What does it take to be a successful restaurateur?
Hustle. Thick skin. And an endless amount of creativity.
There are 624,301 restaurants in America alone, according to NPD Group. That means diners literally have hundreds of thousands of choices for where to dine out. And that’s if they dine out; with grocery prices decreasing, and menu prices increasing, it’s even harder to entice people to leave their homes.
So how do you make your restaurant stand out? How do you make people excited to visit your restaurant? Come up with great restaurant ideas.
Here are 75 ideas to create an unforgettable concept that will leave guests wanting to return again and again, plus examples of successful restaurants that have cracked the code.
1. Team up with local farms. More and more, diners are extremely conscious of where their food comes from. Juice Union, a juice and smoothie shop in Somerville, Mass. only uses the freshest ingredients from local farms to create delicious smoothies. Creamline in New York, N.Y. has a "from farm to tray" model that combines ingredients from local farms and purveyors.
2. Open a chef incubator. Make your chefs the main attraction of your restaurant. Smallman Galley in Pittsburgh, Pa. lets emerging chefs experiment with their own concept and menu, giving guests a different experience every time they visit.
3. Try a pop-up restaurant. Not ready to take your new concept to a brick-and-mortar 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, is popping up at Haley.Henry to test out the Boston, Mass. market before opening in Fenway.
4. Feature rotating chefs. Every month, invite another chef to take over your concept and showcase their talents. City Grit in New York City, N.Y. has hosted over 200 guest chef dinners, featuring 18 James Beard Award Winners and 29 Finalists, helping introduce these up and coming chefs to the NYC dining community. The Chefs' Club, also in New York City, N.Y., also serves signature dishes from top U.S. and global chefs.
City Grit; Credit to Gabriele Stabile for The New York Times
5. 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 a more diversified crowd. For example, A4cade in Cambridge, Mass. combines Area Four and Roxy’s Grilled Cheese into an awesome retro bar arcade experience.
6. Invite guests into your home. Some chefs do away with the concept of a restaurant entirely, and simply host small parties at their home. A very exclusive experience, guests will enjoy a home-cooked meal from a professional chef.
7. Moonlight as another concept. Some concepts are only making money at certain times of day. Brunch places are busy in the morning, bars are busy at night; could these places be making more if they combined concepts? For example, Fifth Frame Brewing Co., opening in Rochester, N.Y., will be an all-in-one coffeeshop, brewery, and breakfast/lunch spot.
8. Add animals to the ambiance. There are of course perks to having a pet-friendly restaurant. But what about a restaurant focused on cats and dogs? Cat cafes and dog cafes are going nowhere. Here are some of our favorites:
Meow Parlour; Credit to Christa Hamilton Photography
9. Partner with local breweries. Even if you don’t have a bar in your concept, you can still serve beer. Partner with local breweries if you’re finding that many of your guests visit in the evening. For example Oath Craft Pizza partnered with Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Mass., and Journeyman partnered with Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Mass. to cook meals specifically for beer pairings.
10. Serve draft coffee. We’re used to draft beer. (Personally, I prefer it.) But draft lattes?! La Colombe Coffee Roasters in Boston, Mass. combines milk and coffee, delivering the frothy texture you expect from a latte, in a can, so guests can take it on the go.
11. Flip the speakeasy on its head. Speakeasies are cool on their own - restaurants with hidden bars in the back make guests feel like they’re stumbling across something extremely exclusive. But what about bars with hidden restaurants in the back? Dinnertable in New York City, N.Y. does just that. To get in, just go to the Garret East, look behind the curtain, and ring the doorbell that reads PRESS FOR FOOD.
12. Offer a tasting room. Dining out should always be an experience. But make it even more eventful with a whiskey & scotch tasting room, especially if you’re a bar. Host exclusive events to 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, Mass.
13. Offer self-serve beer. With hundreds of beer on tap, Tapster in Chicago, Ill., 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 you’re picky about how beer is poured.
Tapster; Credit to Nick Fochtman of Eater Chicago
14. Take beloved pop culture restaurants and make them real. Bring pop culture restaurants to life! Saved By the Max in Chicago, Ill. is modeled after the old diner from “Saved By The Bell,” and has literally everything that you could possibly imagine from Saved by the Bell in this restaurant: Bayside Tiger's logos, lockers with names on them, plus the exact layout from the show!
