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A digital rendering of the inside of a restaurant, with a glass case in front and stools at a bar in the background
Retail cases at the front of restaurants have become more prevalent during the pandemic.

The Pandemic Will Change How Restaurants Look in the Long Run, Too

Many adjustments made to accommodate coronavirus measures, like moveable seating arrangements and market areas — could be permanent fixtures

The dining room at Canlis is a marvel of mid-20th-century modernist architecture, all pitched angles and Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetics. With sweeping views of Lake Union and the Cascades, the upscale Queen Anne restaurant has been a destination for anniversaries, birthdays, and other celebrations since it opened 70 years ago. Throughout the decades, the James Beard Award winner has become known for its impeccable service and elevated atmosphere that is refined without being too stuffy.

But almost a full year into a deadly pandemic, Canlis sits mostly empty. Through 2020 and early 2021, the restaurant has tried out different iterations of service, including transformations into a burger drive-thru, a drive-in movie theater, and an outdoor crab boil. In the fall, it became a makeshift studio for YouTube cooking classes and other instructional videos as part of an effort called Canlis Community College. Online clips weren’t limited to the culinary world: Stylists from Rudy’s Barbershop gave tips on home haircuts, while the members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet taught a virtual jazzercise class. The Canlis team even went to the zoo and the aquarium to put together children’s programming.

As fall turned to winter, it was unclear when (or if) the familiar version of Canlis or any other restaurants would return. When asked in October to look ahead to a time when the disease will loosen its grip on the world, when dining inside won’t put diners or workers at a serious health risk, co-owner Brian Canlis was at a loss. “I feel like I’m that astronaut who’s gone too far into space and not sure I can ever be normal again,” he said.

It may be difficult to visualize what restaurants will look like when the pandemic is in the past, but these projections are not entirely in the realm of science fiction. Some designers and architects in the Seattle area are already considering a more optimistic future with blueprints in their heads, knowing that some aspects of the COVID-era restaurant may be here to stay, while some will eventually fall by the wayside. Renewed efforts to create more energy-efficient buildings (particularly the recently announced ban of fossil fuels in new Seattle residential and commercial constructions) will mean that thoughtful approaches to climate change could influence the future of food establishments in conjunction with ongoing public health precautions.

Local firm Heliotrope won a 2020 James Beard Award for its design work on Ballard’s Sri Lankan-influenced Rupee Bar, an ornate space that only has seating for 26 diners even at its pre-pandemic maximum capacity. But Heliotrope co-founder and design principal Michael Mora recognizes that the elements once highly valued in the hospitality industry may no longer apply. “We always try to create spaces that feel busy, where if you’ve noticed the floor, you’ve failed,” he says. “But COVID has challenged that.”

Even when vaccines have been widely distributed to the general public, public health precautions will need to remain in place. And people may not feel safe packing themselves into spaces, shoulder to shoulder, ever again. Mora says the firm usually likes fixed seating — banquettes and booths — but there continues to be a call for more adaptability: tables that can be moved around or removed completely. He expects that, down the line, open kitchens will be more prevalent than they are already because of a desire for more “transparency” and openness in restaurants. Low- or no-contact areas will likely be essential. “People should be able to walk into a restroom without touching too many things,” Mora says.

The interior of Communion, with dark leather booths, a copper roof, and a bar, facing the street
Communion was plotted out pre-pandemic, but made adjustments.
Suzi Pratt
A penciled-out design layout for a restaurant and bar, topdown view.
Early designs of Communion’s layout
Atelier Drome

Chef Rachel Yang of the acclaimed restaurants Joule (designed by Heliotrope) echoes the need for versatility, even in a post-COVID environment. “Everyone will want to be nimble with their operation,” she says, citing the need for a good “street presence” and takeout windows to help restaurants diversify. “It’s no longer how many people you can pack in with the communal tables or bar counters, but rather how many ways you can serve customers with takeout, meal kits, retail items, along with the traditional services.”

Dining room size will be paramount, although there are differing opinions on how such a factor goes into planning for the long term. Yang believes that because of costs and potential safety issues with large crowds, many restaurateurs may avoid spaces that are larger than 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. Others — such as Mora and JuneBaby and Salare chef-owner Edouardo Jordan — feel that bigger restaurants may be necessary to space people out as much as possible. But this trend would come with a huge caveat. “Landlords are going to have to come to terms with the realities about rent,” says Jordan, who cautions that there may simply be fewer full-service restaurants overall down the line.

Currently, retrofitting a space to accommodate COVID measures can add up. Metis Construction general manager Nils Christian, whose company has worked on recent projects such as the Central District’s new soul food restaurant Communion and Hello Robin’s second location in the U Village, says plastic partitioning between booths for restaurants can be in the $3,000 to $4,000 range, while creating a takeout window can cost upward of $15,000. “Planning out a restaurant is kind of like the inside of a Ferrari,” he says. “Every inch is kind of accounted for. So to all of a sudden try to build more pathways for takeout is extraordinarily challenging — and expensive.”

