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What does it take to be a successful restaurateur?
For starters, it takes hustle, thick skin, and an endless amount of creativity. And with more restaurants than ever before for guests to choose from, that last one can make or break you.
With so many restaurants out there today and new ones popping up all the time, you have to ask yourself: How can I make my restaurant stand out? What can I do to get people excited? It all comes back to great ideas. When you tap into your creativity — and stay true to your values and vision — you can grab guests’ attention and keep them coming back for more.
To get you feeling inspired as you embark on your journey to opening a restaurant, we’ll share 44 ideas to create an unforgettable restaurant concept, with examples of real restaurants that have cracked the code to creativity. But before we do that, let’s hear from real restaurant industry folks on the inspiration behind their businesses.
Real Restaurateurs Share Ideas That Inspired Them
Great ideas and concepts might get you far in the restaurant industry, but they’re nothing without that initial spark of inspiration. Without that spark and the fire that comes with it, you might not have what it takes to push through the very real challenges involved in opening and running a restaurant.
Many times, restaurant owners are fueled by universal goals and passions, like building a strong sense of community, providing for their families, and creating new opportunities. To understand what made them decide to embark on this journey, we asked restaurant owners to take a moment to reflect. Here are the reasons — short and to the point — why they opened a restaurant.
“Our chef, Douglass Williams, opened this restaurant to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a chef. He is truly the embodiment of MIDA. I partnered with Douglass prior to opening because we shared a similar vision that a restaurant can be a transformative landmark for a community and that MIDA is the perfect venue to execute an amazing hospitality concept while also standing up for the values we believe in.” – Seth Gerger, general manager of MIDA in Boston
“I opened because I have always had a passion for the restaurant industry and saw a void in the market that I thought I could fill.” – Adam Talbert, owner of 312 Beef and Sausage in Freeport, Illinois
“I opened because I was an upstart kid that worked in restaurants my whole life and was convinced I could do it better.” – Nick VanArsdell, owner of Lucky Slice in Utah
“I opened because I wanted to build a legacy for my family.” – Addam Oliver, co-owner of Bernie O’s in North Muskegon, Michigan
“I opened because I wanted to bring something to my community that they would be proud of.” – Logan Hostettler, general manager of 1894 Lodge in New Washington, Indiana
“I opened because I wanted to introduce and share delicious Filipino cuisine with everyone in our community. My daughter has been in the restaurant business for many, many years and I thought it would be great to use her talent and skills managing our own full-service restaurant.” – Teresita Herradura, owner of The Corner Q in Lorton, Virginia
“My partners and I opened our first restaurant because we love food and serving people. We love the fast pace of a restaurant. We saw it as an opportunity to earn a living doing what we love.” – Jeff Jacobson, COO of Costa Vida with locations across the U.S.
“I opened because there was a need in my community to keep the American Legion Ball open and my wife and I are good at this business. It provided an opportunity to become part of our new community, as well as create jobs for it.” – Brian Bonnell, owner of Sutton Legion in Sutton, Nebraska
“I opened because I was looking for a local opportunity to make people smile!” – Kim Wilhelmson, owner of Koehn Bakery in Butler, Montana
“Katie [co-owner of 3 Little Figs] came from the advertising world and I came from the live concert industry. We were both involved in creating entertainment, designing, editing, and coordinating productions. Eventually we decided that we wanted to create something of our own that could support our family and represent our values and all the things we loved. We just traded clients and crowds for customers... crowds of customers, thankfully!” – Andy Rooney, co-owner and general manager of 3 Little Figs in Somerville, Massachusetts
44 Unique Restaurant Ideas to Inspire Your Theme or Concept
Now that you’ve seen what fueled those restaurateurs’ decisions to embark on the journey toward opening a restaurant, let’s talk about concepts. Take a look at the unique restaurant ideas and concepts below to get your creative juices flowing.
