Dining Out as Therapy: The Rise of Wellness-Oriented Restaurant Experiences

Eating out is increasingly positioned as a therapeutic experience through empathic design and community dining

Richard Yao
IPG Media Lab


Created with Dall-E | People having fun in a restaurant

If food can act as medicine, then a good dining experience can be like therapy.

People have long talked about “you are what you eat,” but perhaps it is time to consider we are how we eat as well. For many, dining out has become more than just grabbing a bite, and smart restaurants are starting to respond to their emotional need that goes beyond serving tasty food.

Like many things in our wellness-obsessed society today, dining out is increasingly being positioned as a therapeutic experience that aims to enhance the wellness of diners through empathic and inclusive design. Moreover, it is also a part of the so-called “joyconomy,” boosting customers’ serotonin by bringing local communities together and offering them a chance to connect with each other.

Therapeutic Dining through Empathic Design

Wellness culture has been infiltrating the restaurant industry for a while now, often through championing fresh, high-quality ingredients and health-conscious menu design. The increasing sales of health-conscious snacks, the rise of plant-based restaurants, as well as the gradual introduction of alternative meat products across many fast food chains, are all strong indicators of America’s changing diet preferences and growing demand for healthier food. As a result, we’ve seen some restaurants curating menus that highlight the nutritional and medicinal benefits of their dishes. In short, it is the ongoing development of functional food percolating into the restaurant sector as a potential differentiation point.

Yet, in recent months, restaurants are expanding on wellness-oriented branding beyond the healthy dishes they offer to create dining experiences that not only nourish the body, but also the mind. Some restaurants aim to create a healing experience that nurtures diners’ mental wellness through the empathic design of both menus and services.

For example, dining out is often seen as a group activity. In fact, there have been numerous think pieces on the perceived stigma associated with dining alone. Yet, some people have advocated for solo dining as a form of self-care, and online conversations about parties of one dining out increased by 7% year-over-year in 2023. In recognition of the increasing number of individuals dining alone, whether by choice or circumstance, more restaurants are offering solo menus tailored for solo diners. These menus usually bundle together a selection of individual-sized entrees accompanied by a glass of wine or a dessert, often at a reduced price. Such menus are usually available at the bar or in specific sections of the restaurant, providing solo diners with a comfortable and engaging dining experience.

Sometimes, this type of empathic design goes one step further. For example, holidays like Valentine’s Day can amplify feelings of loneliness for those who are newly single. Therefore, it is no surprise that restaurant chains such as Pizza Hut, Insomnia Cookies, and P.F. Chang’s have responded with empathetic menu offerings designed to cater to this demographic. By marketing to the newly-single with a sense of compassion and humor, these restaurants stood out by subverting the holiday expectations and appealing to an often-neglected audience in the restaurant sector.

In addition, more restaurants are embracing inclusive design, which reflects a broader societal trend toward recognizing and accommodating the diverse needs of individuals. For example, Starbucks recently unveiled new accessibility features for disabled employees and customers as part of its expansion plan, which includes things like displays for order status so deaf and hard-of-hearing customers can see when their order is ready, and lower counters to help wheelchair users easily grab their drinks.

Some restaurants are taking this inclusive design philosophy one step further with sensory-friendly dining options for neuro-divergent individuals. Some restaurants like Prairie Grass Cafe have implemented “sensory-friendly hours,” which are dedicated to creating a dining environment that minimizes sensory triggers, such as dimming lights and reducing background noise. Similarly, Atlanta-based restaurants Lazy Betty and Humble Pie have developed programs aimed at those with heightened sensory sensitivities, ensuring everyone has the opportunity to enjoy dining out without the stress of overwhelming sensory input.

Of course, such empathy should also be extended to the restaurant employees. Restaurant workers, especially those that work for quick-service chains, have reportedly seen their employee benefits improve over the past few years, partly due to the worker shortage and high turnover rate that the restaurant sector experienced. Some restaurants even started charging an “employee wellness” fee, usually 3 to 5 percent of the bill, to transparently pass the resulting cost on to the customers. As top performing QSR chains start to invest more in the financial and mental welfare of their employees, a motivated staff provides fast, superior service for customers in return.

Restaurants as Community Hubs

All the wellness-oriented initiatives mentioned above are important for adding value to the dining experience and attracting customers. Yet, there’s an inherently social aspect of dining out that is also being enhanced to amplify its potentially therapeutic benefits. Per a 2023 Ipsos survey, 52% of U.S. consumers say “spending time with family and friends” is the top factor behind an enjoyable dining experience.

One of the most heartening developments has been the rise of relational dining experiences. Services like the NYC-based Dinner With Friends and Soup Doula are at the forefront, orchestrating meals that bring strangers together, thereby weaving new social fabrics. These initiatives are not just about sharing a meal; they’re about creating social spaces where people can mingle and connect with each other. They are about creating a shared experience that fosters friendships and a sense of community.

Interestingly, many restaurants are doubling down on the community-building aspect of the restaurant business. On the smaller scale, a trio of local restaurants in Quincy IL, Rochester MN, and Newburgh NY, are all turning (in some cases, former) restaurants into event spaces for the local communities to gather and host events. Typically, bars would fulfill the social function of a Third Place. But, with younger adults in the U.S. notably drinking less than the older generations, there seems to be an opening for restaurants to step in and function as a social space.

This trend of enhancing the social aspect of dining can also be seen as a response to the ongoing loneliness epidemic, which the pandemic has exacerbated. People’s social networks decreased in size by an average of 16% during the pandemic, a 2021 study found, and there has been an eagerness to get back in touch with our social networks, to sync up with the monoculture again.

Some quick-service restaurants are experts at tapping into this need for community and belonging. For example, Taco Bell recently hosted a fan event called “Live Más LIVE” in Las Vegas on February 9, 2024, to unveil their upcoming menu items and partnerships, including a new Cantina Chicken Menu and brand collaborations with Cheez-It, MTN DEW, and Tajín. The event was live streamed on YouTube and featured musical performances, celebrity appearances, and fan recognition.to maximize fan engagement.

In addition, some QSR brands are giving back to the local communities via support for local sports teams and events, local food banks, lunch programs, and so on. For example, Chipotle hosts a community fundraiser series where a portion of the proceeds is donated to support various causes and local organizations. During these fundraisers, customers who dine at a Chipotle restaurant or order online using a specific promo code can have 25% of their purchase go towards the designated cause or organization selected by the local branch in question.

The transformation of restaurants into community hubs is part of a broader movement towards redefining the role of dining establishments in society. As restaurants continue to adapt and innovate in response to the evolving needs and desires of their patrons, they hold the potential to become even more integral to the fabric of community life.

In an insightful article for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson succinctly summed up the recent shifts in the U.S. restaurant sector as such:

Altogether, American restaurants are shifting from independent operators to chains, from slow food to fast(er) food, from east to west, from city centers to suburbs, from lunch and dinner to breakfast and late night, and from eat-in to takeaway.

In light of these shifts, it is imperative that restaurants and QSR owners figure out a way to draw in diners. Otherwise, they risk being intermediated by food delivery services and lose out on the unique dining experiences as a key differentiator for their businesses.

As we move forward, more restaurants and QSR brands could benefit from exploring the mental wellness-oriented, therapeutic potential of dining experiences, helping to underscore the growing importance of empathic design and communal spaces in our lives.