Some Tips for Designing a Flagship Restaurant

by Greg Merkel, ICRAVE

I’ve been working in design for over a decade, and have helped develop some of New York’s most iconic hospitality spaces like upscale Italian eatery LAVO and high energy steakhouse STK. Creating identities for new spaces from scratch is a lot of fun, but one of the bigger challenges is taking on existing brand, giving it a makeover, and taking it to the next level with drop dead gorgeous new flagships. It’s really rewarding.

How do you take a restaurant that has only existed in smaller markets like Columbus, Ohio or Tampa to premier metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and New York? This challenge is what ICRAVE was posed with when Cameron Mitchell Restaurants came to us to help bring their high-end steakhouse concept, Ocean Prime, to Beverly Hills and Manhattan. Without a cohesive brand-wide look and design, we were tasked with establishing a new architectural language for the brand by creating two new flagship locations for their big city debuts.

Let’s clarify something first: the science for designing a flagship location isn’t exact. Every project and brand is different, and for us at ICRAVE we really attack each new project as a new problem to be solved. So these are not blanket design statements for all flagships, but rather a few examples of how we solved some problems so you get a sense of how we think. So with that being said, a few tips and pointers:

Ocean Prime Beverly Hills, photography by John Muggenborg

Make the Exterior a Beacon

How your restaurant looks from the outside is just as important as what it looks like inside. Even though it may cost a pretty penny, one thing we pushed hard for in our designs for Ocean Prime LA and NYC was to make the space a beacon from the exterior and have the architecture be a billboard for the brand itself. Instead of designing huge signage, we crafted an architectural language that is a ‘sign’ in and of itself that frames and showcases the sexy, warm interiors.

To create that warmth, the interiors need to glow and look inviting from the exterior — which is all about the lighting.

At ICRAVE, one of our mantras is that lighting is our most important material. You can use expensive materials, but if the space isn’t lit well, the food and people won’t look good. Ultimately, if you can make a space that screams “look at all of these people eating delicious food in this gorgeous setting”, you don’t need to tell them what the place is called. They will make it their business to know.

Know Thy Brand

For some brands you might design an over-the-top restaurant because that is what the brand calls for. But for some brands like Ocean Prime, a showy restaurant would have rung hollow and untrue. You might ask, “I thought the whole idea of a flagship was to blow people’s minds and get them excited about a brand”, and you would be right… if that is what is right for the brand. There can be a gut reaction for new restaurateurs or those who are making their first foray into the big city to go maximal with design. We feel a flagship should be the distillation of the brand, not just a show for the show’s sake. If you get caught up in the latest trend, then you also run the risk of designing a restaurant that will need to be refreshed in only a handful of years. If you design a tight, classy restaurant you could have something that lasts as long as you can keep serving good food.

Ocean Prime New York, photography by John Muggenborg

A Great Bar is Key

No brainer, right? It may go without saying, but a great bar can make a great restaurant into a ‘must go to’ restaurant. People go out not only to eat delicious food, but to have a good time. A bar is more often than not the heart of a great restaurant and the source of the energy. It’s not only a place to get a drink, but it sets the tone for the experience. Major metropolitan cities have a huge post-work happy hour population, and if you can become someone’s go-to place for an after work drink, it fills the seats, gives the place some street cred, and makes it much easier to parlay the space into a place for a night out. We felt so passionately about this for Ocean Prime LA that gave them two massive bars nearly right next to each other which brings us to…

Ocean Prime Beverly Hills, photography by John Muggenborg

Give ’Em Reason(s) to Come Back

By giving the LA location two distinct bar experiences, a beautiful outdoor al fresco bar and a honey-colored, glowing wine bar, Ocean Prime can now set two completely different tones that cater to two completely different crowds. Instead of just drawing an after work crowd, they now have two different offerings for bars and can set the tones differently throughout the day. We don’t just do this for the bars, but it’s another ICRAVE motto that we apply to all of our projects.

Designing a space with a multiplicity of uses makes for an engaging and memorable all hospitality experiences.

If you design a space that can be used in different ways and provide multiple environments for people to interact, it gives guests a reason to come back.

Having an opportunity as a designer to work on a flagship location and really establish the architectural look and language of a brand is one of the most exciting undertakings in design. Hopefully with these pointers you can give love and thought to your next hospitality projects. Now go forth and design — I’ll be looking out for the next hottest restaurant opening.

Greg Merkel, Design Director, ICRAVE