigate early in your planning for the cheapest option. Another consideration is whether it’s cheaper for the kiosk to have its own ceiling supported by posts in the kiosk walls or to suspend a ceiling over it from the existing dining room’s ceiling. The kiosk will need its own floor, which can be simple plywood decking with foodservice-grade sheet vinyl flooring adhered to the top. If you brace the kiosk’s side walls properly, you’ll need minimal anchorage into the existing floor. If you’re not going the food hall route mentioned above, the kiosk construction can be really simple and cheap, it doesn’t have to be anything pretty, this is about adding foodservice preparation areas to expand menu offerings.

There’s my two cents on rejiggering restaurant dining rooms during the pandemic. If people are interested, I’ll model this solution in a mocked up dining room so we can visualize the madness.

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.

“We Need to Talk About Your Flair” — The Story of Chain Restaurant Design: Exteriors Edition

Few forms of design draw sneers from the chin-strokers of the architecture community like chain restaurant design. It’s mostly deserved, but a bit of irony is that few types of architecture inspire normal people to write about them like chain restaurant design. I’m always surprised by the amount of material on the web dedicated to this topic.

I found some notes from old design studies where I explored the landscape of chain restaurant design and thought it would be a good exercise to organize those notes into a (hopefully) coherent list of what I see as the main typologies. There’s a bit of history here, and the other thing is that chains are constantly evolving their designs if they aren’t tearing them up and starting over, so this is very much a reflection of a moment in time, though I think there will always be a half dozen or so principal design motifs for chains.

It’s important to understand that amongst restaurant chains there are leaders and followers. The leaders are at the top of their market segment and take the majority of the revenues, some of that trickles down to architectural R&D, which is notable because it explains how they’re able to set new design standards for the rest to follow — the followers just don’t have the budget to develop new design concepts like the leaders, so they’ll usually just copy. I’ll let you sort out who’s who as you move through this article, it’s pretty easy to see.


Let’s start with a brief history of restaurant chains — really brief, because I want to get into the present. Here in the US, the restaurant chain as we know it today began with White Castle in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas. I deeply admire the authenticity of White Castle’s original mission, which was to present a clean, safe, friendly burger joint at a time when Upton Sinclair scared the shit out of people by telling the truth about the meatpacking industry of the day. White Castle’s design responded to its founders wishes with a shiny, white, regal castle filled with stainless steel and white enameled steel paneling. It was an enormous contrast to the typical diner of that time and quickly became a huge success. When restauranteurs ask me what I think makes for great restaurant design, I tell them authenticity is most important — that what the design does has meaning to it and a true story behind it that resonates with people. A lack of authenticity is what makes so much chain restaurant design laughably bad. I think there’s some correlation between many of the most beloved and successful chains and the authenticity of their design too. I’ll be writing more about my design approach another time, but I wanted to plant this seed before getting into the exterior design typologies we’ll be looking at in this article.

Fast forward to the 1970s and 1980s, which were decades when the modern day restaurant chains that were around then really started to become the brands as we know them today. Let’s take a quick look at what I regard as the first typology to emerge, the Shingled Hut, a mostly if not exclusively fast food design approach…


With our brief history lesson complete, we need to talk about Provincialism, which is the design typology that really serves as a bridge between the mostly fast food Shingled Hut and the variety of design approaches today’s chains use. As casual dining chains emerged, they needed to find their own design language to help them differentiate their offerings from the fast food spots. Early on, that approach was to mimic the architecture of the places where the type of food they served originated from…with uh, varying degrees of success. This is an unsophisticated approach, but that’s okay, the food is often simple, guilty pleasures and Provincialism provides an efficient way to bang people over the head with the kind of food to expect…

Parapets & Lit Awnings

Nearly parallel to the chronology of Provincialism comes Parapets & Lit Awnings, the domain of family dining (and it’s worth mentioning THE go-to standard for pretty much all one-off sit-down restaurants). I don’t think there’s any design approach as common as this one, and we all know it well: start with a box or assemblage or boxes, add really tall parapets with variation in both height and cornice/coping treatments, then make sure every window band has an awning over it, and of course every awning has to have a tidy row of gooseneck light fixtures over it to make all that canvas pop after the sun sets…

