Surface Travel Awards

Dana Cowin’s Favorite Restaurants For Design

For the culinary personality and Surface Travel Awards juror, ambiance is as important as aesthetics.

Dana Cowin is a culinary world personality, former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, and juror for the Surface Travel Awards. The deadline for entries is May 15; submit projects here

To me, the definition of a well-designed restaurant is very broad. The most modern way to think about it is: A place people go to experience food, drinks, and hospitality. Maybe dinner’s the big meal, maybe they serve three meals, or maybe it’s a bar. Maybe they’re a teahouse with a ceramic shop up front. The trend in restaurant design I’ve really been enjoying over the last five years is the evolution from a single dining room to a multipurpose space. It’s important not to make hard dividing lines.

Inside Spring. (Photo: Courtesy Spring)

Dana Cowin’s picks:

Spring, London

Environment is often part of the added value of going out. The most classic place on my list is Spring, in the new wing of Somerset House. Most design isn’t gendered, but this is a feminine restaurant. The tones are beautiful blush pinks and there’s a gigantic white-and-gray marble bar in a light-filled room. It’s such a statement piece, almost more like an altar than a bar. There’s a sexy pink tufted couch, clusters of bubble lights, brass lamps, and the most beautiful flowers that have dancer petals. Though the design has a strong opinion, it allows the food to stand out and be very present. I love how different it is from anything else I’ve seen—it’s sophisticated. There’s a lot of space between the tables—you can get a member of the Parliament to eat there because they can have a private conversation.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns. (Photo: Ira Lippke)

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

What’s most special is not each of the individual elements in the design, but the overall idea that in a restaurant you can have distinct and special spaces, my favorite being a candlelit shed that acts as a private dining room. It has the feeling of a farm. I’ve also eaten in the kitchen at a table in the corner. You get to look at all the action. It’s not behind glass like at many other restaurants, it’s in the fray. The number of ways to experience the same menu is a very modern way of thinking about space.

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Just Natural, Negril, Jamaica

This place is basically a jungle that has been recultivated by the owners. Inside, wild overgrown plants create hedges and private spaces. The tables are painted. One might be red with big yellow flowers on it. Another might be painted in a checkerboard pattern, with bottle caps for pieces and tree stumps for seats. You order from a menu on a chalkboard. Just being in the natural vibe in a restaurant without walls or modern lighting, you don’t see many like this. People from all over the world come to this place. There’s also a sense of humor; you enter through a little café with paper money hanging from strings on the ceiling. It’s mismatched and irregular.

Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, Rome

This speakeasy-style place is a throwback to olden times. Ring a bell and give the password—they’re really serious about it. No vodka is served. You walk in and the walls are a deep red with images of gangsters. The design is consistent. Drinks come in cut-crystal glasses. The menu is in old illustrated manuscript from 1862 and you leave with an illustrated membership card. There’s the humor of the Mafiosa on the walls. Of course, they make perfect cocktails and have amazing speakeasy-era jazz. I love the illustrations and lettering, that element of design. They nailed it.

Kitone, Kyoto, Japan

My favorite place to eat and drink in the entire world is this tea shop. In the front, they sell ceramics and linens and the most perfectly selected set of objects. In the back, past a kitchen where two women are cooking and making tea, there’s a little room where you sit in a beautiful space and get served tea in the most exquisite cups, while eating a little tea cake, and all is right in the world. You’re at the center of spectacular design and everything is so special. It’s so Japanese.

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