15. Open a tribute bar or restaurant. In that same vein, perhaps your bar or restaurant could be a tribute to a person. A new Will Ferrell-themed bar called Stay Classy will be opening in Boston, Mass. for example. Or, you could take it way back and theme your restaurant on a literary figure; Poe’s Pub in Richmond, Va. is a great tribute to Edgar Allan Poe.
16. Turn off the lights. Teach your guests to experience food in a new way. The Seattle Blind Cafe in Seattle, Wash. creates a sensory experiences that forces guests to connect with those around them, despite the darkness, in an emotionally powerful way. The cafe is pitch dark, facilitated by legally blind staff, and designed to change the way you “see” the world.
17. Take your guests to another world. Ninja New York in New York City, N.Y. sends guests to a subterranean labyrinth, where their servers are ninjas who not only serve food but also perform magic tricks and regularly tumble around. It’s an experience like no other.
18. Give your guests a mission. Safe House in Milwaukee, Wis. 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.
Safe House; Credit to Safe-House.com
19. Create food that reflects the area. Don’t just source your ingredients from local farms. Go the extra step - create menu items that reflect your experience in your area. No Joke Smoke BBQ, for example, creates a brand of 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 3-story restaurant next to a dam on Lake Travis that started as an idea from Beau Theriot for a “restaurant on a hill.” It’s transformed into a giant, literal oasis for diners.
21. Let guests pour their own Guinness. There’s a very specific way to pour Guinness, and not every bartender gets it right. At Murphy’s Law in Pawtucket, R.I., guests can try their hand at pouring their own Guinness - for better or for worse.
22. Take your restaurant on the road. Food trucks have gotten a lot of press, but I still think they are a great restaurant idea. Take the food to the people! Here are some of our favorite food trucks across the U.S.:
23. Allow guests to build their own meal. Fire + Ice is a very well-known concept that gives guests the power to build their own meal, and see it being cooked by expert chefs. Since Chipotle’s success, many pizza concepts are also adopting this idea, such as Pieology and Blaze Pizza.
Pieology; Credit to Business Insider
24. Open multiple concepts in one location. If your restaurant has multiple floors, you can have a different concept on each, so guests have more choices. Sienna Mercato in Pittsburgh, Pa. for example has three stories. The first floor is Emporior, a meatball emporium; the send floor is Mezzo, which serves charcuterie and wood-fired pizzas; the third floor, Il Tetto, is a rooftop bar with a sliding glass ceiling.
25. Make the history of your building work for you. Turn a historic spot into a dining destination. Chinese Tuxedo in New York, N.Y. is a 3-story space built in 1893 that was originally the first Chinese opera house in New York City, and also secretly housed the headquarters of the Tong mafia gang. MBAR in Mystic, Conn. is a historic gas station turned gastropub cocktail bar.
MBAR; Credit to MBAR
26. Capture millennials with arcades. Maybe the idea of a “sit down” restaurant doesn’t appeal to the demographic in your area. Instead, try opening an arcade! Beercade HQ in Nashville, Tenn. and Chicago, Ill. lets guests… well, drink beer and play arcade games!
27. Do one thing… really well. People remember eateries with a purpose. Center your restaurant or cafe around an item you are constantly improving. District Donuts in New Orleans, La. for example, serves all kinds of crazy donuts, some stuffed with ice cream or snowballs. They also have coffee and beer on tap. Beer + donuts = success.
28. Reduce overhead by offering your restaurant as a coworking space over the day. Make money when your restaurant isn’t even open by allowing companies to work there during the way. Spacious is a startup in New York City, N.Y. that uses beautiful, dinner-only restaurant dining rooms as coworking spaces by day.
Spacious; Credit to Hollis Johnson of Business Insider
29. Make food waste profitable. Food waste is a big problem in the U.S., especially at restaurants. Several companies are working to fight this problem: Misfit Juicery and Rubies in the Rubble take produce that is blemished or misshapen that would otherwise have gone to waste. Food For All and BuffetGo allows people to buy cheap leftovers when restaurants close - food those restaurants would have otherwise thrown out.
30. Combine food and beauty. The Beauty Bar in New York City, N.Y. serves martinis and manicures, combining two comforts in a delightful way.
