Authentic, comfortable, timeless: the winning recipe for restaurant design

Melbourne's Di Stasio Citta won the Best Restaurant Design award at the Eat Drink Design Awards.
Melbourne's Di Stasio Citta won the Best Restaurant Design award at the Eat Drink Design Awards. Photo: Eddie Jim

Restaurant design is like more common garden-variety design in hyperdrive; here for a good time, not often a long time. Or, as the founder of Amsterdam's Studio Modijefsky, Esther Stam, puts it: "It's an industry where you can make design more explicit and outspoken."

Since launching her studio a decade ago, she has gradually made hospitality design her bread and butter. It has coincided with an era in which restaurants have gone from places to eat to all-purpose social hubs. In Australia as a judge and keynote speaker for the Eat Drink Design Awards, Stam parses the difference cleanly: she says she sees her job as the designer of a destination rather than a venue.

Esther Stam.
Esther Stam. Photo: Supplied

Restaurant design is big business. Publications, including this one, pay attention. Design studios such as Six Degrees, Hecker Guthrie and Projects of Imagination become household names (depending on the households). Last year's $4 million revamp of Sydney's Quay received reams of press and divided a city over the banishing of the tablecloths. Restaurateurs pay vast sums of money to keep diner interest (Shane Delia famously dropped $1 million on his 2015 renovation of Maha then tipped in another few hundred thousand when he wasn't totally happy with the results).

So is it money well spent? Restaurant reviewers have been known to say if the food was good enough they'd give a shipping container restaurant three hats. Yet no empirical evidence for this theory exists. The kind of place that sweats the food also cares deeply about the aesthetics. Design matters because food matters.

Stam, for her part, doesn't separate the two. She sees the rise of aesthetics as symbiotic with the surge of interest in all things food-related.

"It's all part of a bigger picture. People in general are more focused on where their food comes from, and an interest in interior design is part of that more holistic approach. It's not only about food, it's about an experience and the food you serve needs to be complemented by the environment."

Amsterdam is much like Melbourne and Sydney: fierce competition and oversupply has created a killing field of restaurants, bars and cafes lucky to make it to their second birthday. "There are more and more bars and restaurants opening every week, so as a restaurant owner you need to stand out."

As to how exactly you can stand out – sorry folks, Stam has little to offer, save for noting the importance of ethically made and sourced materials. Market saturation is also likely to lead to different design solutions, she predicts. The proliferation of burger bars in Amsterdam (clearly not just a Melbourne and Sydney affliction) shows how important it is to design a space that can be easily "twisted" into another concept after a few years.

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Not following trends is how Studio Modijefsky has made its name. As for those much-touted "Instagram moments" some designers like to deliberately insert into their mise en scene – that's another no.

"It's very shallow and not necessary. If a space triggers you to do something and take an image then that might be interesting but to design something to take a photo – no, that's very poor."

Cassie Hansen, Artichoke magazine editor and chief judge of the Eat Drink Design Awards, agrees that a memorable restaurant interior transcends trends: "It aims for more. It strives to be authentic, comfortable and timeless. And often it's these interiors that take on a life of its own with its guests – a place for diners to settle into, feel at home, return to again and again, and mark special occasions. That's the sign of an exceptional restaurant – one that serves as the backdrop to special moments of your life."

Past inductees to the Eat Drink Design Awards hall of fame bear this theory out. There's Cookie by Phillip Schemnitz; Il Bacaro by Chris Connell Design; Icebergs by Lazzarini Pickering; Meyers Place by Six Degrees; Cafe di Stasio by Allan Powell Architects; and Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar by Robin Boyd.

"Most diners don't think about the design of the restaurant," says Hansen. "But they do know how they felt in it."

An ideal project for Studio Modijefsky begins at the very inception of a bar, cafe or restaurant when ideas begin to germinate. "I really love to tailor-make a design so that it fits the concept of what they want to serve, what sort of experience they want people to have there, down to what kind of music they will be playing," says Stam. "There is a design language, concept and identity for each place. It needs to fit like a glove."

In Amsterdam she has turned iconic 1930s park pavilion Blauwe Theehuis (Blue Tea House) into the home of beer brand Brouwerij 't IJ, channelled the anarchic spirit of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat into Bar Basquiat and made a high-concept butcher-slash-steakhouse where the in-house butcher turns a giant wheel to raise his shop window at The Roast Room.

But some of Stam's ambitions will only be realised – or not – with the passing of time. Longevity is the mark of a great design while also going against her commercial interests (it's a paradox she's happy to live with).

"I would like my designs to be able to survive the two-year hype period and become something for regulars. I would like to design something that becomes a classic and isn't just about what might be fashionable now. Everyone has their own list of 10 or so restaurants that are their go-to places: I want my designs to feature on those."

As for her much-hyped all-female studio of eight employees, may the record note it has come about by accident rather than design. "They were simply the best candidates for the job," says Stam. "We've had boys before, but you certainly need to be strong and confident to enter."