Design Matters

What gives a successful restaurant its ‘Special Sauce’?

by Val Nehez
Posted 10/19/23

It turns out that something new and special can create a whole new “vibe” inside a familiar old package.

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Design Matters

What gives a successful restaurant its ‘Special Sauce’?


When I was 19 years old, I opened a restaurant. The building was an abandoned department store, on the main street of the tiny town of Tivoli, NY. 

My boyfriend and I lived in a makeshift apartment in the back of the building. We had the landlord over for dinner once. He said that we were excellent cooks and offered us six months of free rent to give a go at opening a restaurant in the front. We were flattered and took him up on it. 

In hindsight, he just wanted to get a tenant and the meal may or may not have been that good. But 30-plus years later, that restaurant is still open and going strong. 

We opened with a zero budget. The dining room decor consisted of folding chairs, Mexican blankets and some plants. Still, the place was a big success – like, a line around the block kind of success. 

This begs the question: What is it about the “vibe” of a place that makes some work and others flop? 

Of course, there are all of the obvious reasons why a restaurant succeeds, including location, quality and service. 

But could there be something more? What is the inexplicable energy that gives certain bars and restaurants that magical appeal while other places fail, no matter how hard they try to get everything right? 

When my design studio is designing restaurants, I am tasked with the exorcism of the old energy and how that translates into the new decor. 

We all know of certain commercial locations that for some reason, seem to fail time and time again. Think of the sad experience of seeing a new owner trying to restart a failed restaurant with a few slight design “tweaks” – a new sign, recovering the bar stools and maybe some sponge painting. 

It was with that perspective that I was recently reluctant to be dragged to the Sakura Ramen and Sushi Bar at the top of the Hill, a new Japanese restaurant in the space formerly known as Osaka. Osaka had previously delivered a mediocre experience, and I thought I’d likely get more of the same. 

And walking in the front door, I wasn’t hopeful. Everything – from the bar, the art,  to the wall colors – looks exactly the same as it did before. They even kept the same plug-in flashing “open” sign.

But then I met Owen, the new owner, and Abel, our waiter. Abel’s warmth and infectious enthusiasm about the menu were immediately welcoming. 

And the meal turned out to be a delightfully perfect experience. The presentation was like sushi at a drag show – over the top, colorful and sparkling with glistening flowers and lights. In other words, it was really sweet and fun. 

I have now become a very good home cook and am certainly a food-obsessed person. I notice everything about an eatery. I am polite but I demand a certain level of integrity. 

The food tasted very good, yes, but I couldn’t help but wonder – was it really that much tastier than Osaka was? Or was it the charm and earnest personality of Owen and Abel that was making all the difference? 

Owen chose to focus his energy on what he loves, and that appears to be his food and the loyal people he brings in to work alongside him. I respect that. And the magic is there. 

It turns out that something new and special can create a whole new “vibe” inside a familiar old package.