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Fun by Design

Neon walls, palm-shaped chairs, giant pepper grinders — there’s nothing subtle about maxed-out restaurant design in 2023

Bright green walls, green hand-shaped chairs, and green booths make up a boldly monochrome dining room.
Shuggie’s Trash Pie.
Erin Ng

Walking into Shuggie’s Trash Pie is like entering an acid-tinged glam paradise.

The front bar of the Mission District restaurant, awash in cadmium yellow paint and matching furnishings, including the hanging disco balls, leads into a larger back dining area that’s equally gonzo in neon green. Such a committed concept recalls pop artist CJ Hendry’s 2018 Pantone fun house, an immersive art installation showcasing monochromatic furnished rooms in different colors, but Shuggie’s comes with the added sensory experience of eating actual food. (And it’s a good thing, too — the color yellow has been known to stimulate the appetite.)

This is restaurant design in 2023.

Monochromatic, Pac-Man yellow interiors; 3-foot-long pepper mills; bird-shaped glassware; and a wild boar statue outfitted with a glowing neon necklace are just a few of the totems of the maximalist design taking hold at restaurants nationwide. It’s no secret that this trend is a response to the last few pandemic-stifled years. “I think going to dinner has shifted from a part of one’s night out, to the entire night out,” explains Shuggie’s co-owner Kayla Abe. “People look to dining out as their main form of entertainment.”

Bright yellow walls are behind restaurant booths that are lit with neon colored lights, featuring avant garde striped lamps on the tables.
Neon yellow walls, Dr. Seuss lamps, and squiggly leg chairs put New York’s Cafe Mars on trend.
Lanna Apisukh

The color palette seems to have seeped from the pages of a Green Lantern comic.

Co-owners Abe and chef David Murphy, who designed Shuggie’s themselves, wanted to subvert the blah beige walls, hemp-fiber textiles, and other stale notions of what an environmentally minded restaurant should look like. “Green was always a shared favorite of ours. It’s sultry, and sexy, and fun, and also represents our ‘green’ mission,” says Abe. “And yellow just because it makes us happy.”

Everywhere, chairs are getting weirder.

Tables in Shuggie’s dining room are paired with massive, sculptural hand-shaped chairs, the modern design for which comes from the Mexican surrealist artist Pedro Friedeberg. First executed by Friedeberg in the early 1960s, the seats have endured enough cycles in and out of vogue to be a match for the venue’s off-kilter yet vaguely familiar retro aesthetic. On a psychological level, there’s something deeply comforting about the childlike feeling of being dwarfed by one’s seat. Being cradled in a massive palm taps into that emotion with — no pun intended — a heavy-handed supply of humor.

A formal restaurant dining room dominated by long booth banquets.
Booths at Mother Wolf.
Wonho Frank Lee
A pink starburst light fixture hangs over pink booths in a gaudy dining room.
Abstract seating and lighting at San Diego’s Morning Glory.
Haley Hill Photography

Take, for example, the fluorescent pink, arched, squiggy-legged chairs at Brooklyn’s Café Mars, which don’t stand out amid their technicolored surroundings so much as enhance the playful vibe of the room, of which an oversized pepper mill is a defining feature. Elsewhere — at New York’s “unhinged” Italian temple Bad Roman, Major Food Group’s outpost Contessa in Miami, and busy Hollywood pizza and pasta spot Mother Wolf, for instance — it’s not the seating that’s new so much as the placement of seats around the room. Banquettes and booths typically sit along a restaurant’s walls, but at these spots they take over the whole space, flooding the floors in droves. Consider these seats an obvious but no less stylish solution to a desire born from the pandemic: Diners want to go out, people-watch, and feel like they’re part of the action, but with an appreciable degree of comfort. Plus, a booth just feels special, so why not add more?

Glasses are getting stranger.