1. Team up with local farms
More and more, diners are becoming conscious of where their food comes from. Creamline in New York has a "from farm to tray" model that utilizes ingredients from local farms and purveyors.
2. Let robots do the cooking
Spyce in Boston has created the world’s first restaurant run featuring a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals. Robots operate the woks and dispense ingredients, reducing labor overhead for management and menu prices for guests.
3. Open a chef incubator
Make your chefs the main attraction of your restaurant. Smallman Galley in Pittsburgh lets emerging chefs experiment with their own concept and menu, giving guests a different experience every time they visit.
4. Try a pop-up restaurant
Not ready to invest in a brick-and-mortar location just yet, but want to test your menu on a new audience? Try opening a pop-up restaurant. Eventide Oyster Co., a Portland-based oyster bar with James Beard Award-nominated chefs, did a pop-up at haley.henry to test out the Boston market before opening their doors near Fenway Park.
5. Feature rotating chefs
Every month, invite another chef to take over your concept and showcase their talents. City Grit in New York has introduced over two hundred up-and-coming chefs to the NYC dining community through their guest chef dinners, featuring eighteen James Beard Award winners and twenty-nine finalists. The Chefs Club, also in New York, similarly serves signature dishes from top chefs in the United States and around the world.
6. Partner with other restaurants
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer … or, stop thinking of other restaurants as enemies. Partner with other restaurants in your area to bring in a more diversified crowd. For example, A4cade in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a partnership between Area Four and Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, creating an out-of-the-box retro bar arcade experience. And who doesn’t love arcade games?
7. Do away with tipping
Switching to a gratuity-free employment model, where front of house staff are paid a higher hourly wage (often plus benefits) and do not accept tips from customers – can be intimidating. But some restaurants, like Juliet in Somerville, Massachusetts are really thriving with a no-tip, profit-sharing model.
8. Combine multiple concepts
Some restaurants only make money at specific times of day, like brunch places that are busy in the morning and bars that are busy at night. Could spots like these be making more money if they combined concepts? Fifth Frame Brewing Co. in Rochester, New York has done just that, serving as an all-in-one coffee shop, brewery, and breakfast/lunch spot.
9. Add animals to the ambiance
There are definitely perks to having a pet-friendly restaurant. But what about a restaurant focused on cats and dogs? Yes, cat cafes and dog cafes are a thing. Here are some of our favorites:
10. Partner with local breweries
If your craft beer sales are through the roof, consider partnering with local breweries to create a proprietary beer for your restaurant. For example, Oath Craft Pizza partnered with Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Massachusetts, and Journeyman partnered with Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Massachusetts to create beverage pairings for their tasting menus.
11. Add a layer of mystery to your bar or restaurant
Speakeasies and hidden bars or restaurants make customers feel like they're stumbling upon something secret and just for them. Here are a few of our favorites:
12. Offer a tasting room
Maybe your guests like the finer things in life. If you run a bar, appeal to the whiskey connoisseurs of the world with a whiskey and scotch tasting room. Host exclusive events to let guests try the newest liquor in your bar. The Olde Mouldy, for example, is a pop-up whiskey bar in The Closet at Backbar in Somerville, Massachusetts.
13. Provide self-serve beer
Yes, you read that right: self-service beer. With hundreds of beers on tap, Tapster in Chicago will take your credit card when you get to the restaurant and give you a “gift card” back. The gift card is placed on the tap machine, where it tracks how many ounces of beer you pour and out of which tap. When you’re done, you give the gift card back and pay the total amount accordingly. Ingenious, especially if your guests are picky about how beer is poured, or have difficulty deciding on a single beer.
14. Take a pop culture icon and bring it to life
Saved by the Max in West Hollywood, California is modeled after the old diner from Saved by the Bell and has everything that you could possibly imagine from the show: Bayside Tigers logos, lockers with characters’ names on them, and the floor plan even matches the TV show set.
