More to sitting down for a meal

In the restaurant business you can sell cheap food to lots of people, or you can sell expensive food to a few. The design of most restaurants reflects this reality.

Monday, 10th February 2020, 5:00 pm

Places like McDonalds are made for a quick turnover. The tables are cramped and the chairs purposely uncomfortable to sit in for long.

The idea is you will eat quickly and go, making space for more customers.

High-end restaurants, on the other hand, tend to have much larger tables and more comfortable chairs.

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Long lunches are encouraged so long as multiple courses are served and the wine flows. Restaurant suppliers even categorise chairs by the duration people are willing to sit in them.

Opening a fast food place? Order the 30-minute metal seats. Launching a fancy eatery? Go for the three-hour plush ones.

As a recent episode of the podcast Planet Money noted, restaurants are not so much selling food as they are renting time and space to their diners. “You’ve got to get the most out of every table, every seat, every minute that you’re open,” explains host Dan Pashman.

Stephani Robson, a design psychologist who now teaches at Cornell University, helps restaurateurs find the optimum balance between price, time and space.

One of Robson’s findings is that customers prefer tables that are “anchored” - whether in a corner or up against a wall - perhaps thanks to the caveman part of our brain that likes to defend our space.

“But there’s something else at play besides wanting to control your own personal territory when you choose that sweet little table for two in the corner,” Robson explains. “You also want to disappear a little, to not draw attention to yourself. Let me take my Instagram shot of the sweet potato gnocchi in peace.”

She has found there is an optimum gap between tables of 16 inches. “It’s the Goldilocks distance. We don’t like to feel too isolated; we also don’t like to feel too crammed together,” explains Pashman.

But for every rule there is an exception - and the rise of communal bench seating in premium restaurants is just that.

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design