Designing the dining experience

September 14, 2008 — 13 Comments

I suppose eating is an experience we get quite attuned to and with the proliferation of great restaurants around it can be easy to become blasé. This week I had a couple of great dining experiences that felt quite unique and make me think that there is still plenty of room for innovation in the restaraunt industry.

I  was traveling with colleagues to Grand Rapids, Michigan where we were staying at a just opened JW Marriott hotel. We arrived from California in the early evening expecting to have a simple meal somewhere in town before meeting with our partners at Steelcase the following day. Instead, as we walked into the lobby we were met by one of the members of the Steelcase team and informed that an arrangement had been made for us to eat in the hotel’s stateroom. Images of a grand private room with overbearing waiters flashed through my head and I began to consider ways that we may get out of the invitation. We were escorted into the restaurant and then through the serving doors into the kitchen. We began to feel like Presidential candidates arriving for a speech and the interest and anticipation began to grow. We were greeted with enthusiasm by sous chefs, pastry chefs and waiters. Already this was beginning to feel special. We were finally taken into the chef’s office where a table had been laid for us to eat dinner. Instead of a stuffy stateroom we were deep in the private domain of the chef surrounded by his cookbooks, favorite wines, favorite music and the clutter of a large-scale culinary operation. What followed was a perfectly delivered meal where we chatted with the chef about the locally sourced food and how he cooked it as well as having great conversations amongst ourselves. Every piece of the experience felt like the chef and his staff designed it personally for us.

The second meal gave us a chance to see how a great architect planned our dining experience even though he died many years ago. When the famous twentieth-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed his houses he gave great thought to every aspect of the owners experience. If you visit the Meyer May house in Grand Rapids and take a tour with one of the docents you will hear how this relatively modest house in a suburban neighborhood was designed to protect the privacy of owners and guests through the overall layout of the building. Once inside you will also hear how detail after detail supports his overall objectives for the design of the house. We were fortunate to be invited for a meal at the house and when you sit at the dining table you see how carefully Wright considered the experience of eating with family and friends. The table is situated so that every person gets a view to the outside. The lighting is removed from the ceiling and placed on columns at each corner of the table so as to soften the quality of light on each persons face. The chairs (which along with the table were specifically designed by Wright) are very high backed to create an intimate feel to the gathering. He demanded that no high centerpieces were placed on the table to obscure the view between diners. Just as he did throughout the house, he engineered the dining experience to be as optimal as possible.

Tim Brown

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13 responses to Designing the dining experience

  1. In most cultures the dining experience is based around one object. The dining table. It is designed to bring us closer together than they would normally be if not there. Yet we buy them and never use them. They aren’t inviting. They keep the occupants too far way from each other, hindering conversation. It’s the small, 4 chair Ikea table in the kitchen or the coffee table where everyone crams into that we gravitate to. Maybe it’s the proximity of others or the the way the placement of the table in the room makes you feel safe. This concept is reflected in some cultures where the dining table has become a colorful hand made mat on the floor. It designates the location of the food and seating is determined by who wants to sit closer to who. It seems primitive but I feel like it creates a more powerful dining experience.

  2. I had an incredibly similar experience at the Meyer May house just last month. The food was excellent, the service warm and welcoming, and the atmosphere stunning and memorable. The company that night only made the experience that much more special.

    I too was impressed with the simplicity of the lighting, and how important a piece that played in setting such an incredible atmosphere. Seems obvious, but most get this wrong. Frank Lloyd Wright sweated the details and it is still relevant. I also appreciated how the furniture was integral to the experience, essentially creating an intimate room within the room feel at the table.

    Steelcase is the consummate host. It is beyond wonderful that they so passionately and meticulously restored the Meyer May house to showcase this hospitality.

  3. Awesome dinner table from the Wright brothers, trully great solutions for a pleasure meal. Seems to be impossible one table like this nowadays, because we’re living diferent times, the new families don’t seat on the table together for meals anymore, everyone has his own schedule. So, here is a thinking, why aren’t the tables inviting us to have a nice group meal? Maybe because we don’t want then to do this or we just don’t expect that. The dinner tables have different values for the currently homes.

  4. Well, you can’t comment on the ceremony of eating without mentioning Italy, where one wouldn’t be caught dead eating ‘ on the run’ as Americans do, or even taking food out ( it is only in the past few years that italian restaurants have created the ‘to go’ cup for espresso, which looks more like the paper cup used in a doctors office for a urine sample than anything else – except that is has a lid.
    In Italy, the dining room is Church. And being invited to the table is akin to being invited into the family.
    How wonderful to have such a customized dining experience brought to you by Steelcase, FLWright – bespoke dining at its best !

