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May 28, 2017

How Do You Create A Flawless Restaurant Experience?

Text by Simone Louis

Sumessh Menon, Minnie Bhatt and Ayaz Basrai educate us in the art of creating superlative spaces…

As a foodie, it takes me about the same amount of time to ascertain whether a short-crust pastry shell is perfectly flaky or not, as it does to recognise a well-thought-out restaurant. Entering one is like donning a cashmere sweater in the winter; tension disperses with a sigh and a smile. Creating this feeling, however, is anything but simple. A sentient space with a distinct personality is birthed when countless elements collide; elements that enhance the gastronomic experience without hogging the spotlight. The best decor often goes unnoticed because that’s what is intended. It discreetly helps to create one of those memorable meals we’ve all had (I hope) at some point, where everything just clicks. It is the driving force behind the mighty, yet intangible, ‘vibe’.

Someone who knows a lot about this is Sumessh Menon, the designer behind popular Mumbai restaurants Koko and 1 Above, as well as Plan B in New York and the newest Pa Pa Ya in Colaba. “You want to create a space that has energy and at the same time provides intimacy,” he explains, while stressing that, besides resourceful zoning and menu planning, sound and light are other factors that are extremely crucial. “I strongly believe in efficient acoustic design for restaurants and bars — low decibel near dining spaces and high decibel around the bar areas. Custom lighting is also essential because a bespoke installation can entirely replace ceiling design itself.” Truly, the finest pleasures employ all of our senses together, and a good restaurant endeavours to do the same. We may broadly refer to it as ambience, but just like a theatrical production, it actually comprises these infinitesimal details. It’s not merely about the food; it’s about how long it takes for the server to reach your table with it, whether you can see the menu or if the space ‘feels cold’ to you. What’s the first thing you see on entering? What do you smell? What, and how much, can you hear? “Every single element in a space is a result of conscious thought, and it’s very empowering,” agrees Ayaz Basrai of The Busride design studio, which is responsible for MasalaBar, Le 15 Café, The Bombay Canteen, Capital Social and the popular Smoke House chain of restaurants around India. “Nothing is too small to consider. In fact we used to love designing obscene washroom signs for Salt Water Cafe and Smoke House Grill, and actually spent a great amount of time finding the right mushroom, which looked exactly like a penis, to paste on the door of the men’s washroom at the Smoke House Room in Delhi!” he chuckles.

And when you’re aware of the effort that goes into these little things, the dining experience becomes even more wholesome. Mischievous signboards may not be her thing, but Minnie Bhatt, the designer of eateries like Nom Nom, Silver Beach Cafe, True Tramm Trunk and Burma Burma, made an impression with her work on Mirchi And Mime, where I learned how to ‘sign and dine’. The Mumbai restaurant is already unique in its concept of being run by the hearing and speech impaired, and features a menu with diagrams demonstrating how to order using sign language. The great thing about Bhatt’s work is that it doesn’t harp on the concept and make it gimmicky, something that designers tend to do too often.

Traditional Indian recipes from an anonymous cookbook adorn one wall, while another features vintage utensils. The space is warm and inviting, like all her projects. Citing natural light and a pleasing colour palette as two of the most important things to pay attention to, she also tells me that “the space between tables, right from the entrance to the kitchen and service areas, has to be well planned to ensure smooth operations even on a busy day”. Bhatt makes sure that air-conditioning is well distributed so that there are no hot or cold pockets, and that the lighting in live kitchens doesn’t disturb the ambient lighting of the seating area. Basrai likes to dwell more on the artistic challenges. “We take for granted that we have the ability to address 300 to 400 people on a daily basis through our spaces. If I had an audience of that kind, day after day, year after year, what would I tell them? If restaurants take on the mantle of being new places of congregation, why can’t they say meaningful things to their patrons?” he questions. “In a highly visible environment like F&B, I think we need to up our game…a lot.”

It’s also important to talk about that feeling of being at home, which a number of culinary destinations are now tapping into. One can’t help but wonder if there are overlaps between residential and restaurant interiors these days, and Basrai muses, “Given that both are manifestations of culture, there ought to be”. Menon elaborates, “Today’s sophisticated clients are increasingly coveting aesthetics from around the world. Thus elements like custom lighting and edgy furniture are filtering down from hospitality to homes. And, likewise, restaurants are looking towards residences to achieve the same warmth and comfort.”

Now, more than ever, personal and engaging spaces to share a meal and be social are important. Otherwise, when everything can be delivered to your doorstep, why bother venturing out? According to Bhatt, it’s the brand’s identity, conveyed by the overall experience, which influences this decision. This is essentially why we choose to go to certain places for certain occasions, or depending on our mood. So the next time you make plans to have a meal with friends, family or colleagues, and you deliberate on the type of cuisine, zero in on the vibe and choose the eatery, remember that — by paying close attention to more than just the food — the eatery has chosen you.

The Right Vibe
Minnie Bhatt “Michelin-starred restaurant Sushisamba in London is simple yet spectacular. I love the way bamboo has been used to create a faux roof and how it’s set against a glass facade on
all sides.”

Ayaz Basrai “I love Sketch in London; Philippe Starck is the best kind of madman! The wonderful tangents that the restaurant explores make it a constantly changing stage and gallery.”

Sumessh Menon “One of my favourites is Buddakan in New York’s Chelsea Market (besides the Zuma restaurants around the world), primarily because of an ingenious use of unique materials and the creativity with which spaces are zoned.”

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