Nigel Harris, executive vice-president and chief technical officer of ONYX Hospitality Group, talks to Amruta Sabnis about the makings of a great restaurant and bar, and what it is that will ensure that customers return for more.

For most people who enjoy dining out, the ambience of a restaurant or bar is often as important as the food. Creative decor can enhance a culinary experience and make it unforgettable.

Amaya Food Gallery at the Amari Watergate, is the newest entrant into the Bangkok dining scene and is already making waves for its design which is contemporary, and its menu which is inspired by Asian street food.

Amari is a Thai hotel and resort chain, operating a network of upscale properties in Asia and the Middle East, and is owned by ONYX Hospitality Group, a hotel management company based in Bangkok.

Nigel Harris, executive vice president and chief technical officer of ONYX Hospitality, is an architect, with over 25 years of experience in hotel, commercial and consultancy companies in the Asia-Pacific region. Here are his thoughts on how design and product go hand in hand in a reputable restaurant.

What makes a great restaurant or bar? 

Food and Beverage (F&B) is increasingly competitive in today’s hospitality environment. Enabled middle classes, social media orientated choices, affordable and creative options, and greater mobility all make for a highly dynamic industry. This makes it essential for establishment owners, designers and chefs to be creative, current and nimble in design and delivery. Trends and fads fade; however, quality and customer connections endure. What makes a restaurant or bar great? It’s the right mix of offering a great guest experience, ambience, service and quality.

How can the design of the space help to achieve certain business goals?

Design is paramount in the context of delivery of an F&B experience. Design however is a delicate balance between the creation of an ‘atmosphere’ and the quality and consistency of service and product.

As designers, we need to ensure that logistics and functionality, service, food preparation and flow are all considered in the design and development process.

To what extent can the design of the restaurant or bar measurably contribute to the effectiveness of the space as a business?

Design is a significant factor and few successful restaurants or bars succeed without some element of theatre and showmanship. This can be delivered in many ways, from an unobtrusive yet impeccably trained and groomed waiter, to a sense of interaction and preparation at show kitchens.

What strategies do you have in place to enable the design of venues that contribute to happier guests and higher spending?

The process must be closely coordinated throughout – driven by a clear vision. It starts with profiling market and consumer trends, as today’s preferences may become tomorrow’s monotony.

At ONYX this involves a close and constant collaboration among our technical/design teams and operations, sales, marketing and F&B team members throughout the whole process.

Consumers who visit restaurants and bars obviously do so to fulfill certain psychological needs. What tools and strategies do hospitality designers have at their disposal to ensure that these needs are successfully met?

In most respects, the palette is limitless and the available materials, spaces, cuisines and locations can conjure countless options for any given space. A successful design blends commercial savvy with comfort, service and the overall experience.

What would you say are the main design elements that affect the length of time that customers spend in a restaurant or bar?

The fundamental elements of lighting, environment and ambience, music, décor and signage, and yes comfortable chairs – are all important elements. Getting these right is critical. The design elements then form the framework for the experience, and there are so many variations of style and décor that no single formula exists.

What aspects are kept in mind to ensure the restaurants and bars in each hotel are unique? Is an effort made to ensure design is relevant to the culture in each city?

We always strive for relevance and a certain sense of uniqueness in our restaurants and bars. We balance the aesthetics with other considerations such as ensuring that the overall concept is appropriate for the hotel’s location, positioning and clientele. In all our outlets, local culture is depicted through a combination of design, style, colour and choice of artwork and artefacts.

Does the company work with local or foreign firms as far as collaborators are concerned?

We work with both local and international designers. At times, we also work with food and beverage consultants to ensure that our concepts are aligned with market needs, commercial dynamics and dining trends.

How did you get involved in hospitality design?

I am a UK-qualified architect who landed in Hong Kong during an early stage of my career and was captivated by the complexity, dynamic and creativity afforded in designing hotels. I left professional practice to join the hotel industry soon after arriving and have never looked back.

Do you have a favourite among the hotels? In terms of design?

I have several personal favourites, and La Gritta at Amari Phuket has a very special feel. Consistently regarded as one of Phuket’s finest Italian restaurants, La Gritta occupies a magical waterfront location and occupies two floors, with a bar on the upper level and an indoor and outdoor restaurant at the lower level. The restaurant is a popular spot for wedding proposals as well as wedding anniversary dinners.