15. Open a tribute bar or restaurant
In that same vein, you can make your bar or restaurant a tribute to a person. A Will Ferrell-themed bar called Stay Classy is now in Washington, D.C. Or, you could take it way back and theme your restaurant around a literary figure: Poe’s Pub in Richmond, Virginia is a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe.
16. Turn off the lights
Give your guests a new way to experience food. The Seattle Blind Cafe in Seattle is pitch dark, facilitated by legally blind staff, and designed to change the way you “see” the world. The focus is on creating sensory experiences that force guests to connect with those around them in an emotionally powerful way, despite the darkness.
17. Put eco-friendliness front and center
Make customers feel your purpose-driven mission and vision every time they walk through the door. Quick-service chain Leon focuses on “naturally fast food,” and is an eco-focused concept that powers its stores with sustainable energy and uses compostable packaging.
18. Give your guests a mission
SafeHouse, with locations in Milwaukee and Chicago, is a restaurant that turns guests into secret agents, forcing them to use a password to get in and find clues to complete a mission.
19. Create food that brings your community to life
After you’ve sourced your ingredients from local farms, you can go an extra step and create menu items that reflect the experience and environment of your town or community. No Joke Smoke BBQ in Swansea, Massachusetts creates seasonal sauces and flavorful slow-smoked meats to reflect the spirit of New England.
20. Use the view to your advantage
Oasis Restaurant in Austin, Texas is a three-story restaurant next to a dam on Lake Travis that started as an idea from Beau Theriot for a “restaurant on a hill.” It has become a giant, literal oasis for diners.
Ashish Alfred has been extremely open about his lifelong struggle with mental health and addiction — and how the people around him are the secret to his success.
21. Take your restaurant on the road
Food trucks have become so popular over the past few years that you may hesitate to create your own, but they can still be a great way to test out your concept. Here are some popular food trucks across the U.S.:
22. Allow guests to build their own meal
23. Open multiple concepts in one location
If your restaurant has multiple floors, you can have a different concept on each, giving guests multiple experiences within a single space — and more menu items to choose from. For example, Sienna Mercato in Pittsburgh has three stories: The first floor is Emporio, a meatball emporium; the second floor is Mezzo, which serves charcuterie and wood-fired pizzas; and the third floor, Il Tetto, is a rooftop bar with a beautiful sliding glass ceiling.
24. Make the history of your building work for you
Turn a historic spot into a dining destination. Chinese Tuxedo in New York is a three-story space built in 1893 that was originally the first Chinese opera house in the city. It also secretly housed the headquarters of the Tong mafia gang. MBAR in Mystic, Connecticut took a historic gas station and turned it into a gastropub cocktail bar.
25. Turn dinner into a game of chance
With an ever-changing menu and concept, Next Restaurant in Chicago is known as an innovator in its community. What makes this concept unique is the ticketing system that leads diners to an online waiting room where they play a game of chance (and good timing) to snag a table reservation months in advance. Other fine-dining restaurants like Alinea and The Aviary have since incorporated this approach.
26. Bring beauty into the bar
Bring even more beauty into your space with real-deal salon offerings. The Beauty Bar, which has locations in major cities across the U.S., serves up martinis and manicures, combining two comforts in a fun way.
27. Give your restaurant a kitschy theme
Some themes can be gimmicky. Others can make the restaurant experience extra fun. Beetle House, a Tim Burton-themed bar, and Jekyll & Hyde, a spooky bar and restaurant with live entertainment, are popular spots that make kitsch fun.
28. Just add water
Okay, this one’s a little out there, but there’s something for everyone. BBQ Donut allows guests to board a boat and dine on tasty BBQ ribs, beans, slaw, and beverages. The Frying Pan in NYC allows guests to dine on a historic floating lighthouse.
29. Give your guests a show
“Dinner and a show” is a retro-inspired restaurant concept still popular today. Supperclub in Amsterdam presents a rotating list of live performances, artists, and more — all while guests lie down on beds.
