The 21 Best Designed Restaurants in America
Dining out is a holistic experience -- a commune between taste, aroma, sight, surroundings, and whether or not you can find parking (damn it what the hell is happening to this city!). The surroundings can be especially important. What kind of monster would eat sushi in a Western-themed saloon, or drop $$$ on a steak while sitting on a plastic chair? People who separate sandwiches into their constituent parts, that’s who. To the rest of us, restaurant design matters.
Because naming the best-designed restaurants, period, would be an exercise in apples vs. Boston's Union Oyster House (opened 1826), we decided to highlight our favorites built or remodeled within the past few years (the oldest/most recently redone is 8 years). From re-imagined warehouses to a fresh take on Charlie Chaplin’s former digs, here they are.
1. Twenty Five LuskSan Francisco, CA (address and info)
Discovering a restaurant at the end of an alley should prove worth it; so goes the philosophy behind Twenty Five Lusk -- named after its obscure address, within a former meatpacking plant. CCS Architecture retained the exposed brick and wood columns, but elevated the warehouse feel with mirror-polished stainless steel, laminated glass, and mirrors. The former meat-curing room is now a double-height lounge, which you can scope from the second-level dining area.
Highlight: Two oblong-shaped, stainless-steel Fireorbs suspended from the 21-foot-high ceilings. That you can’t swing on them is just plain mean.
2. AF+BFort Worth, TX (address and info)
With its geometric flooring, sleek stools and metal tables, 180-seat American Food and Beverage is one sexy tavern. Designer Claudia Woods knows her way around a brasserie, having previously kitted out downtown Dallas’ CBD Provisions in a similar mix of raw materials like exposed brick and reclaimed wood, with high polish finishes. But while CBD is cozy date night material, AF+B screams “single but aloof." In this case, "aloof" is hot.
Highlight: The reclaimed walnut and cast-zinc horseshoe bar. Stool space never looked so fetching.
3. Green Street Smoked MeatsChicago, IL (address and info)
When Brendan Sodikoff purchased a raw industrial space in Chicago’s West Loop for his latest BBQ venture, he decided to embrace, rather than mask, its warehouse aesthetic. He added no additional walls or paint to the four-walled, concrete-floored space, just dangling lights and a ton of Southern attitude in the form of bench seating, a self-serve counter, and vintage knickknacks. There are no windows, just barn doors that are opened up in summertime, making this a perfectly dark venue in which to eat pig like a pig.
Highlight: The kitchen’s 12,000lb cast-steel smoker.
4. Juniper & IvySan Diego, CA (address and info)
The Johnson Studio
Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais marries edgy with sophisticated at this once-dilapidated, 90-year-old warehouse on the edge of San Diego’s Little Italy. The Johnson Studio stripped the interior back to the original concrete shell, and added multi-height distinct dining areas set against warm wooden walls and abstract paintings. Should you want to eat your pork porterhouse w/ Nutella mole un-harassed, the rear tables can be transformed into private seating areas with the swoosh of windowpane-check curtains.
Highlight: The original crisscrossed antique redwood ceiling.
5. JuviaMiami, FL (address and info)
Proving that there’s much more to Miami architecture than Art Deco, Juvia takes advantage of its proximity to South Beach, and its penthouse-level location, with an ultra-modern, trackless, retractable roof for year-round terrace dining. A 22-foot-high vertical plant wall allows panoramic views of downtown, while the indoor dining area's floor-to-ceiling windows... kind of still make you wish you were out on the terrace. It's so cool!
Highlight: Take a load off on the sofas that wrap around the terrace’s celestial water fountain.
6. La PegPhiladelphia, PA (address and info)
Stokes Architecture/Groundswell Design Group
La Peg was the final installment in contemporary arts organization, FringeArts’ new waterfront venue on the Delaware River, now a permanent home for local artists and the annual Fringe Festival. A former high-pressure pump house turned bi-level, indoor-outdoor brasserie, Stokes’ renovation retained the mechanical feel by reusing existing tanks and pumps, and honors the building's past with a huge historic pic behind one of the two bars. A small stage hosts comedy, cabaret and theater, but before you grab that mic, remember: there are professionals in the room.