31. Give your restaurant a theme. Some themes can be gimmicky. But other themes can make the restaurant experience extremely fun. Beetle House, a Tim Burton-themed bar, and Jekyll & Hyde, a supposedly haunted bar, do just that.
32. Let guests float on water as they eat. OK, this one’s a little out there. BBQ Donut allows guests to board a boat, and dine on tasty BBQ ribs, beans, slaw, and beverages. The Frying Pan in New York City, N.Y. allows guests to board a lightship and dine on the floating lighthouse. Do you think floating on the water changes the taste of the food?
33. Give your guests a show. “Dinner and a show” is still a concept enjoyed by many diners. Lumos in New York City, N.Y. is dedicated to baijiu and burlesque shows. Supperclub in Amsterdam presents a rotating list of live performances, artists, and more, while guests lie down on beds.
34. Make eating at your restaurant a holy experience. Convert a church into a restaurant. The White Rabbit Restaurant in Indonesia is a remodeled historic building that used to house a church, keeping true to the church's design with beautifully stained window panes and arches.
35. Remember: food and drink can be medicinal. Many restaurants market their food as "healthy," but Apotheke in New York City, N.Y. really mean it: modeled after European apothecaries and Parisian absinthe dens, the cocktail bar is less of a bar, and more of a stage, or chemistry lab, for bartenders to strut their stuff.
Apotheke; Credit to Time Out New York
36. Allow guests to pay what they want. It doesn't sound sustainable, but some restaurants, such as EAT Cafe in Philadelphia, Pa. are non-profits that "nourish, educate, and unite the community in a welcoming environment." Their goal? To create a hunger-free community.
37. Use the decor to delight your guests. There are so many ways to make your decor speak for your brand, but Brandy Library in New York City, N.Y. is an exceptional example. It is a refined bar & lounge, where sommeliers climb ladders up vertical bookcases to fetch bottles.
38. Give your guests taste tests. Blindfold guests, and make them guess what they're eating. Dining in the Dark in New York and California blindfolds guests so their senses take over, and it's truly a unique experience. Camaje in New York, N.Y. hosts blindfolded-dining events in its cozy bistro.
39. Make your restaurant or bar exclusive… extremely exclusive. Speakeasies and hidden bars and restaurants make customers feel like they're stumbling upon something secret, and just for them. Here are a few of our favorites:
40. Make your favorite movie into a restaurant. Dear Irving in New York City, N.Y. is a cocktail parlour with time-traveling theme, inspired by Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." Waltz through different rooms to go to different decades: the JFK Room (1960s), Gatsby Room (1920s), the Abraham Lincoln Room (1850s), and more.
41. Invite guests to climb a tree to get to your food. The Yellow Treehouse Restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand was built by Pacific Environments Architects on a 40m Redwood Tree. Guests climb up, have a great meal suspended in the trees, and then climb down.
Yellow Treehouse; Credit to Jebiga
42. Use history as inspiration. Many restaurants take advantage of the history surrounding them. But what about theming your restaurant after a period of history? Le Boudoir is a cellar-speakeasy modeled after Marie Antoinette’s private chambers. The Burgary that references the embezzling exploits of 1920s bankers Max Garfunkel and Marcus Tauster, whose former office building is the exact location of the restaurant and bar.
43. Turn guests into patients. Hospitalis Restaurant in Riga, Latvia has unfortunately closed, but that doesn't make it any less of a great restaurant idea. Here, it's a horror show meets dining experience, where bartenders wear lab coats and waitresses wear nurse uniforms, strap you into a straight jacket, and spoon feed you. Definitely something guests won't forget!
44. Give your servers the opportunity to lift their voices. Dinner and a show, except your servers are the show. Ellen's Stardust Diner in New York City, N.Y. is a multi-level 50's themed diner with singing servers. Because it's located near Broadway, many servers have gone on to star on the stage and on the screen.
45. Do away with waiters completely. Some restaurants are taking automation to a whole new level. Eatsa in San Francisco, Calif. and Roller Coaster Restaurant in Nuremberg are two that come to mind for quick service and full service restaurants, respectively.
46. Combine food and movies. The one thing I love more than seeing movies? Seeing movies with food. iPic Theaters is a cinema with restaurant-quality food from James Beard-Awarded chefs, and Nitehawk Cinema tailors the menu to the movie selection.
