Local architect dishes on downtown restaurant design

While the centerpiece of any successful restaurant is great food, the design and architecture set the tone for the dining experience.
For Don Beck, the architect behind some of the most eye-catching restaurants and bars in Cincinnati, a satisfying dining experience requires attention to detail. Beck, who has been designing restaurants for nearly 30 years, considers his frequent nighttime dining observations essential to his design process.
"You walk away from an evening at a restaurant and you don't just say, 'Wow, that chandelier was spectacular,'" Beck says. "You say, 'That was a wonderful experience.' That's a good restaurant to me."
Beck Architecture is responsible for the architectural aesthetic of Kaze, Via Vite, Nada, Igby's, The Righteous Room and The Lackman, among others. Continuing his streak of new downtown hotspots, he’s currently designing a sports bar in the Gateway Quarter area and another restaurant on Vine Street, in the Mercer condominium building. While the restaurant's name hasn't been announced, it will serve new American food, likely with Italian overtones, Beck says.
Despite the increasing number of restaurants around the city, Beck doesn't see restaurant design as a major market niche for local architects.
"There are more restaurants opening in OTR and downtown, but most are small and tend to have limited budgets," Beck says.  "Locally owned establishments are driving whatever need there is for Cincinnati architects as the major players, [but] out-of-town chains usually bring their own designers."
Menu planning
"When I'm asked to design a restaurant, the first thing I'd like to see—and I don't always get to see it—is a menu," Beck says.  "The menu is all telling."
For Beck, seeing the menu serves as a guide, revealing layer after layer of details that inform his design decisions—the types of food, how fancy it should be, portion sizes, the level of barware. And those combined dictate how large the tables must be and how many people the space can seat.
But as a frequent diner, Beck considers other observations he's made to understand the whole experience and environment. A restaurant and a bar are going to differ atmospherically, and refining that tone occurs as much in the minor details as it does in the more noticeable ones.
"Number one: lighting," Beck says. "I do all my own lighting design in both residential and commercial [buildings]." To Beck, restaurants are like homes, which require different types of lighting—a brightly lit kitchen shouldn't spill into the dining room.

"Incandescent light sources are still, in my opinion, the best 'people light'," Beck says. "But new codes require the use of more efficient sources making light control (color and brightness) critical."
For outside lighting, the sun and streetlights are two primary considerations, namely preventing unwanted sunlight and streetlight from spilling into restaurants and bars, which has involved asking the city and Duke Energy to install shades on streetlights or specifying window blinds to block out the sun.
"If the restaurant is open for lunch, lighting that balances the bright daylight is required," Beck says. "I don’t think most people like dark caves at lunch, while such an atmosphere can be sexy at night, especially in the bar." 
But Beck also accounts for issues outside of the visual realm.
"The second [consideration], which most everyone else seems to ignore, is acoustics," Beck says. "I can't stand going to a restaurant where you can't have a conversation. I'm eating with folks, and talking and having conversation is a very important part of the social experience of eating out. Most new restaurants totally ignore that, and I don't think there's any excuse for it."
Beck's techniques dealing with acoustics vary: acoustic paint, soffit or wall baffles, concealed insulation, heavy drapery, upholstered walls and acoustical sprays. Sometimes even the use of smaller tables can help, he says.    
"The ceiling is usually an easy surface to treat and, while many people view 'acoustic tile' as undesirable, there are many ways to use sound-dampening materials on the ceiling in an aesthetic way," Beck says  "A challenge arises if you are lucky enough to have an original stamped tin ceiling (as in Kaze and The Righteous Room)."
For the design to come together, however, Beck accounts for smaller, more specific questions and considerations.
"Are the chairs comfortable? Are you too close or too far away?" Beck says. "If it's a place like a bar on Tuesday night and it's three-quarters empty, do you feel like, 'I have to get out of here,' or do you feel comfortable? You have to think about that."
Comforts of home
Beck's design process doesn't begin with a physical drawing. Rather, it's mental.
"I don't just sit down with a computer or pencil and paper and start designing," he says. "I do it in my head. I try to imagine the experience that the client and I have talked about."
Mentally walking through that space allows him to consider all aspects of the design.
"The whole experience is important, and when that comes together, I hope that reflects on my ability to design," Beck says. "I never stop looking or reading. I think there's something to be learned in every experience.
As a designer of many different types of buildings, Beck's considerations tend to intersect during conceptualization.
"In a house, there are multiple kinds of spaces, and I think the combination of residential design and commercial restaurant design is very compatible," Beck says. "That's why I think the restaurants that I do are comfortable and the bars that I do are exciting. There is a quality to them that is residential, rather than someone coming strictly from a commercial design perspective."
Slow cooking
Beck, who studied community planning and architecture at UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (on separate occasions, graduating in 1972 and later in 1985), began as a rehabilitation architect in Prospect Hill—where he still resides.
"In [rehabilitation architecture], every building is different," Beck says. "So from the very beginning, my work has varied considerably."
His first work was for the now-closed Carol's Corner Cafe, in which he designed the first-floor restaurant and cabaret room.
After years of rehab work, Beck now designs both commercial and residential properties: restaurants, residencies, golf course clubhouses, etc. Restaurant design became a larger percentage of Beck's work in recent years, however, due to the reduction of residential work caused by the economy, he says.
"Custom residential architecture remains our core activity and coexists happily with hospitality projects," Beck says. "Our office is small and specialized, and I expect it will remain so."
While visitors can almost certainly see a checkerboard pattern somewhere in a Beck-designed restaurant, Beck doesn't necessarily want a restaurant to be visually recognizable as his own.
"The restaurant is not my restaurant. It belongs to my clients and the chef and so forth," Beck says. "I don't want someone to walk in and say, 'This is a Don Beck restaurant.' I want them to walk in and say, 'This is a great restaurant.'"
Beck doesn't consider his design finished when the building is complete, however. 
"I am observant and, while I don’t keep a notepad with me, I may make a suggestion later regarding something I have seen or thought of that could be improved," Beck says. "The experience of designing continues. It's not like you do something and go on to the next project and never return. Doing restaurants is a joy because you get to return again and again."  
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Kyle is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. When he isn't writing, he's making music, riding his bike and taking photos of his adventures.