The parallels between food and restaurant design

By Chris Hannah

Being a restaurant designer, it’s impossible not to have a passion for food. As I continue my own culinary education, one of the great parallels between food and design is the ever-evolving landscape in which they live.

We are constantly bombarded with media that investigates and dissects both food and design on many levels and in many settings – not just limited to restaurants, but also in our daily personal lives. Reading and researching cooking, I see more and more discussion about layers of taste, bringing to mind how we as restaurant designers deal with the same complexity.

Some of the descriptors are common to both. Just looking at the elements and principles of design, they all apply to the visual aspect of food, but many such as texture, colour, balance, variety, harmony and unity are also used when we talk about eating. When thinking of food and the senses, the first one we think of is taste, while with design we tend to think of all the rest. In reality, we use all of our senses when we eat, just as we do when we experience space. Sight, sound, smell and touch are the other commonly accepted senses, but just like flavor profiles, there is some disagreement in this. Just do a quick Internet search on “the senses” and you will see!


When it comes to the sense of taste, it is interesting to see that the definitions also continue to evolve. Sweet, sour, bitter, salty are the original four tastes of which most of the public is aware. Umami, often referred to as the fifth taste, has been around awhile, but not in everyone’s vocabulary. In 1908, Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist isolated the chemical basis for the flavor he called umami which can be translated as “delicious taste” or “pleasant savory taste.”

Is there a design parallel to umami? Perhaps the word “beauty” comes closest, and yet this is an objective word since we know it is “in the eye of the beholder.” As designers we don’t like to use such subjective terms, but there is often an intangible aspect to a spatial experience that needs a name. In today’s design world, I think beauty is a very interesting consideration. With current trends leaning towards reclaimed materials, rougher finishes and “un-designed” interiors, it’s a good time to consider what simply pleases us visually. The other great parallel is that, just like food, beautiful design can be simple or complex, groundbreaking or traditional, colourful or not.

Back to food, Kokumi has been described as the sixth taste, although it is something the tongue does not actually perceive as taste.  It is described more accurately as mouthfeel. Literally translated it is “rich” (koku) “taste” (mi) generated from complex taste mixtures that work in harmony to provide balance and richness — which brings us back to design-speak. This too could be related to beauty in design, but also harmony and balance as noted in the definition. When you put all these elements together, the end result is a space that simply feels comfortable to the guest. So, perhaps comfort is the best parallel.

Comfort and wellbeing are often a result of things that are not consciously perceived. In fact, I like to think of comfort as a lack of annoyance. What causes discomfort in a space is something that assaults the other senses. This is an interesting concept since what we perceive as comfortable and what we consider to be harmonious design has changed with history. Just look at the past 50 years of restaurant design, and you get the idea of how the definition of good restaurant design has truly changed.


Sight is the most obvious sense when talking design, and it has many facets. Too much visual stimulation, too much light glare, too much to take in within the visual plane, can all cause stress, sometimes in an unconscious way. To focus on lighting for a moment, historically restaurants were either dim candlelit dining rooms, or bright evenly lit cafeterias. Happily this has evolved. Regardless of the direction taken in lighting design, a few simple rules can help:

  • Avoid direct glare;
  • Reflect light off surfaces for a more comfortable effect;
  • Create highs and lows to give accent and focus;
  • Keep lighting colour temperatures harmonious.



Sound (acoustics) plays a large part in restaurant design, and there is no one right answer. Unlike a classroom or a theatre, restaurant space is dynamic and we often play with acoustic treatments to alter the liveliness of the space. This is one of those elements that has changed dramatically over the years.  How much ambient noise is deemed acceptable has certainly evolved. We often seek out dining environments that promote social interaction, and we therefore tolerate more active rooms. Still, a balance is needed since a social space encourages conversation, and if that is difficult, it ultimately fails. Even if hard materials are a key element of the design concept, softer ones can be incorporated into hidden elements at walls, ceilings and furniture. Like lighting, a space can be modulated by creating zones of varied acoustic intensity.


Touch is an often-overlooked sense, but one that evokes a great deal of memory, and can have a profound effect on the customer. Arguably it is the second sense that gets triggered in a restaurant experience after sight; the first pull on the door handle, or the texture underfoot at the entry can be a signal of the experience to come. Materials can feel warm or cold, rough or smooth, soft or hard. As with a lot of design elements, a well-balanced contrast can help create a rich experience. The warm rich feel of a leather bench provides necessary comfort alongside a cool stone tabletop. A slick concrete floor can be coupled with rich textured woods.

restaurant design

The one element we often forget when thinking about touch is air. The handling and movement of air is a huge concern in restaurants as we need to exhaust grease and odours while maintaining a comfortable environment.  Drafts from entry doors, or poorly placed air diffusers can spoil an otherwise great experience. While a fireplace is a lovely accent, it can be wasted if the heat proves to be too intense for adjacent seating. If we work to capture sunlight in a space, only to find we have created an uncomfortably hot “greenhouse,” the desired effect is wasted.


Like touch, smell is also linked to memory and closely tied to eating since it is so much entwined in the sense of taste. But food is not the only source of smell in a restaurant, so attention needs to be paid.   While desirable food smells can enhance the experience, we don’t need to be reminded of where we’ve been the day after dining out – so again, dealing with kitchen exhaust requires finesse. In terms of interior elements, the materials play a huge role. Care should be taken in selecting finishes that are non-obtrusive in smell, or at least harmonious with the overall experience. Materials that actively absorb odours can be a liability over time.

When researching the senses, one suggestion is that time is among them. We obviously refer to a “sense of time,” and even if we don’t rank it among the main senses, it is always at play in the dining experience. Does time speed up or slow down in a restaurant experience? Do I feel rushed or calm?   This sense is often affected by all aspects of the dining experience – not just the design and food, but also the level of service.

At the end of a restaurant experience, we mostly hope the customer will remember the great taste of the food and drink. But in the best possible world, it will be a many-layered experience that encompasses all levels of taste, and all of the senses – regardless of how many of those we think there are!

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 of all kinds. In addition to running the firm, Hannah teaches at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design. You can find them on the web at