NEW YORK • If you are not an eagle-eyed Michelin inspector, there are countless things you miss when you eat out.
David Rockwell, guru of design for everything from hotels (Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho, Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles) to clubs (Tao at Dream Hotel in Los Angeles) knows how to keep the foodie burpingly happy.
He is perhaps best known for his restaurants, from the original Nobu in Tribeca to an upcoming trio of Tao locations in Times Square.
It has already been a busy year for Rockwell in the world of prime New York restaurants.
He re-created Union Square Cafe with Danny Meyer and then moved Nobu to its expansive downtown setting.
He credits an early interest in theatre and a move to Mexico with his family when he was young, which left him with an affinity for creating spaces that evoke senses of community, cool and quality.
"I create very different restaurants, but one thing I want to share is that sense of theatre and the promise of entertainment."
He shares the ingredients of good restaurant design:
1 THE ENTRANCE IS IMPORTANT
It is all about first impressions.
"The entrance is like the theatre," he said. "At Union Square Cafe, which is set on a corner, Danny and I spent a great deal of time deciding whether you would enter on Park Avenue South or 19th Street. Danny wanted a sense of neighbourhood so the entrance is on 19th Street.
"Then you have to imagine the view of a guest the second he walks in - customers make snap decisions.
"What if there are only four people at the bar? You have to consider every situation and create an environment that feels welcoming in all of them."
2 CALIBRATE THE NOISE LEVEL
"You'll always remember when a place is too noisy," he said.
"At Union Square Cafe, we wanted it to be acoustically comfortable, but you also want to hear the ding of glasses, the energy of the space - that's why you go out.
"So, micro perforations in the ceiling absorb sound. You can do it in pockets so some spots in the room are noisier than others.
"At Nobu, we perforated the fabric. We wanted a little higher level of din."
3 CREATE DIFFERENT SPACES
"Choreography is critical. You want to create different spaces.
"At Union Square, we took the open room that is the ground floor and created sequencing. A long wooden table and area rug define the seating near the entrance. It allows you to decide that one evening, you might want to be on view and sit in those seats, or in the dining room.
"On the other hand, you can go upstairs to the balcony and be an audience member, watching the show.
"When it comes to seating design, there are important ground rules. If you have more than four tables across, it starts to get a cafeteria vibe. So you have to mix in a large table or another element of design."
4 HIS SECRET WEAPON IS LIGHTING
People may not notice it, but "lighting choreographs your restaurant experience", said Rockwell. "What you look at - and what you don't - is determined by the lighting.
"Nobu Downtown is in a basement with no natural light, which gives us the most control. We tempered the lighting to amber throughout, which gives a sense of warmth, while pin-spot lighting in the wooden canopy creates more visual impact."
5 AVOID DEAD ZONES
"One thing you never want to do is create areas and seats that people don't want to go to. My motto: Everyone wants a corner booth.
"The goal is to create as many corner booths as possible and, sometimes, you have to be creative.
"For instance, at Avra Madison, to draw people to the back of the room, we installed a large seafood display. Now you're drawn back there and the seating around it is considered some of the best in the house."