Deconstructing the Urban-Industrial Restaurant

Picture a dimly lit room—perhaps illuminated by warm, incandescent bulbs—with hardwood floors, exposed-brick walls, and tabletops varnished until they gleam. The art on the walls feels simultaneously chic and classic. Waiters are dressed in dark-wash jeans and black button-downs. The menu features locally grown, organic ingredients in their “new-take-on-a-classic” dishes.

Does this sound familiar?

If you find yourself nodding along, it’s likely because you’ve been in this restaurant before, or at least one very much like it. This “industrial” theme is a hugely popular one in modern restaurant design, bringing diners an experience that feels both comfortingly intimate and high-society slick. Beginning in mid-century New York, where the post-industrial era left an industrial wasteland of abandoned sweatshops and factories, industrial-chic has taken off, moving in everywhere from artist studios to the newest restaurant on the block.

But this simple aesthetic might be more contrived than it seems. In fact, as the linguist Daniel Jurafsky has shown, very little of an eatery is not premeditated.

As anyone who has been to a successful restaurant will testify, the popularity of a place is about more than what’s offered on the menu. It can be hard to enjoy a well-cooked steak in an uncomfortable seat, or at a rickety table, or if it is too dark to see your own food. How an eatery wants to brand itself is half the challenge, and that branding can take a huge number of forms: urban-industrial is simply one style of many. Restaurants from the coolest New York gastro-pubs to the smallest local bar-and-grills have now adopted this template, but each restaurant’s look also provides a context for the food. In this case, it’s all about re-invention: the idea that a rough exterior might be up-cycled into something new and exciting, just like the food you’re about to enjoy.

Red Stripe, an “American Brasserie” here in Providence, epitomizes this aesthetic. Inside, the black-and-white tile floor harkens back to Versailles, but the wooden booths aren’t exactly Louis XIV. There are stacks of Red Stripe beer on the outskirts of the dining floor. The tables are covered in clean white tablecloths, and the silverware is weighty. But the food—much of which can be eaten with your hands—is often cheese-smothered and comforting.

This exemplifies the way in which a restaurant’s interior can mimic the food it offers. Red Stripe, for example, describes itself as “upscale yet relaxed,” combining comfort foods with a more sophisticated flair. Re-imagined favorites such as the Red Stripe Grilled Cheese (with prosciutto, poached pear, and basil pesto) immediately let the diner know that what they eat here will be familiar, but with a fresh twist.

This is also the case at Bar Agricole in San Francisco, the winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant Design. The project of design firm Aidan Darling Design, Bar Agricole is also an eco-friendly experiment. Most of the wood used in fixtures from chairs to walls is recycled, some even taken from old wine barrels. The booths are designed with strength and simplicity in mind. And, above it all, there are the glass sculptures: eye-catching panels of molded glass made by Nikolas Weinstein Studios.

The food is also eye-catching: the menu posted on the Bar’s website mentions delicacies such as “Gazpacho with mint and a buffalo camembert toast” and “Farinata with wild nettles, fresh goat cheese, fennel, and chrysanthemum salad.” While not all common ingredients, they share a sense of heartiness and warmth that is mimicked in the restaurant’s design-space. When the design and ingredients are put together, the diner’s experience becomes all the more impactful.

Simplicity and cleanliness are two other factors that play into the appeal of the industrial aesthetic. The Atrium Champagne Bar in London won a 2013 Restaurant and Bar Design Award with an interior that emphasizes clean lines and a decidedly modern aesthetic. It is a space designed to accompany the experience of sipping a glass of fine champagne: fresh, invigorating. That experience is heightened by the sparkle of the polished granite floors and the white-on-metal chairs.

The emphasis on design, though, is about more than accompaniment. It is also tied up in the idea of “ambiance,” which can greatly change a guest’s behavior. Dark, heavy-colored rooms with quiet music can influence diners to eat less and stay longer, according to QSR Magazine, while bright lights tend to encourage a shorter stay. Saturated color schemes might convey cleanliness, environmental consciousness, or an homage to a certain geographical region. Ultimately, a restaurant’s interior-design can lead to guests staying longer, eating more, and ordering more drinks—all three of which will pay off for the restaurant’s owners.

So although the local, organic, updated take on the pot-roast menu of your favorite industrial café might be delicious, it is also likely to be conscientiously decorated and designed. At places like Red Stripe, Bar Agricole, and the Atrium Champagne bar, simplicity takes the place of sumptuousness. That’s really the magic of the urban-industrial restaurant; its carefully curated minimalism allows the guest to focus on the food in front of them. It purposefully fades into the background, and changes our relationship with the food without us even realizing. It celebrates something that many people look for in food: beautiful, but unfussy and at ease.

By Keven Griffen

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