30. Food and drink can be medicinal
At the 2019 National Restaurant Association Show, one of the more talked about menu trends involved incorporating ingredients with medicinal benefits, like turmeric and kombucha. At Apotheke in NYC, modeled after European apothecaries and Parisian absinthe dens, the cocktail bar is less of a bar and more of a chemistry lab where bartenders come up with cures for what ails you.
31. Use the decor to delight your guests
There are so many ways to make your restaurant decor speak for your brand, but Brandy Library in NYC is an exceptional example. It’s a refined bar and lounge, where sommeliers climb ladders up vertical bookcases to fetch bottles.
32. Climb a tree
The Yellow Treehouse Restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand was built by architecture firm Pacific Environments on a 40m Redwood Tree. Guests climb up, have a great meal while suspended in the trees, and then climb back down.
33. Use history as inspiration
Many restaurants are influenced by the history in their community, but what about theming your restaurant around a hyper-specific piece of history? Boudoir is a cellar speakeasy modeled after Marie Antoinette’s private chambers. The Burgary references the embezzling exploits of 1920s bankers Max Garfunkel and Marcus Tauster, whose former office building now serves as the location of the restaurant and bar.
34. Hand your servers the mic
Dinner and a show, except your servers are the show. Ellen's Stardust Diner in NYC is a multi-level 50s-themed diner with singing servers. Located near Broadway, many of its servers have gone on to perform on the stage, including Brandon Ellis and Eric Michael Krop.
35. Combine food and movies
What’s better than going to the movies? Seeing movies with food. IPIC Theaters is a movie theater chain with restaurant-quality food from James Beard-awarded chefs, and Nitehawk Cinema tailors the menu to the movie selection.
36. Make it all about the kids
Family dining doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. Why not make the dining experience all about the kids? The American Girl Cafe in Los Angeles, for example, builds the dining experience around kids and their American Girl dolls.
37. Take it underground
La Caverna in NYC invites guests underground to a cave-like basement dance club with hookahs at the bar. Stalactites hang from the ceiling, and guests feel like they're inside a cavernous lair.
38. Help guests unplug
We all know that tech addiction is real. Why not offer guests the opportunity to unplug? Hearth in NYC helps customers disconnect from their devices by stashing phones away in a small decorative box on the table.
39. Order up on a bus
Want to mix up the old brick-and-mortar model? Serve your guests on a bus, like La Fiesta Mexicana Taco Bus does in Dillon, Montana.
40. Find ways to give back
Some restaurants have found unique ways to give back to charities and their community. Inspiration Kitchens in Chicago offers a food service training program to support in-need community members and train them for careers in hospitality. Oregon Public House in Portland has established relationships with a number of non-profit organizations to which their pub donates proceeds.
41. Turn the kitchen into a stage
42. Create interactive menu items
In some cases, you want your customers to put away their cell phones and enjoy the experience. In other cases, the cell phone can improve the experience. Chefs at Taranta in Boston draw QR codes onto certain dishes with squid ink. Customers can then "scan" the meal and land on a webpage about the dish's ingredients, step-by-step details on how it's made, and videos that educate on the background of the meal.
43. Wax poetic with your menu items
Common menu advice is to "write enticing descriptions." But what if you take your menu item names and descriptions to a poetic level? Atelier Crenn in San Francisco has menu items like "The half moon, silky and smoky" and "Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories." The menu reads like a poem and gets guests’ senses whirring.
44. Scrap your menu completely and personalize the experience
It doesn’t work for all restaurants, but some do away with menus to create a wholly personalized guest experience. Restaurants and bars like Restaurant Jezebel in Lockhart, Texas, Drink in Boston, and The Fat Duck in the UK customize drinks and menu items based upon asking guests questions and learning about their preferences.
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What inspires you?
People are coming up with unique restaurant ideas and concepts every day. What are some of yours? How will you bring them to life? Follow your inspiration and values, and with hard work and grit, you can make them a reality.