But even “temporary” amenities could be around for a long time. Jim Graham, of the firm Graham Baba, recently worked on a new takeout-only window for the Capitol Hill Mexican restaurant Mezcaleria Oaxaca. The feature was planned before the pandemic really hit the region, and could provide a model on what baked-in design elements will look like going forward. “We do know eventually we’ll get out of the pandemic, but the idea this may happen again means we need to push toward the idea of flexibility,” he says. “Variable seating that changes with each visit ... Air systems will be very important ... Better sightlines to visually share the experience [inside a restaurant].”

Michelle Linden, the co-owner and principal architect at Atelier Drome — which worked on the design of Communion — says that putting a small market area for retail items was something that was built into the original plans, as chef Kristi Brown’s famed black-eyed pea hummus is a big draw. But making such elements a long-term staple in future projects wouldn’t be a surprise. “A lot of people have added the market elements, and people love it,” she says. Notably, chef Renee Erickson’s restaurant the Whale Wins transformed into the Whale Wins Cafe and Larder, making the pantry selections a more prominent and permanent fixture.

Not all changes will be so seamless. Graham says ad hoc features such as cheap-looking “shower-curtain partitions” may be short-lived, but the need for intimacy and privacy could lead to more sectioned-off areas, rather than a large dining room with communal seating. Modifying traffic patterns within a space so customers or workers don’t run into each other is another design aspect that may be a challenge.

Meanwhile, Linden says firms will need to reexamine where the point-of-sale systems are set up to make takeout orders more convenient, and figure out smart positioning for plate pickup and dropoff points. “You should be able to traverse the whole dining area without criss-crossing into people,” she says. A recent redesign Atelier Drome did for Capitol Hill’s Artusi made the bar itself smaller so that there would be more rooms for tables and chairs, and the point-of-sale system was moved closer to the door.

Noise levels in restaurants — long a bugaboo for diners in Seattle — could be a focal point as well, particularly since studies have shown that amplified vocalization correlates with increased disease transmission. “You can feel the tipping point of when a restaurant gets too noisy,” says Graham. “I’d like to see that dealt with.”

The takeout window for Mezcaleria Oaxaca, with a big arrow that says “takeout” and a sign for the taqueria outside
The takeout window for Mezcaleria Oaxaca
Graham Baba

Linden echoes that sentiment and says that soundproofing with softer materials or designing more curved wall structures could be a way to solve the problem, since right angles tend to redirect sound waves around a room more easily. “You could also have slotted screens made of wood that are hung from the ceiling,” she says. Such elements would dampen noise while avoiding fabrics that are difficult to clean.

Of course, it isn’t all about what’s inside. With Seattle extending free, expedited permits for streets and sidewalk seating in the city until October 2021, restaurants will need to think more intentionally about what alfresco dining should look like. “Usually outdoor space is a last-minute afterthought for clients, like, ‘Oh, hey, can you add this patio?‘“ says Mora, adding that he’d like to see local officials help restaurants integrate even more into public common areas. The trend of everyone drinking outside in Seattle during the brief moments in late summer and fall when the weather cooperated was appealing — not so much during winter months.

Of course, the pandemic still dictates the pace at which restaurant design evolves. COVID transmission remains a top concern in the area, even though there are some encouraging signs. Average cases in King County over a 7-day period as of January 27 was 304, which is high, but starting to trend down, and dining rooms in Seattle will reopen Monday, February 1, at 25 percent capacity. Vaccine distribution continues to be rolled out to essential workers, high-risk populations, and those over the age of 65, with the pace picking up a bit recently after a slower-than-expected start. But the restaurant world can’t count on a magic fix any time soon.

Regardless of the reopening timeline, figuring out solutions to future restaurant design problems shouldn’t only address COVID concerns. While the new regulations on fossil fuels in Seattle won’t directly impact restaurants at first (there can still be gas or wood-fired grills), chefs, owners, and architects will have to come up with ways to create more sustainable environments in hospitality. Restaurants in newer buildings may have an easier time adhering to energy efficiency standards than those trying to revamp an older space, says Linden, and everyone will have to reexamine the way they source materials.

“Just like in food, in design work, we’re trying to buy local and really source locally,” Linden says. ‘Like, if we can get the chairs locally instead of shipping items from overseas, that’s going to be better for the environment, support the local economy more, and hopefully create something long lasting.”

Overall, the challenges of the pandemic, together with increasing awareness over environmental impacts, will likely create a sea change for the restaurant industry, the beginnings of which are hinted at in the spaces that continue to evolve. It’s unclear at this point where the fundamentals of the hospitality industry fit into the blueprints, but the safety of diners must be paramount. “A restaurant should feel like going into someone’s home, and restaurants will struggle until we can create that comfort,” says Jordan.