Then there are the often-screwball objects with which diners actually interact — nouveau props for an immersive and entertaining night of dinner theater — that continue to peddle a restaurant’s vision of maximalist fun. At Bad Roman, the shot glasses affixed to rolling toy cars have become such a popular novelty that guests tend to pocket them as souvenirs. “We don’t always get these back, and we’ve accepted that,” a staff member acknowledged. The restaurant compensates with daily replenishments, purchased online by the boxful.

Located in a shopping mall overlooking Columbus Circle, Bad Roman is one of the most evident examples of maximalist camp gone wild. Besides the aforementioned boar statue greeting guests from behind the host stand, there are pendant lamps shaped like humongous onions, whimsically wallpapered ceilings, kitschy glassware, and a summery color palette rendered in a riotous array of textures and materials. The chances of visual boredom here are slim to none.

Rustam Mehta, a principal at GRT Architects, which oversaw the Bad Roman design, says his team wanted to bring the visual stimulus into the space itself. “The views outside are cool, but it’s not exactly people-watching. That was a big part of why we ended up going so exuberant on the finishes.”

The entire operation delivers spectacularly on that premise, but the glassware — photogenic, and front and center for every guest to claim as their own, temporarily or otherwise — is where it really shines. Less snatchable than the “shot wheels,” but equally fun, the restaurant also features a fluted green coupe for serving its pink tequila granita, for a boozy refreshment in the likeness of a flower. And it just so happens that oddly shaped cocktail glasses have a tendency to sell drinks: Guests spy them aloft on trays from across the room and decide they want the same.

Then there’s avian-inspired glassware, which harkens back to 1970s tiki fads, and has once again become a popular choice for its undeniably campy, highly Instagrammable looks. Find them at cocktail bar Milky Way in Montreal, and in Manhattan at botanically themed lounge space Glass Ceiling and Loulou Petit Bistro in Chelsea — which also features bathtub- and mouse-shaped glassware.

Ivy hangs from the ceiling while a sculpture of a boar draped in neon anchors a dining room.
The boar at the center of Bad Roman.
Lanna Apisukh
Bright orange restaurant booths are anchored by white sculptures of greyhound dogs.
Greyhounds guard the booths at Bad Roman.
Lanna Apisukh

And we’re not even at peak maximalism yet.

Considering all the social media attention many of these venues have generated, you might think we’ve hit the apotheosis. We haven’t — not yet. But an absurdist restaurant identity isn’t without risk. Andrew McGee, whose Format Architecture Office was responsible for the singular, neon-dominant design at Café Mars, agrees that today’s diners are “starved for an experience of whimsical escapism,” but warns that a maximalist approach runs the risk of standing in for substance. “The goal is to strike that delicate balance between fanciful and comforting, transformative and familiar,” he says.

Because it isn’t the world that is chaotic, it’s our own minds.

Therein lies the risk in going for something so stylistically big and bold, more existential than having to replace some stolen glassware: Maximalist design risks longevity, especially without a crowd of loyal regulars as a restaurant ages and evolves. After the opening-year hype dies down (there’s always going to be a hot new place to which the TikTokers will migrate), it’s the clientele that often makes the ultimate difference between a restaurant that’s dated and one that’s old, but still a reliably fun night out.

Then again, many restaurant operators may be content to follow a model closer to that of Las Vegas, bolstered by seemingly endless revenues streaming in from birthday celebrations, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and other festive occasions that demand equally festive surroundings. It’s certainly an understandable tactic given the losses and closures endured during the pandemic, and saves guests flying off to the ostentatious milieus of the Vegas Strip.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the entire maximalist moment, however over-the-top, as merely a cynical attempt to fill seats. At Shuggie’s, Abe and Murphy created their own template to achieve something entirely authentic to them, regardless of what’s in and out of vogue. In Abe’s words, “the look and energy of the space is absolutely resonant with the chaos in our brains.”

Laura Neilson is a NYC-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, WSJ Magazine, T Magazine, Departures, Town & Country, and Air Mail.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein

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