Theme Architecture

It came on strong in the 1990s and hasn’t disappeared entirely, but is certainly an endangered species at the moment. The approach is simple, pick a theme for your restaurant and force every last aspect of your business to vigorously express that theme, including the exterior of your building. The one-off restaurants that employ Theme Architecture are popular go-tos for TV shows that present “weird and wild” destinations. The chains who adopt themes are steadily shrinking, especially when it comes to exteriors, but I think this all-encompassing design will make periodic comebacks because people never learn…


Adjacent to Theme Architecture in both (tacky) taste and endangered species status is Retro-Googie-Nostalgia. This is when a brand hops into the Wayback Machine, mining their storied history for a look from the past; and if you don’t have a distant past, well, just make up some shit, it’s all good. Chains that recently embraced Retro-Googie-Nostalgia only did so for a hot minute and are actively going back and introducing these old-fashioned looks to the business end of a modern day bulldozer…

Eyebrows on the Rocks

When a new class of casual dining chain emerged at the start of the 21st century, one whose menus have dishes like rotisserie chicken next to sushi, it was time for a new design typology — and it’s sticking! Eyebrows on the Rocks is the look of these classy destination restaurants that aren’t afraid to go big when it comes to menus, dining rooms, vaulted ceilings, bars, patios, and everything else. So we’re cladding the exterior in faux rock veneers and mixing in some eyebrow canopies in a variety of materials to signal our intentions to the world…

McCentury Modern

The current design iteration of the fast food chains was pioneered by McDonalds making a hard turn towards modernism with their latest look. The rest of fast food soon fell in line. McCentury Modernism is defined by the asymmetrical massing of brands’ bright colors contrasted with neutral brick or EIFS backdrops. Hard canopies are often inserted onto these facades and no, you don’t even need windows under those canopies! I can see this popular new typology already merging with Brandchitecture, which is next on my list. The boundary between these two is quickly blurring…


The new hotness is Brandchitecture. We’re starting to see this everywhere. Brandchitecture is mostly driven by branding agencies who claim it’s data-driven and responsive, which I fully buy for stuff like menu design and branding itself, but architecture isn’t those things. There’s an old saying in graphic design, “will it fax?” that comes from a time when logo designers were pressed on that question by their clients who held myopic concern about new logos not transmitting clearly in the preferred communication tool of the day. Today, I imagine clients asking their branding agencies, “will it building?” And that’s one of the salient concerns I have about this movement, it concludes that every logo is also a building, for badder or worse. The saddest part of Brandchitecture for me is seeing White Castle, who started this article and was the first of all chains, move in this direction with their latest locations.

Kentucky Taco Hut

Pictured at the top of this article is an example of cotenancy: the Kentucky Taco Hut. Not a distinct typology per se, but rather a forceful coming together of two or more chain’s architectural identities. It’s extremely common for franchised concepts, and rarer to find for corporate-owned restaurants where it comes into play on unusual real estate deals that brokers finagle for really expensive land or tenant spaces. We’ll probably see more of this if real estate costs keep increasing to ridiculous new heights like they have been for the last decade.

How Do We Get These Looks?

When it comes to the aesthetics of the exterior of restaurants, it’s extremely common for the final decision-maker to be someone in the organization that isn’t an architect but is deeply involved in matters of design. These individuals have very strong points of view and there’s frankly not enough effort invested by the design professional in getting to know the decision-maker and really work though their vision with them, a lot of that effort is tied to budget constraints that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Also, as I mentioned, some brands have no money for this stuff and just have an architect knock off a look of someone else.

Then there’s branding agencies. I do love the great ones, who are both essential and a joy to work with — but it’s important to clearly define roles and understand that branding isn’t architecture, but rather architecture can help express the ideas of a brand.

It’s worth noting that municipalities force a lot of change onto exterior designs through appearance review committees, planning commissions, and their detailed ordinances. It’s not uncommon for brands to walk away from any attempt at using their own design just to appease the design whims of a municipality because its such a great location for business and they’re willing to compromise to get the thing open.

This is a good place to mention remodeling. It’s a continuous occurance in the chain restaurant world because customers are fickle and concepts need to evolve to suit new tastes. Any brand I’ve mentioned in this article that’s been around for more than a decade has had to remodel to stay competitive. We may get new typologies or see abandoned ones reappear because of this change cycle.

That’s all for my look at chain restaurant exterior design. I have more old notes on interior design, so you can count on an Interiors Editions in the future.

Now you can identify the type and vintage of the recently uncovered McDonalds at Gitmo. Check it out…