Highlight: The beer garden, with seating for 40 and views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
7. LolóSan Francisco, CA (address and info)
Now relocated a few blocks away on Valencia Street, Mexican restaurant Loló is the bigger, brighter sister to its predecessor and entirely the vision of its owners, Executive Chef Jorge Martinez and his wife, “artist by accident,” Lorena Zertuche. Tropical-themed color and texture backs contrasting Mission District oddities like cowboy boots framed by bike tires, woven purses stuffed with flowers, bike-handlebar chandeliers, and walls of ceramic dogs and discarded car doors. Zertuche switches out elements as her tastes change, or she finds new objects -- you never know when someone's going to discard an even better car door.
Highlight: The men’s room is papered in cleats and halves of colored soccer balls.
8. Loretta’s Last CallBoston, MA (address and info)
Design Principal Stephen Martyak’s Nashville roots are much in evidence at Loretta’s, a Southern food restaurant that couldn’t be more Music City if it sang about its divorce, or its... Crushin' It? You go, Brad Paisley! Anyway, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash vinyl line the paneled walls and dominate the vintage juke, and there’s a marquee-lit stage, should you feel inspired to break out some Jolene.
Highlight: The pink ceiling, complete with wagon wheel chandeliers.
9. RépubliqueLos Angeles, CA (address and info)
As the site of the former Campanile -- not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s onetime crib -- République is as storied an LA location as they come. The renovation team focused on the Spanish-style building’s 1920s origins, with restored light fixtures and period-appropriate geometric tile flooring, white-brick walls, and rustic, reclaimed wood tables. If communal seating terrifies you, get your own table in the more polished, modern back room.
Highlight: The barstools feature metalwork by owner Walter Manke’s brother and wood seat tops by his father, so if you start singing "We Are Family"... everyone will stare at you because that would be weird.
10. Rogue 24Washington, DC (address and info)
While its former-garage location in historic Blagden Alley is a slow reveal, there are no secrets inside Rogue 24’s sleek, but still brick-walled interior. There are open kitchens and then there’s this: a centerpiece open cooking area that lends a theater-like vibe to the dining room and leaves no ambiguity about how your food was prepared.
Highlight: No rogue cilantro in your food: “I saw you!”
11. Rosebud American Kitchen & BarSomerville, MA (address and info)
Davis Square’s historic Rosebud dining car made a comeback recently, with a tweaked name and polished up Americana-on-wheels. The formerly rundown silver cart was gut renovated to honor the diner experience, but better, with tufted leather in place of vinyl in its cherry-red booths, and a fancier, white brick-lined rear dining room kitted out with hand-hewn woods and barrel-backed stools.
Highlight: The raised patio, with pergola. This is not your father’s dining car.
12. Spoon and StableMinneapolis, MN (address and info)
From the name and logo, right down to bar back elements like the wood cut in an employee’s garage, Shea drew up a cohesive plan and stuck to it. Befitting a restaurant designed with sightlines in mind, there is no bad vantage point, from the open kitchen, to the glowing, working wine room, and the salvaged-wood chef’s bar. The team spent months sit-testing the Scandinavian, mid-century modern furniture, which is upholstered in fabric rather than leather to absorb ambient sound.
Highlight: The spoon-and-decorative-driftwood art piece is a nod to Chef Gavin Kaysen’s habit of pocketing spoons from restaurants. Don't judge him.
13. St. CeciliaAtlanta, GA (address and info)
The Meyer Davis Studio
Garnering rave national reviews for the Marcello Mastroianni-level sexiness of its floor-to-ceiling windows, plush leather banquettes and reclaimed wood flooring, three-story Cecilia's Italian Riviera vibe is in line with the coastal European menu, as are the creamy wall palette, white columns, and subtle seaside finishes like brass and marine-blue.
Highlight: The oversized, 20-seater, marble-topped bar, which comes complete with a bookcase filled with taxidermy creatures. That’s just pazzo.
14. URBONew York, NY (address and info)
Savelii Archipenko and Hecho
With 600 seats over three levels, five distinct dining zones, and 26,000 square feet, URBO (short for “urban bohemian”) is a beho (short for behemoth -- all the kids are saying it). Despite its dimensions, URBO’s design is distinctly artisanal, with reclaimed subway tile and wood, hand-hammered finishes and museum-worthy artifacts like a paymaster’s office from an antique railroad station, salvaged fire escapes, and antique radios. Open kitchens, a glass elevator and a garden-like loft area root it firmly in the present.
Highlight: The ground floor’s mini, fully functioning Rosenwach water tower. Selfie like a giant.
