WEB EXTRA: Restaurant Design: A Chat with ICRAVE’s Greg Merkel

Greg Merkel, the creative director at ICRAVE, has a portfolio that includes the design of STK New York. We asked him for his thoughts on restaurant design. Image courtesy ICRAVE.FORM’s current print edition features the winners of the AIA|LA Restaurant Design Awards. Inspired by the amazing spaces, we reached out to Greg Merkel to get some insight into his approach to restaurant design. Merkel, the creative director of ICRAVE, joined the company in 2006 and has worked on projects ranging from nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles to restaurants around the country. Here, he unpacks what makes a great restaurant and how, with today’s diners, the expectations are bigger than ever. 

How does restaurant design differ from other types of hospitality design?

Restaurant design has been getting better and [more] over the top. I feel recently they have become a whole new animal—a beast unto themselves in the hospitality world. Obviously food and getting it to people is nothing new, but the recent obsession with eating “the best of” plus having access to the coolest, newest everything at the touch of a button has put an unprecedented spotlight on dining out. In response to this, the industry has propelled the notion that the environment in which you eat “the best burger” or “the best steak” is nearly just as important as what’s on your plate.

What is it about restaurant design that’s appealing to your practice?

At ICRAVE, we find this spotlight being shone on dining out and the customer’s expectations for how the space should interact with all five senses, much more interesting than just the stage itself. We don’t want to design another restaurant just to design another restaurant. When you shine a spotlight on something, you are opening it up to be seen in a new light. It is this “newness” that we try to focus on.

What are the particular challenges of restaurant design?

It is getting to the point now that just about every restaurant offers amazing food and the “best this” or “best that.” Restaurants now need to up their game and offer an experience beyond dining. It’s been said that people first consume with their eyes, so the design of the space must set the stage for the food, but now that we have all become such skilled consumers and consume information all day long, it is no longer enough to just deliver a beautiful space. Consumers have become savvier and get bored faster, which puts more pressure on us the designers to offer something to match.

Greg Merkel, of ICRAVE. Photograph courtesy ICRAVE.

What are some of the opportunities/benefits?

At ICRAVE there are always opportunities in every project we do, restaurant or not. For us the opportunities are usually the challenges mentioned above—how to push the project beyond what is expected. How can we make the space more impactful and have meaning beyond the materials on the walls? How do people interact in the space?

What’s the key to a great space?

The key to a great restaurant is that it must be more than just an amazing looking space. At ICRAVE, we are more interested in creating one holistic design, environment, and experience that extends beyond the brick and mortar location. A great space is one that manages to feel completely natural and comforting, all while getting you to engage in a way that you otherwise wouldn’t, or is one that manages to feel new and fresh each time you come without having to reinvent itself every couple of months. There are many different metrics for measuring greatness for us, but we try to challenge the norm of restaurant design by asking the unasked questions and deconstructing every touch point or design element that is experienced by the customer.

What are some trends in restaurant design at the moment?

We are arguably in the heyday of beautifully designed restaurants, but design trends come and go. Most recently the idea of timelessness and its counterpoint to the economic crisis has served us all well in the design industry. Obviously ‘timelessness’ means different things to different clients, but I don’t see this going away anytime soon.

What are some trends that are on the horizon?

There is now a much more distinct bleed between different programs within the world of hospitality. The lines between dining and retail, dining and entertainment, dining and spectacle have all been blurred…defining and curating this gray area where all of these are all meeting is what interests and drives us at ICRAVE. We feel and are driving the idea that restaurant design now has to extend beyond food type and look to the holistic design and programming I mentioned before. We are now designing the brand, how the brand communicates, what the messengers of the brand are wearing, the programming that happens inside of the locations beyond just eating and drinking, and of course what the space looks like. It is less about a trend in décor than it is about a trend in offering an experience and a lifestyle.

What are some trends that are on their way out?

Not to sound pithy, but all trends by their very nature are on their way out. Once it has gathered enough momentum to be listed as a trend, it is more than likely on its way to being played out. Sorry, trends.

Any trends that are filtering into other areas of design (residential, etc.)?

The crossover projects that I mentioned before means that we are now going to see restaurants as more “dining as retail” and “dining as entertainment” situations. With this I think we will see more and more dining setups in retail locations and the line between the two will be further blurred.

What’s a dream project like?

I’m actually very lucky in that I am actually already doing my dream project. I am renovating my home along with my wife Catalina who is also a designer. It is really a labor of love (we are nearly two years into the process and just barely starting to see the finish line), but it is great to do something for yourself and with a loved one. Despite the disagreements.

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