Great food speaks for itself, true, but the space of a restaurant wields serious power in making or breaking the dining experience. Especially now that we are in an age of shrinking interiors and decreasing levels of comfort (cramped stools, hard surfaces), the restaurants that have taken the time to express their identities through decor truly stand out. These are the establishments that don’t rest on their Edison light bulb-hanging laurels. They couple their thoughtful menus with thoughtful ambiences.
So unique are these design-minded restaurants that they hold some real inspiration for decorating our own kitchens and dining rooms. Remember how serene you felt savoring a salad in a café done all in white wood with tons of greenery? Or how invigorating a bar was, thanks to its brightly hued walls and metallic accents? Seeing a certain aesthetic in action at a restaurant is the easiest way to try it on. Once you know you love it, it’s time to use it to refresh your own space. Below are 12 spots across the U.S. that have set themselves apart with their design, and how those individual styles can be translated at home.
Changing by the week with fresh ingredients, the menu at Lenoir sets a tone of being welcomed into a friend’s kitchen. The interior proves that black and white doesn't have to be as sharp as it's reputed to be and, in fact, can feel quite cozy, thanks to a countrified, vintage-treated approach. When decorating with black and white, choose weathered woods for your furniture and add warm lighting to take things away from mod monochrome toward casual elegance.
Stepping inside Portland's Chef Naoko is a breath of fresh air. The dining room is open and flooded with natural light, with furnishings in pale wood and bamboo shades that form bold, sweeping lines from the ceiling down. Both calming and energizing, it's not just the perfect setting for the restaurant's refined Japanese menu, but a way to keep your own dining room perpetually bright—just follow their light wood lead and keep decor to one tonal, striking element.
If you’ve been laboring over whether to add color to your space, let Tiger Mama be your resounding endorsement for vibrancy. The menu’s flavors are echoed in the lush interior that instantly transports any patron to Southeast Asia. To work this wanderlust-inspiring element, mirror Tiger Mama’s pops of pattern with a single wall in your favorite hue, balanced by natural wood and warm lighting. Then season generously with greenery, from palms to succulents.
When talking about restaurant design, the word "retro" all too often links with kitsch. At Detroit's Gold Cash Gold, however, retro touches read elevated and easygoing. Taking a page from their playbook, which balances warm woods with cool white brick, you can capture a throwback vibe that still feels very now through simple stained glass and patterned wood paneling (that ceiling!) against neutrals and white.
José Andrés’s Minibar is celebrated for its avant-garde tasting menu, while the attached Barmini is known for equally creative cocktails. To translate innovation into a total ambience, Allison Cooke of CORE worked with Spanish designer Juli Capella to dream up a space that feels like sitting in a work of art. Minibar makes a statement with sleek lighting and counters in bold shapes against a space-age steel backdrop, while Barmini plays with quirky seating and a wall dotted in hands holding fruit. It’s serious inspiration for making your own space totally unique by mixing and matching your seating and keeping decor to a few striking, sculptural pieces.
Mexican small plates master Cosme is another heavy hitter in the thoughtful menu category, but works a different yet equally well-appointed angle in its interior. Instead of veering modern-artful, Cosme favors modern minimalism. The immediate tone is sleek and sophisticated, while letting the food shine. Purist metal chairs in black, polished tables, and futuristic lights will have your kitchen or dining room feeling instantly sharp and chic.
Butchertown Hall is an example of how much you can elevate even the most tried-and-true kitchen. The space starts with a white tile wall, clean and classic. Another common staple, the hardwood floor, warms things up. Understated black furniture completes the foundation. That’s when the freedom to shake things up a bit comes into play. As Butchertown has done with stacked logs, moss, and trees, choose one free-spirited decor theme and let it liven up a timeless kitchen look.
Patterned floors, gilded ceilings, and vividly hued tile walls might sound like a lot going on, but these three strong looks blend harmoniously at Bread & Butterfly, proving you can go bold for sophisticated results. B&B feels like stepping into a Left Bank bistro, thanks to a tonal palette and the accents of woven-back chairs and slim marble tables. Dare to turn up the volume in your kitchen with bright tile or in your dining room with contrasting prints, sticking to just a few hues for a refined kind of chic.
When done right, a maritime-leaning motif can be an ideal match for your kitchen. That means less on-the-nose decor like ships and knots and more calming blues in different tones. Just look to Blue Island Oyster Bar, which has managed to make a Denver restaurant feel like an oasis on the coast of Maine. Work light, neutral tones against blues, add hints of pattern, and nod a bit more subtly to the nautical atmosphere with framed antique maps for a room that will relax and inspire.
It’s a fine line between elegant and cluttered when decorating with antiques. Found Kitchen and Social House has applied a discerning eye to its interior, arranging paintings on exposed brick walls and mismatched seating, tables, and accents like globes into artful tableaus. It’s like eating in the home of an accomplished collector. Go ahead and fill your dining room with all of those treasures sitting in storage by paying close attention to how they’re grouped.
As part of the Ace Hotel, the King’s Highway diner serves up a year-round summer vacation attitude. Its execution of the mid-century modern aesthetic harkens back to road trips in Chevy convertibles, while remaining current thanks to a mix of classic touches like globe pendant lights, leather counter seating, and a brown palette with an earthy stone wall. This presents a new take on mid-century that dares to mingle with bohemian, so follow suit by softening mod furniture with natural materials and plants.
What are your favorite well-designed restaurants? Share them with us below.