A Restaurant Designer's Tour of the Best Doors in the Business

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It might be the most important part of any restaurant: the entrance. A guide to nine that show what the art form can be.

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I began designing restaurants 25 years ago, and although my scope has expanded, designing restaurants remains one of my greatest passions. It's always exciting to create a space that envelops the craft of the chef, and transports guests into a holistic experience of sights, smells, tastes, and sounds—a completely different world from the one outside. I am thrilled to be a contributor to the Life channel, and I thought the best way to begin my series of musings is by hailing one of the greatest unsung heroes of restaurants: the front door.

It is so much more than what it might seem—the front door is really a portal that has the power to transform and transport you, even if temporarily. In all of the work I do, I always focus on entrances, as they are the first taste that the guest has of a building, or a room, or a dining experience. Architecturally, the door is the first frame of the interior, which can be crafted in an endless amount of ways. Is it grand and imposing? Subtle and covert? Wood or glass? Intricate or spare?

It all depends on how you want to preface the story of the space beyond, and how much of the plot, if any, you want to give away. Whatever the designer, chef, and restaurant operator choose, the front door will be the place guests leave behind what they've brought to its threshold, escaping to an adventure that may be short-lived yet can create a powerful memory.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Lion, New York, NY

A black awning and unmarked black door flanked by a pristine green hedgerow opens into a packed waiting area. The understated elegance and air of mystery creates just the right amount of anticipation for the perpetual packs of guests vying for a table in this new New York institution.

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ABC Kitchen, New York, NY

You might miss one or both of the doors the first time you walk past. That might not work for all restaurants, but most of those who go to ABC Kitchen are well aware of the eminence of its chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and its location inside one of Manhattan's most unusual retailers, ABC Carpet & Home. Making both the street entrance and door within the store a little hard to find is a clever strategy that makes people feel like exclusive guests. The entire restaurant has a glorious DIY aesthetic (but with exquisite taste).

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Maialino, New York, NY

When I designed Danny Meyer's take on an Italian trattoria located inside the Gramercy Park Hotel, I knew the restaurant would have to be all about hospitality and comfort, with the warmth of a casual Roman restaurant. Here, both from the street and the dark and sensuous entrance from the hotel lobby, the doors create a transition into a space with inviting, unpainted woods, exposed service stations, and (of course) checkered tablecloths.

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The French Laundry, Yountville, CA

A breezeway covered in climbing plants ends with a simple blue painted wood door that leads to one of the best dining experiences in the world. Thomas Keller's brand of inventive, French-inspired country cooking demands this type of natural yet bold introduction.

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Ristorante Bagutta, Milan, Italy

This is the quintessential trattoria, complete with the name painted in bright red letters against a yellow background, and the glass windows of the entry covered with credit card stickers. Authentic and unpretentious, it's easy to guess from its doorway alone that Bagutta is the real deal.

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Schrafft's, New York, NY

My first trip New York City as a child is seared into my memory. My family took me to see Fiddler on the Roof and then went to Schrafft's. The restaurant had several locations in Manhattan, and each one was a little different—at one, the hostesses even wore flowing gowns. But all Schrafft's had one thing in common: the glow. The brightly lit interiors seemed to spill out the glass doors and onto the sidewalk like a luminous welcome mat. Entering felt like stepping on a stage. And when my order French toast arrived with the crusts cut off, it elevated my 10-year-old idea of dining to an entirely different level. As much as Fiddler on the Roof, Schrafft's was theater.

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Florent, New York, NY

The now-defunct Florent always seemed to stand out, initially against the authentic industrial meat packing plants and eventually the trendy neighboring shops in the Meatpacking District. But the restaurant's enduring modest, human-scale metal and glass doors opened up to a welcoming environment with a diverse group of diners enjoying home-cooked French comfort food.

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Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, New York, NY

To enter the Oyster Bar, diners must make their way through the choreographed chaos of one of New York's busiest transportation hubs to the lower level of Grand Central and then walk up a tiled ramp to the restaurant's glass doors. This is a case where the entrance experience is defined by looking up at the dramatic, nearly 100-year-old Guastavino tile vaulting.

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Per Se, New York, NY

In some sense, Per Se is the urban transformation of the French Laundry, which is immediately expressed with the bold bright blue door surrounded by a garden in the middle of the Time Warner Center. This door is now a symbol known throughout the country and the world, and heralds yet another of Thomas Keller's masterpieces, but this time it really is just a symbol. The portal experience is slightly lessened here because the blue door is only for show, and in fact you enter through another door on the side.

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Images: Courtesy of David Rockwell, except for Chez Panisse (rrunaway/flickr), Bagutta (hepp/flickr), Schrafft's (Library of Congress), and Per Se (Wikimedia Commons).

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David Rockwell is the founder and CEO of Rockwell Group, an architecture and design practice based in New York. The firm focuses on diverse projects including restaurants, hotels, Broadway set designs, and consumer products. More

David Rockwell is the founder and CEO of Rockwell Group, a cross-disciplinary architecture and design practice based in New York with satellite offices in Madrid and Shanghai. His 140-person firm focuses on a diverse array of projects including restaurants, hotels, hospitals, airport terminals, public playgrounds, Broadway set designs, and consumer products. His firm recently completed work on a food truck/mobile kitchen for Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution," the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center and the U.S. flagship YOTEL in New York, and is currently working on the W Paris Opera, Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the first freestanding Nobu restaurant in Doha.

Rockwell is the author of two books, Spectacle (2006), a book examining the history and public fascination with larger-than-life manmade events, and Pleasure: The Architecture and Design of Rockwell Group (2002). In May 2010 Rockwell was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America. He was also honored with the 2009 Pratt Legends Award, the 2008 National Design Award by Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt for outstanding achievement in Interior Design, an induction in Interior Design magazine's Hall of Fame and the Presidential Design Award for his work for the Grand Central Terminal renovation. Rockwell serves as Chairman of the Board of the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA), and as a board member of Citymeals-on-Wheels and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

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