Arsalun Tafazoli loves restrooms in restaurants and bars.
“Bathrooms are the only place in public where your pants are down, so I really like to play with you in that moment of vulnerability,” says the co-founder of Consortium Holdings, which operates some of San Diego’s most immersive bars and restaurants. concepts.
In that spirit, why not cover the sink and walls with mirror panels, like Tafazoli did at the Morning Glory breakfast restaurant? Or install a huge two-way picture window with a view of the city, like the one inside the bathroom on the rooftop patio at Seneca Trattoria? Or commission Manuel Cisneros, the city’s foremost custom lowrider painter, to paint custom sheet metal installations above sinks and on walls in a brilliant homage to Chicano lowrider culture? Tafazoli didn’t expect his brazen experiments in bathroom design to coincide with the bathroom selfie boom of the mid-2010s, but these days, his designs draw long lines of people outside bathrooms waiting for a photo shoot. .
He acknowledges that a line of restrooms that exists for social media purposes comes with restaurant territory with intentional overdesign. For better or worse, everyone can now star in their own curated life on social media. Bright phone lights pollute the candlelit ambient lighting as diners document their meals; Photo sessions interfere with the flow of the service.
“Social media gives people agency, and that’s powerful; I’m not an enemy,” says Tafazoli. “But I think it can also go a little too far in that direction where it takes people out of the moment. Now we have spaces where people come with photographers, so you’re trying to bring food and there’s a photo shoot. It’s a weird thing. with which to reach an agreement, but the alternative would be much worse, where nobody is interested”.
Who can blame the diners, really? We live in an age of highly transportive and photogenic restaurant spaces, decorated an inch from their life in cheesy, millennial pink neon signs, mid-century jewel tones, or mosaics of antique found tiles accented with lush plant life. Documenting one’s aspiring life is probably more interesting at a “cool indie spot rather than, say, a Chili’s,” says Ian Jones, owner of Victory Brands, who oversees the design of his five Atlanta-area restaurants. , which include Little Trouble, The SOS Tiki Bar and Victory Sandwich Bar. He attributes this trend to how much the role of food and drink in our culture has changed in the last decade, approaching music, film and art as a tangential form of self-expression.
“It used to be a date night powered by 20 chain restaurants outside of Florida — you’d go to Olive Garden or PF Chang’s,” he says. “Now there are only a billion small independent restaurants that want to be really creative. You can see how we got here, with younger people who have grown up completely immersed in social media. Restaurants see the opportunity for other people to do their marketing.” ”
Still, tell a restaurant owner that his place is Instagram-friendly, and he’ll often reply that he didn’t mean for that to happen (even if he revels in the free advertising). But isn’t that the first rule of coldness? You don’t try to be; you just are
“Nobody wants to say it,” says Jones. “They’re trying to be too cool for school.”
Jones’ ads are very Instagrammable, even though she’s never had a MySpace account. The facade of SOS features huge painted palm trees and neon pinks. Little Trouble’s “neon izakaya” design was inspired by movie sets; the hexagonal neon at the end of the entrance backlights anyone who enters, making it a favorite for phone silhouette shots.
“What I love about designing restaurants is that you’re creating a stage where every night is theater; the waiters, waitresses, bartender and general manager put on a show,” says Kate Towill, founding partner and director of design at Basic Projects. behind restaurants like the serene and whimsical Basic Kitchen in Charleston, and jaws-1970s nautical style Sullivan’s Fish Camp on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. “By creating a space that people only spend two or three hours in, we can really push it forward, from all these things that we find and put on the walls to the music.”
Towill used to build real movie sets in her former life as a production designer, including for Wes Anderson’s coming-of-age film. Moonrise Kingdom. However, he carefully avoids the excessive design that Jones and Tafazoli love, a lesson he learned during his time on set. She approaches interiors more like an architect than a decorator, preferring accessories to cushions.
Their thing is lighting, like in the eye-catching 3-foot-wide Italian baskets or a carnival marquee lamp from Amsterdam. Lighting that’s ideal for restaurant theater—”the kind that makes people want to enjoy another cocktail and feel like it looks good”—tends to be dim, making it less ideal for selfies and food photos. Do people occasionally ask staff to turn on the lights? Of course. But Towill is adamant about keeping the fantasy going. “We keep the lights up to a pretty good level,” he laughs wryly.
Towill isn’t all that comfortable with the Instagram moniker, either, with an uneasiness reminiscent of an indie band refusing to sell out. The difference between these types of restaurants, Tafazoli points out, is authenticity. This is the art form of it, not a trick.
“There’s definitely a new genre of restaurant that actually plays with Instagram-worthy moments,” he says. “They could have a mural on the wall or a neon sign with a quip that says ‘You do it.’ It is complacency. You can identify it; It is too easy”.
Some design statements reflect your restaurant’s raison d’être. The mural on the wall of San Francisco’s trendy Besharam Indian restaurant isn’t just a photo op. The Indian woman with her maang tikka jewelry, cocktail glass, and visible cleavage provides something of a daily reminder for chef-owner Heena Patel.
“It’s a guideline for me to say to myself: Are you pushing that envelope as a chef? Are you ‘besharam’ enough?” Patell says.
Besharam, which translates to shameless in Urdu, is often used as denigrating or derogatory slang in India. For Patel, born in Gujarat to parents who wanted a son, reclaiming her term for herself began as a way to celebrate her very existence in a culture of immense social pressure to be good. Patel felt like an outsider after getting married and moving to the US, and even more so when she started cooking professionally later than most of her young male counterparts. The term took on more meaning for her and became a way to free herself from the limitations it represents. She named her first solo restaurant when she opened it at age 53 in 2019.
“It’s something I want to wear like a medal on my chest,” he says of the name. “That word shaped who I am. It made me more resilient, stronger. I want to emphasize that, even though I know it can be Instagram-friendly.”
After all, there is power in amplifying this type of message. Patel is about connecting with the next generation, especially in the ways they express themselves: fast, modern, loud and colorful, even as they struggle with the same loneliness and self-doubt of their ancestors. “I met so many different generations who said, ‘I’ve been called besharam or other similar words,'” he says. “So let’s have a conversation. Those words used to bring you down, let’s use them as strength.”
He is now working on a bathroom mural that will consist of a collage of stylized derogatory terms like kutri (comparing a girl to a dog) and nalayak (no manners) framing the viewer. Perhaps you will find one that has been used against you personally; perhaps they gravitate toward one that reflects their own insecurities. Most of all, Patel hopes they feel seen when they take that bathroom selfie.
Because isn’t a sense of belonging all we really want in the end? In fact, part of the teenage Tafazoli—brooding and unpopular, blasting punk rock and religiously reading Dave Eggers—was there as he set out to create a series of spectacular restaurants and bars at age 30. His younger self was probably the one who advised him to hide “subculture Easter eggs” in the design, like the laser-launched Wu-Tang Clan “W” on the drainboards in the Born & Raised bar.
“Great art creates a sense of community; it can fracture reality in a way that puts words to things that we normal people feel but can’t necessarily say,” he says. “A byproduct in this age of creating engaging environments that connect with people is that they become backgrounds for their Instagrams.”