Your favorite restaurant may have a catchy, evocative, or memorable name, a great logo, or tag line, or they may be deeply committed to a particular social cause, but ultimately it is the customer experience that defines the brand.

The 3 things that define the customers’ dining experience are the food, the service and the environment. We could debate which of these elements is most important, but I think we can agree that all 3 play significant roles in the success of any restaurant, and that the most successful restaurants do all 3 well. A hip bar scene or well-designed dining room with great ambience might get customers in the door, but if your food arrives cold, burnt, or otherwise unappetizing, you probably won’t be back, and it’s unlikely you would recommend that place to your friends. Similarly, the food could be fantastic, but if your server is inattentive, brings you something other than what you ordered, and let’s your water glass run dry, you will walk away with a negative first impression of the establishment and you may not be back.

As architects and designers, we don’t have any control over the quality of the food or the service provided by the restaurant staff. We’ll leave those to the operators. However, we have a great deal of influence over the space in which the customer experiences that food and service. Good design can’t save a restaurant with bad food and/or service, but it can make an otherwise average or unremarkable eatery a destination dining experience.

All of the elements of design play a role in creating the atmosphere the customer experiences. Thoughtful space planning is critical to ensure that on their way to the restroom customers don’t collide with wait staff on their way to the kitchen. Lighting must be functional, but it also has to be consistent with the concept. Customers need enough light to read the menu, but most don’t want to feel like they are on stage. A lighting control system may be employed to change the lighting throughout the day to adapt to changing daylight conditions, or to create a different experience for lunch versus dinner. Colors, materials and textures should relate to the concept but they also need to be easy to clean and maintain and sensitive to the project budget.

A great design team can create an architectural brand image that is unique to the brand while addressing all the operational and budgetary constraints of the project. Next time you go to your favorite restaurant ask yourself, “What is it that makes me like this place so much?” We’d love for you to share your thoughts with us.