In our social media oriented world, the aesthetics of a hospitality establishment can be as big a draw as the quality of food and service. Millennial and Gen Z consumers are always on the look out for a selfie backdrop, a social experience to brag about or just a good vibe. After taking just one look at the bougie Saint Aymes, it's easy to see why many consider it to be the prettiest café in London. This ultra-luxe coffee & chocolate shop is a Gen Z dream with pastel pinks, lavenders and blues, bursting floral designs, and soft gold hues creating a picturesque background for an afternoon of decadent treats. The owners, sisters Lois and Michal Wilson, certainly know what they are doing, telling Express "Nothing beats a local brick-and-mortar presence, especially if it can be immortalized on Instagram". Their efforts have been a huge success, and can tell us quite a bit about how to design spaces for the next generation of hungry consumers.

Choose the Right Color Pallet

While millennial pink is still a super popular color for interior design, it is no longer a default standard for a youthful design. Pastels in general are very popular right now, likely because of how well they work for photos and for lending a lighthearted vibe to spaces. Younger consumers are often taking pictures with smartphones, which don't always do great in darker situations. Having bright pastels and metal accents creates a bright environment that works well for smartphone p hotos, providing a neutral background for those high-bokeh portrait mode shots. You can see this clearly in the design of Saint Aymes, where bright washed out colors meet over-the-top floral arrangements. Almost every photo on their Instagram page has the vibe of a springtime Vogue photo shoot.

Dark color pallets can work well, they just give off a more subdued, late-night vibe. Darker design themes can be offset using bright accents such as brass fixtures, fun floral or leaf patterns, and the everlasting favorite neon signs. These fun accents create focal points that are actually highlights against darker backgrounds, creating the type of vivid contrast that makes photos stand out on a crowded social media timeline (especially with neon).

The dark colors of this sushi bar are offset by varying textures on the floors, walls and ceilings, along with vibrant neon lights.

Regardless of if you go with a darker theme or lighter theme, texture is the key piece that can bring together different colors, patterns and ideas. Texture is not just about the feel of something you can touch, but also about the appearance of the material. Finishes like brushed metal have lines that catch light and draw the eyes along the length of a piece, while powder coated metals have a mottled texture that is keeps the focus on the piece in question. Cement can have a smooth or swirled finish that can either recede into the background or stand out as a statement, while fabrics can be smooth or rough to make them look luxurious or homey. You can mix and match textures to visually complement the colors and finishes in the rest of your design.

This tiled wall has two standout textures: the scale-like layers of tiles, as well as the rough texture of the tiles themselves.

Aim for a Vacation Chic Style

Since the COVID pandemic has forced many of us to stay home and avoid travel, it only makes sense that the current trend in restaurant design is a kind of tropical, bright and optimistic style that evokes feelings of travel. We can see this play out successfully in many ways, from the Latin beach vibes of Palmetto in Oakland to the bespoke bougie themes of Tart & Tin custom baked goods, all the way to the Havana style of the Ken Fulk designed Goodtime Hotel. Palm leaf prints, tiki-style cocktails and beach club motifs all come together to create a style that we can only summarize as art-deco vacation dreamland. Think of being outside in the warm sun, eating your favorite flavor of ice cream, taking selfies with a vintage Polaroid, and then turn that into an aesthetic. Whereas a lot of restaurant designs from the last decade have trended towards hard surfaces that feel stark, today's designs are more playful, colorful and comfortable.

As points out, the connecting theme from all of these vacation-esque finishes is optimism. After years of political turmoil followed by a continuing global pandemic, people just want to feel good when they're out to eat. A perky wallpaper or playful color scheme is a great way to escape from our isolation, they just so happen to make for the perfect photo backdrop when paired with the right cocktail.

Tropical patterned wallpapers at Understory in Oakland.

Take Inspiration from History

Trends are constantly cycling between nods to history, and building ideas about the future. "A forward-looking, high-tech style obsessed with mass commercial appeal will give way to one that’s backward-looking, handmade, authenticity-obsessed — which will then give way to some new variation on tech-forward mass style." Two distinct periods of designs are starting to show through prominently. Mid-century modern styles in particular have proven staying power, having been popular essentially since their introduction in the late 40s. The distinctly minimal, Scandinavian inspired style features thin lines, flat planes and natural textures like concrete, walnut and linen.

This vintage European vacation poster tics all the boxes for a historically inspired design. Bright colors, bold images, art-deco styling and a very tropical, vacation vibe.

Art-deco is another style that's coming back into play, with bright colors, bold tropical prints, metal accents and opulent statement pieces. One of the leaders in the restaurant design space is San Francisco based designer Ken Fulk, who describes his designs this way: “They feel evocative of another time or place, even if that place didn’t ever really exist." It's not exactly about creating a historical design, more-so that "alluding to the near past can also summon a feeling of escape" and take people out of reality for a moment.

What is clear about current restaurant design trends is that there are a lot of different ways to approach the same ideas. Looking to history for inspiration gives you a lot of options, from the transformative designs of the early 20th century, to the modern styles from the 1950s, to the neon vibrance of the 80s, you really can pick your own aesthetic and find a way to make it work in a modern way. The key is to make it feel personal, authentic, and most importantly, fun.