Furniture selection tips for your restaurant

Chris Hannah
June 14, 2013
Tips for selecting restaurant furniture

When developing a concept for a restaurant, we often speak of touch points – the things that define that concept and create a memory of the experience. Often these are large gestures in planning or detail and can be a big part of the budget. When we think about touch points, we should also take the term literally, and remember what it is that the customer interacts with most directly. Furniture is certainly one of the aspects of the total package that we can define this way.

We lean on, rest on, sit on, and often bump into the furniture that populates the plan of a restaurant, or for that matter any interior. The dimensions, the materials and the detail affect the experience and must be thought through carefully.

Choosing chairs

Not all furniture is made alike. That sounds obvious, but you must pay close attention to the scale of a chair or a stool to make sure that:

  • High versus low seating is used in a way that supports the function of a plan;
  • The relation of seat height to table height is correct; typically 11-12 inches difference between seat and top;
  • The relative height of a chair to a bench across from it is correct and accounts for discrepancies in seat padding and upholstery that may vary from chair to bench.
The choice of chair should be made based on concept and style, but also on your operational model. Do you anticipate the customer spending a half hour or hours at the table? While we may stress comfort in furniture, sometimes too much comfort is a bad thing.

It seems that everybody loves booths, but we often gravitate to chairs for issues of cost efficiency and flexibility. But who says a booth can’t move, or that a chair can’t sit two people? Although it often brings us into the realm of custom work, we can create moveable settees that give the best of both worlds – a moveable two-seater that provides added comfort and helps to give grounding to the floor plan that would otherwise be a sea of chairs and tables.

Material issues

Advances in textile manufacturing mean that we now have much more choice when selecting for upholstery. However, it is still important to check that the fabric is indeed intended for a commercial upholstery application. When selecting seat materials for chairs, booths and benches, leather and vinyl have been the standard for ease of cleaning. And like most elements in a restaurant, the right product for cleaning must be used. Many vinyls react badly to harsh cleansers used in other restaurant areas, leaving the material brittle and susceptible to cracking.

Aside from the vinyl and leather, many more traditionally styled fabrics are being engineered now to provide greater durability. Crypton-treated fabrics, for example, provide a very wide selection of patterns and textures while offering excellent cleanability. It is easy to reference wear testing and specifics on textile content and properties when you do not have a consultant to rely upon.

Chair and bench backs do provide a more visible opportunity to provide pattern and texture since they are always more visible, and most importantly because they do not take the same abuse as the seat. Selections still need to be made carefully as trends change and re-upholstery can be expensive.

Setting a beautiful table

Table tops can be made in a number of ways, and the most important consideration for material is maintenance and longevity. Wood table tops have often been made up of a plywood veneer with a solid edge, however this construction can limit the possibilities for refinishing. Butcher block and solid plank tables can be refinished repeatedly, but cost a bit more, and need to be built correctly to avoid warping.

It seems the table cloth is becoming increasingly rare, as we express the style of the restaurant through choice of material for tables. While wood is often the obvious choice for its natural warmth and texture, stone and metals often play a part. Certainly a mix of materials throughout the space lends variety and helps to shape a different experience with each visit.

Table sizes, heights and configurations also provide an opportunity to differentiate your concept.  Having a healthy mix is generally a good idea, and like any choice, is a factor of how you define your concept and operation model. Unfortunately it can be a bit of a crap-shoot in a start-up  as you may not know the typical size of the groups that will come. Remember that it is easier to put two tables for two together than to take a four-top apart.

Adding the wow factor

Aside from the typical 2-4-6 format, many establishments are opting for some communal seating or at least dedicated large tables. This a bit riskier in terms of maxing out the capacity, but acceptance of communal format is increasing and can add a lot to the dynamics of the space. A special ‘chefs table’ is often a focal feature of the space, and can add value beyond its seating capacity, even if it is seldom fully utilized.

Finally, with tables we also have the flexibility of height. Ranging from 30” to 36” to 42” above the floor, we go from traditional dining height to what we used to call bar height. Dining rooms often benefit from a variation in height to help articulate the space, but also to provide a better venue for interaction between patrons and staff, as well as between those seated and those moving through the space. A conversation is always easier to facilitate when you and your companion are eye to eye.

Furniture offers a tremendous opportunity to express your individual concept, provides variety of both design and function, and gives the patron something to remember. In making final selections, pay careful attention to the scale, comfort level and durability, so that this major investment can be a part of your restaurant for years to come.

Top five furniture selection tips:

  • Furniture orders can have a long lead time; order early and allow a couple of weeks buffer
  • Make sure you have accounted for all of the supply, delivery and set-up costs
  • Check the types of establishments where the furniture choices have been used previously and follow up to assess the success of the application.
  • Think long-term since furniture takes up a big part of your budget
  • Choose carefully since you may be buying hundreds

See also:

About the author

Chris Hannah is the principal of Cricket Design Company Inc. in Toronto. The firm was founded in 1988 and since then has specialized in hospitality projects, from kiosks to casinos and everything in between. In addition to running the firm, Hannah teaches at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design. You can check them out on the web – – and see some recent work at

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