Travel & Leisure Travel, Food & Drink

Escapism at a Distance: What’s in Store for the Future of Restaurants

Innovative design solutions, an emphasis on special experiences, and escapism may all be on the menu the next time you eat out, say these industry insiders

In 2019, American diners spent an estimated $863 billion in restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association—revealing the enormous role dining out plays in our social lives. So, when the pandemic shuttered restaurants for months, their closures left a keenly felt gap and had many wondering: what does a world affected by COVID-19 hold for the future of restaurants?

Thankfully, as establishments reopen—albeit with new regulations in place—we’re being offered a glimpse of what may work. Those restaurants that look set to win back, and retain, customers are putting innovation right up there with sanitation and social distance.

“Creativity has always been at the heart of the restaurant industry,” says Shayne Brady, cofounder of design studio, BradyWilliams, whose clients include Harrods and Corbin & King (owner of renowned London establishments, including The Wolseley and The Delaunay). “It’s woven into every aspect of running a successful establishment, from devising each dish, to the color of the walls and staff uniforms.

Plexiglass hanging shields surround a table, which could be the future of restaurants
Sanitation innovation: French designer Christophe Gernigon is aiming to transform restaurants with his Plex’Eat “hanging shields”—suspended visors that surround and protect diners. Image: Christophe Gernigon Studio

“Now, that’s been taken to a new level,” continues Brady. “Dining out often includes an element of seeing and being seen, of being somewhere exciting, so creating socially distanced spaces, which still fulfill that brief, can be a challenge. The wonderful thing is that we’re seeing some very creative solutions, with many restaurants finding ways of adding warmth and conviviality to a space, even when the tables are far apart.”

Two restaurants that have embraced that approach include Amsterdam’s Mediamatic Biotoop restaurant (pictured in the banner image above), which is trialling five glass pods at its canal-side location, and The Barn restaurant, in Cambridgeshire, U.K., which has installed Perspex bubbles for diners. Both provide dining experiences that are intimate, full of joie de vivre and—thanks to waiting staff who serve from outside the pods—totally compliant with the new rules.

High-end dining has always been about escapism. You dress the part, leave behind your kitchen, and enter a glamorous environment—Ed Ng

In Virginia, U.S.A, the three-Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington has come up with a different solution: seating beautifully dressed mannequins at tables that need to be kept vacant. In France, designer Christophe Gernigon has brought his Plex’Eat “hanging shields” to the table, placing diners behind individual lampshade-like capsules (pictured above). And—if you needed any further reminder that we are in fact living in the future of restaurants—Dadawan, a restaurant in the Netherlands, has introduced service robots.

A service robot
The waitrons at Dutch restaurant Dadawan will register customers’ temperature, lead them to their tables, take their orders, and deliver their meals. Image: Alamy

Such imaginative responses chime perfectly with the findings of a trends report by Roar, an award-winning design studio based in Dubai. As well as highlighting the sanitary necessities that diners expect—contactless ordering, anti-microbial-coated furnishings, screened-off tables, and self-cleaning restroom facilities—Roar’s insights suggest an increased appetite for immersive and escapist experiences and surreal design.

For designer Ed Ng, principal of AB Concept, who is currently working on the interiors for Lung King Heen, the three-Michelin starred restaurant of the Four Seasons in Hong Kong, this is nothing new. “Going to a high-end restaurant has always been about escapism,” he says. “You dress the part, leave behind your kitchen, and enter a glamorous and extremely sensuous environment.”

A bar filled with lights
The AB Concept-designed bar at the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur fully embraces the idea of escapism—something its principal Ed Ng believes has always been part of fine dining, but which we’re bound to want more of in the future.

Instead, Ng believes that while designers will still look to push the boundaries when it comes to interiors, innovation around sanitation will be key. “I believe we’ll see great experimentation with eye-catching, beautiful, and futuristic-looking separation screens, as well as fixtures and fittings that are easy to clean. No raised detailing, for instance—just completely flat surfaces.”

Creativity has always been at the heart of the restaurant industry. It’s woven into every aspect of running a successful establishment—Shayne Brady

Brady agrees, but believes we’ll also see changing trends in the way we dine out. “It will become more of a special-event experience. It may mean that diners come to expect more, because it’s a moment they’ve planned and thought about carefully.”

A private dining booth
Future restaurant designs by BradyWilliams may incorporate more private seating and booths—such as this modernist-inspired area of London's Rockwell Bar—to ensure safe social distancing, but will stay true to the company’s design ethos.

As proof, he points to BradyWilliams’ current work on Corbin & King’s Manzi’s, a soon-to-be-opened seafood restaurant in London’s Soho. “Our original concept was playful and fun. We wanted it to be somewhere frivolous, where people come to forget any anxieties they might have,” he says. But, in the wake of the pandemic, he and his clients thought long and hard about how to adapt. “We decided that we didn’t want to compromise the flamboyance and joyfulness of our design with anything too clinical or uptight. Instead, we’re finding inspiration from the 1940s and are looking at banquettes and booths.

“It’s possible we’ll add more drama—perhaps leaning towards private seating areas, such as boxes at the theater. There will be total adherence to safety, while staying true to our aesthetic.”

Three Socially Distanced Dining Experiences to Put on Your Radar

Auberge de la Maison, Courmayeur, Mont Blanc, Italy

As a guest of this exclusive hotel, you can enjoy Le Solitaire, a unique dining experience in the Italian Alps. With only one table available, you can take your seat, enjoy the view, and wait for a gourmet picnic to arrive via a pulley.

MarBella Corfu, Greece

Another offering from a top hotel, Your Day at the Beach treats guests to a picnic basket packed with delicious food and free car hire, so that they can find their own patch of deserted paradise on Halikounas beach.

The St Moritz Hotel, Cornwall, U.K.

The iconic beach huts on this private stretch of Cornwall’s captivating coastline have been transformed into secluded dining rooms, and are thoroughly sanitized between bookings.

Banner image: Amsterdam’s Mediamatic Biotoop restaurant. Willem Velthoven