Is there anything more depressing than a food court? The fluorescent lighting, the endless sea of Formica tables, the sad, fake trees, the weird guy sitting alone in a trench coat. We won’t even mention the food.
Well, someone’s finally trying to change things for the better: Celeb restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow has attempted to turn 20,000 square feet of a chichi Manhattan hotel into a high-tech, modernist foodie mecca. He calls it FoodParc. And the designer behind it is none other than nerd god Syd Mead (set designer for Blade Runner! Aliens! Tron!), with help from New York-based Philip Koether Architects (whose principal is a longtime collector of Mead’s work).
The concept is great. Instead of dealing with surly, pimply teenagers, you order food from touchscreen kiosks; when it’s ready, you get a text. Then you pick it up from one of four counters that serve everything from burgers and fries to Asian fusion — what New York magazine calls “a mix-and-match collection of shamelessly unhealthy fare.”
As for the design, the press release has this to say:
“Syd Mead … conceived FoodParc’s imaginative, modern aesthetics, casting the walls and flooring in off-white stone, terrazzo and other modern materials, giving the space a visually serene ambiance in which, as Mead describes it, ?food could be the star and the rest of the cast are the patrons.” Dark faux “electronic” strips throughout allude to Eventi’s elaborate electrical infrastructure, and metallic surfaces bring the outside light spectrum into the space.?
We wish we could say it was a success. Alas. The place looks like someone tried to smash together an Apple store and one of those redesigned McDonald’s — then added touchscreens. The fake electronic strips seem like mistakes and the metallic surfaces look like someone tacked tin foil on the walls. The seating below reminds us of, well, any old food court. All that’s missing is the weird guy in the trench coat.
Here’s a rendering of the concept. Sadly, it’s much nicer than the real thing. But it’s still nothing like the quantum-computing, augmented reality fantasy starring Rutger Hauer you’d expect from Mead:
All of which smacks of another attempt to bring digital dining to the fore. 4Food, also in Manhattan, got tons of buzz for its techie concept before opening earlier this month: Interactive ordering on iPads and Android devices; food promotion on Twitter and Facebook. It seemed like the perfect echo of the cultural moment. New York compared it, unqualified, to an Apple store. But it looks more like a studiously zany Internet startup circa 1999 crossed with a Dunkin? Donuts — the sort of place where you’d go to grab food then get the hell out. You can’t even see the huge LED menus overhead, because they’re so long and at such a weird angle. (Also, the burgers are gross. Remind us why you’d want to cut out the middle of the burger — isn’t it the tastiest part?)
And that’s the heart of the problem. All the attention to digital service has overlooked a key aspect of the food business: atmosphere. Restaurateurs know that’s a huge part of how you lure customers. Food courts, of course, aren’t meant for leisurely meals. At the same time, though, they can’t be so cold and boring that you lose your appetite.
[All photos by Sam Horine, except of food, by Bill Horin; rendering courtesy of Philip Koether Architects]