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An inspired plan to help restaurants reopen: Let diners eat al fresco

These modular restaurant kits by the prominent architecture firm Rockwell Group could help restaurants reopen.

An inspired plan to help restaurants reopen: Let diners eat al fresco
[Image: Rockwell Group]

Restaurants are beginning to reopen across the country, and they’re coming up with some wacky ways to keep patrons 6 feet apart, from intertubes to pool noodle hats to greenhouses (though, sometimes, they aren’t doing much of anything).

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As thrilling as that sounds to my inner kid, it’s clear there is a need for a practical design solution to help restaurants navigate the new rules of operation as states begin phased reopening under restricted guidelines—without turning patrons into human bumper cars.

Designer David Rockwell and his team at the architecture and design firm Rockwell Group—which has done interiors for Nobu and Catch, among other high-end restaurants—have developed a modular outdoor dining kit that restaurants can use to extend their existing seating area onto the adjacent sidewalk and street. Restaurants are a volume business. They need to serve a lot of customers to turn a profit. This would help restaurants maintain a degree of volume under reduced occupancy and social distancing guidelines—and let diners eat al fresco at a safe distance. No silly hats required.

[Image: Rockwell Group]
The concept is in response to an announcement last week from New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who said he was open to the idea of using city streets to give restaurants more space to operate. Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg also said the city is actively looking into the idea. They do have a foundation to work with—the city already plans to close 40 miles of streets to cars in May and 100 miles in total over the coming months. If that happens, it could change urban design in the city.

On a practical level, Rockwell Group needs all those street closures for its concept to work. A spokesperson for Rockwell Group told Fast Company that the firm is on calls with the city “every day. . . . We, as an architecture and design firm, are able to institute these plans when we have a green light.”

The modular outdoor dining set includes a covered booth that provides semi-enclosed dining for individual parties, a sanitation station, a deck to cover the pavement, and plant-covered fencing to create an enclosed barrier from the street. The team has also developed floor plans for varying outdoor seating capacities, from as few as 30 seats to as many as 216. The concepts take over part of the sidewalk and street but appear to leave space for pedestrians. The firm says they plan to provide the instructions and tools needed to assemble the kit as the project develops.

[Image: Rockwell Group]
Rockwell Group says it is working with restaurant operators and staff, and others active in the larger restaurant industry, to create safe spaces for restaurant workers and their guests. The firm hopes to create a template that’s adaptable to different locations and street environments, cost-effective, and generates revenue, according to the press release. “We look forward to working with the city to implement these plans at restaurants across the boroughs,” says the spokesperson. “We think there’s an appetite for outdoor dining as the summer approaches.” Here’s hoping it’s a rainless summer.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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