15. The GreySavannah, GA (address and info)
Parts and Labor Design
Lest there be any doubt that you are eating dinner in a Greyhound bus terminal, The Grey’s nods to its past include gate numbers on the wall and an open kitchen within the former ticketing booth. The landmarked, 1938 Art Deco façade was restored to its original form, while the interior transformation includes a bar in the central gate area, a private dining area in the women’s shower room, and a wine cellar in the drivers’ bunk room.
Highlight: The pass-through window now serves cocktails to the back yard. Cocktails > bus tickets.
16. The Musket RoomNew York, NY (address and info)
Alexander Waterworth Interiors
London-based Alexander Waterworth Interiors won a 2014 Restaurant & Bar Design Award for its industrial-elegant work. Inspired by Chef Matt Lambert’s rustic New Zealand roots, the dining room meshes raw materials like exposed brick, reclaimed barn timbers from upstate New York, and walnut table tops, with upscale touches like mid-century furniture, brass lighting, and leather banquettes. Finding the unassuming entrance on Elizabeth means instant cred or abject failure.
Highlight: The back room’s huge window overlooking the herb garden, from which the chef will harvest your garnish before your very eyes.
17. The OptimistAtlanta, GA (address and info)
NO Architecture/Smith Hanes Design
Short of taking to the high seas, it’s hard to get more nautical than this chic but nostalgic seafood emporium, which was inspired by sun-bleached Instagram filters and ‘70s Venice Beach surf shacks. Though this renovated meat warehouse retains its architectural bones, the industrial effect is softened through wood and textile panels on the brick walls, and accent lighting on the steel trusses. New architectural features include 16-inch-deep steel windows, steel bar shelving and antique wood strips inspired by lobster traps. What, you thought that thing on your plate walked there?
Highlight: The surfboard-shaped, oiled-walnut bar.
18. Westward & Little GullSeattle, WA (address and info)
Huxley Wallace Collective
Wes Andersen fans are not imagining things: Westward & Little Gull really is inspired by The Life Aquatic, and that really is a portrait of Steve Zissou. Each zone of this Mediterranean-styled seafood restaurant, on the shores of Lake Union, is its own world, and that world lives in the ‘60s -- from the leather tufted swivel stools to the Hans Wagner-reproduction dining chairs. Get sociable at the communal table, or park yourself at the chef’s table for a direct view of the water and cityscape.
Highlight: The 25-foot-long, ship slice that is the back bar. Marvel at the dozens of exposed compartments, some of which house liquor (no surprises there), and some of which are fully realized, wallpapered dioramas.
19. Workshop Kitchen + BarPalm Springs, CA (address and info)
The 2015 James Beard Award winner for Best Restaurant Design is a lesson in contrasts. It has all the trappings of a landmarked 1926 Spanish Colonial, like terra-cotta roof tiles, a 27-foot-high cathedral ceiling, and an exterior courtyard, but inside? Say hi to concrete Brutalism. It’s concrete with an ecclesiastical theme, however, drawn from the 34-feet-long communal table, “side chapels,” and the altar-like bar area, at the foot of a nave. All that’s missing is a confessional booth but hey, that’s what the bartender’s for.
Highlight: The daylit dining alcove, with seating for 16.
20. Fulton Market KitchenChicago, IL (address and info)
Daniel Alonso/Alex Morales
You might be tempted to ask the staff of the art gallery you mistakenly entered where the restaurant is – and how you ended up on the East coast. The unique setting, a self-described “portal of creativity,” is inspired by the 1980s New York art scene and Miami’s famed graffiti installation, Wynwood Walls. Fulton’s rotating collaborations with local artists ensure that there is always something new to see, and the weekly series, “5x5,” offers customers a behind-the-scenes look at live art creation.
Highlight: Depends on the rotation, but the bar back made of stacked chairs is a constant curiosity.
21. Smith CommonsWashington, DC (address and info)
Taking Smith Commons from a former carpet warehouse to a three-story house concept was not without hiccups, like a car driving through the future site of the first-floor bar (yeah) during construction. But it got there in a year. The space incorporates second-and third-floor patios, plus a meeting space, a wooden bar on each level, and a relaxed scheme of white-oak flooring, exposed-brick walls, and picture windows throughout. In other words, just like home -- if you won a $50 million legal settlement from some guy who drove through your old living room.
Highlight: The loft space overlooking the second-floor lounge.