  5. Fortunate to have visited Florence early this year, the italian wining and dining experience was utter joy!

    Be it the experience of having Italian coffee in a huddled coffee shop around the street corner, or even the elaborate lunch at an outdoorsy restaurant on a modest dining table with a translucent shed above and being surrounded by trellis of fresh flowers and foliage, the entire experience was intense and immersive.

    it takes a lot of thought into designing the experience of having food at a restaurant, yet one that leaves you so content not just with the sumptuous meal but also one that lets you feel so connected with the romanticism of the Italian culture all around you!

  6. Funny about the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. I can admire aspects of them from an architectural and engineering perspective. But spending two hours at dinner in one of those hard, straight-backed dining chairs in the Meyer May house? No thank you!

    On the topic of dining, it is hospitality that makes a meal memorable. The thoughtful efforts of a warm and gracious host linger well beyond the memories of what was eaten and where.

  7. Probably the most famous chef in Europe nowdays is Ferran Adriá and his restaurant “El Bulli” located in the Catalonia in the northeast of Spain. more than eating what you are doing is experiencing with flavours and textures you have never imagined.
    well, if you happen to be his friend, or have the luck of dinning with one of their friends, you will end up dinning in the most privy table which is located -in the kitchen- there, while you have dinner, you can see the tens of cookers working in the restaurant meals.

    other Restaurant that has also a very seeked table in the Kitchen is ARZAK, located in the north of Spain, and with 2 michelin stars.

    both tables are worth visited. But prepare the walet, since dinner will not go bellow 200 euros per person.

  8. Wow, it seems to have been an amazing dinner Tim, thank you for sharing!
    I value the experience of food tremendously having grown up in a family of restaurateurs and the way I see it is such that The “Dining Experience” leads you through the doors of perception. I believe that to be unforgettable and be considered as such, it has to envelop your senses and take them to a different dimension.
    I can totally feel it:
    Begin with the charismatic energy of the host that will lead you through to a visually stimulating place, playing with fresh flowers, natural textures, colors and most importantly light. Enough ambient lighting to lounge and “hang-out” for a while but sufficient to see what you are eating.
    Sound? Well, I guess it depends on the culture and mood but definitely something happy that stimulates conversation as pots and pans and a sizzle here and there is heard in the background
    Taste… I believe in the energy of food, on the principles of Ayurvedic cooking, on a happy chef that prepares everything with awareness and love. Combining tastes; small dishes, sweet with salty, crispy with smooth…mmm
    Smell…Being in the heart of the kitchen enjoying the first course as the different aromas come to life around you; anticipating what is yet to come…
    Sitting comfortably at a round table to enjoy each others company at its best; hopefully low, close to the ground with enough back support and width of the seat to allow for a more relaxing position for the “sobre mesa.” Having a little after dinner drink with the excuse of prolonging the conversation because you are having such a wonderful time that no one wants to get up from the table!
    Yes, definitely, I agree, a dinning experience should at least last a couple of hours. How I wish I could do it more often!

  9. I have been fortunate enough to visit this and other Wright structures several times during my tenure at Steelcase. I am thankful for their commitment to design, the design community and local economy. Wright’s adherence to a vision is inspirational. But in some instances he adhered more to his vision then the needs of the human client. I believe the good design should not mandate a behavior change, rather embellish a naturally occurring one… thoughts?

  10. Design and Performance.

    What two great examples of the performative aspect of designing an experience.

    By considering an experience as a sequence of events where the user is the main character and the space is the setting, you can define the main actors (Tim and his colleagues), the supporting roles (the chef and staff), write the plot (the arrival, the menu, the departure), design / curate the setting (the kitchen, the chef’s office or the space and objects designed by FL Wright) and choreograph the play. All in order to create a special experience.

    Yes, you’re quite right Tim, there’s so much we can still do not just in the restaurant industry, but many other sectors. By choreographing a sequence of events in space and time and not just designing a table with some chairs, one can create a remarkable, hence meaningful experience, which the user will share with (and recommend to) others.

    That’s the power of bringing the user (actor) to the centre of the design process and designing an experience, as if you were choreographing a performance.

  11. Yogesh Dandekar January 8, 2009 at 11:20 am

    I very much agree with your observation regarding the Dining experience or in general the overall experience around the activity of eating or having food.
    In India I consider Kitchen at the center of the house. My Mother and now My wife carefully orchestrates the experience for the entire family.
    She is in a way a designer for our house. and I experienced this after I have started Making food on Sundays and Holidays. And as a Designer I enjoy creating the whole experience. Making food, dressing the dishes, organising the cutlery, Plates, and also serving.
    And creating this experience is also an art similar to cooking and getting that yummy taste.

  12. For me it was designed very well, it looks spacious but all the furnitures are placed in the right area to provide convenient usage, the dining table sure is lovely, and the ambiance seems to be relaxing, simply perfect when dining and having fun with your family or friends.. it also looks to be a mix of modern and traditional designs.

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