The rise of delivery apps and fast casual dining has challenged the restaurant industry in the last few years. So while the food is still the main attraction, more and more people are seeking an experience when they spend the money to dine out. And that experience often starts with the restaurant’s décor.

Even if you don’t know the name Helen Reed, you probably know her work. From The Boathouse to The Daily Kitchen & Bar, she has designed the interiors of some of Richmond’s most popular restaurants.

Reed works with the owners to create a scheme that makes sense for the food, the atmosphere, and the brand of the restaurant. And while she says most designers tend to design toward the concept of the restaurant rather than try to follow the latest fad, a few identifiable trends have emerged in restaurants in recent years.

Community tables. Since the growth of takeout and delivery apps, it has gotten easier to eat your restaurant meal at home. Perhaps as a direct backlash, some restaurants have added options for more social dining experiences. Two of Reed’s clients – Perch and Shagbark–- have communal tables, and another, Bateau, has a communal counter.

“Hotel projects have also requested them – they are a great way for people to gather,” said Reed. “They’re going to be here for a while. People like to come together. Clients are requesting them more frequently.”

Community tables also add extra seating for restaurants, which allows room for more customers, and gives customers who are dining solo an alternative to eating at the bar.

Open kitchens. There’s a greater demand for food transparency now – knowing where food is coming from and how it’s handled before it’s eaten. At Perch, customers sit facing a windowless opening opposite a large wood-fire oven, with stacks of kindling to the side.

“The chef/owner, Mike Ledesma, requested a pizza oven and wanted it to be a focal point. Everything is angled at it – the bar, for example. The idea is to be focused on the kitchen,” said Reed. “People want to be able to see what’s happening, and see how safe and clean the environment is. For a foodie, it’s a great experience too – watching the chefs work.”

Plants and sustainable materials. The rise in food transparency has also led to a need for more environmentally friendly décor. Having lots of greenery implies a direct connection to a restaurant’s use of fresh ingredients. Perch and Shagbark both display planters of herbs that are used in their kitchens. Perch also has citrus trees on site, said Reed.

And restaurants now ask to incorporate recycled and net-zero waste materials in their design. The name Shagbark is a reference to Shagbark hickory trees, which grow on a farm that chef/owner Walter Bundy hunts on, said Reed. She used irregular, organic-shaped pieces of the tree for the communal table, and as panels separating the bar and dining room.

LED lighting. Fluorescent lighting is not ideal for dining, so the advances in LED lighting have been welcomed by the industry.

“Long-term, LED lighting is getting much better. It was unpredictable. Now you’re able to dim it, and it’s gotten warmer. Warm light is what we want in hospitality. It’s not expensive anymore and you save on your electricity bill,” said Reed.

Many of the lighting fixtures in Shagbark are LED and custom-designed. “The inspiration for the light fixture above the community table in the front window came from dew drops on grass in the morning. We wanted it to be a focal point in the window,” said Reed.

Acoustic advances. Ever had to shout to be heard in a crowded restaurant? Blame bad acoustics. Reed works to correct the problem with acoustic tiles, which no longer have to be boring, standard flat panels.

“They should be a piece of art,” said Reed. At Bateau, she installed hanging tiles that resemble giant coffee filters, which is fitting for the décor of the coffee and wine bar.

Local art. Independent restaurants want to highlight their ties to the community, and many of Reed’s clients do so by showcasing local artists or honoring local history with their art.

Many of Shagbark’s artworks are pieces from chef/owner Bundy’s own collection, including several from Richmond artist Guy Crittenden, whose landscapes and wildlife paintings fit the theme of the farm-to-table restaurant.

A mural in Perch pays homage to Joy Garden, the Chinese restaurant that previously occupied the space for 50 years, said Reed. “We hired a photographer to photograph the murals – they were faded, nicotine-stained, and had food smells. Then we had an artist strip them down into one piece.”

And a blown-up photo of The Headman statue on Brown’s Island hangs on the wall of Bateau. The statue and photo commemorate the lives of the black bateaumen who guided the boats along the James River in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Instagrammable décor. The biggest trend for the industry may just be one resulting from the proliferation of smartphones and the Instagram app: everything should be photogenic.

“It’s all about how to be creative. An Instagram-ready food post is how a lot of marketing is done for restaurants now. It’s about how to have the best lighting for Instagram,” said Reed.

From the antler chandelier in Shagbark to the enormous sliding front window at Perch, it’s all about the touches that will make your restaurant look eye-catching and inviting in a photo.

Reed incorporates many of these trends into her designs, but also makes sure to follow her own guiding notions of restaurant design.

“One of my philosophies in design is to create areas where you can have different experiences in different spaces in a small restaurant. In Perch, you can notice something completely different everywhere you sit. People can have a drink at the bar and say ‘I didn’t see that last time I was here,’” said Reed.  

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