Nitehawk Cinema; Credit to Michael Allen of New York Magazine
47. Make it all about the kids. Family dining can be a harrowing experience. Why not make it all about the kids? The American Girl Doll Dining, for example, lets your daughters dine with their dolls.
48. Take it underground. La Caverna in New York City, N.Y. invites guests underground to a cavelike basement dance club with hookahs at the bar. Stalactites hang from the ceiling, and guests feel like they're inside a lair.
49. Make your restaurant open source - literally. The Instructables Restaurant, which launched in Amsterdam, gives guests creatively-cooked food and instructions for preparing everything they see - including the furniture. Guests go home knowing how to make the food as well as the furniture.
50. Get creative with the seating. Chairs and tables are boring. What about beds? Duvet has since closed, but when it was open, it provided seating on beds. Dinner was served on TV trays and giant-screen TVs broadcasted a "psychedelic swirl of soft colors."
51. Find creative ways to make guests put away their cell phones. Cell phones are the bane of existence for many restaurateurs. Encourage guests to put their phones away and actually talk to the person beside them. Chick-fil-A for example has a cell phone "coop" for people to hide their cell phones in on the table.
Chick-fil-A; Credit to Sean Ward at Chick-fil-A
52. Go to infinity… and beyond. Space Aliens Grill & Bar in Minnesota and North Dakota is an alien-themed restaurant based on space travel and supposedly founded by space aliens. A fun destination for kids, it's an interesting theme for a restaurant.
53. Invite guests to dine on a train… or a bus. Guests might be bored of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Why not serve them on a train - like Le Train Bleu in New York City, N.Y. did before it closed (but it's reopening in Bloomingdale's in 2018!) - or on a bus - like La Fiesta Mexicana Taco Bus does in Dillon, Mont.
54. Give your restaurant a fantasy theme. Let guests eat in their favorite storyworld, whether it's Alice in Wonderland at Alice's Tea Cup or Doctor Who at The Way Station, both in New York City, N.Y..
55. Appreciate your staff. It's so important to show your staff you care, and create an open culture of appreciation. At Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston, Mass., none of the manager offices have doors, and all have anonymous suggestion boxes to get feedback from staff.
56. Have a service guarantee. Diners have come to expect prompt service and excellent experiences. Come up with a tagline, or mission statement, for your restaurant and stick to it. Satisfaction Guaranteed Eateries, for example, operates on this mantra: Your Enjoyment Guaranteed. Always.
57. Make your restaurant an art installation. Sometimes, it's not just the food that sets your restaurant apart; it's the decor. In Situ in San Francisco, Calif. knows this; their restaurant is in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and is a sleek ground-floor restaurant. Everything from the decor to the food is art.
In Situ; Credit to Patricia Chang at Eater SF
58. Take a well-known ingredient, and do something totally different with it. Most recipes call for butter, garlic, olive oil, etc. What if your restaurant made their own staples? Buttercraft in Portland, Ore. sells handcrafted butter, wine, meat and cheese, and , like butter, and The Granary Cue & Brew in San Antonio, Texas sells barbecue and beer made from scratch.
59. Work with local artists to amplify your brand. Want to get people talking about your restaurant? Ask local artists to share their interpretations of your menu items. Even Stevens Sandwiches in Utah, for example, offers local artists' interpretations as free prints, creating a "sticky" guest experience. Plus, who doesn't love free prints?
60. Keep your guests on their toes with a happy hour that sells all "needs to go" items. Instead of throwing out food at the end of the day, offer a 2-for1 happy hour to get rid of fresh-baked goods, where the time to buy changes daily to keep customers on their feet, like Glazed and Infused in Chicago, Ill. does.
61. Post bar training videos and chef videos online. With more and more people watching videos on their phone - ever heard of Tasty? - your restaurant or bar has a lot of opportunity to showcase your chefs' or bartenders' talents. Old Chicago posts their training videos online.
62. Partner with big businesses. There could be a creative way to partner with big businesses to amplify your brand. Lyft and Starbucks partnered, so that whenever a customer takes a Lyft ride, they earn points in Starbucks' loyalty program.
63. Add function to your design. If your kitchen can get loud, you might want to soundproof the dining room. The Painted Burro in Somerville, Mass. covers soundproofing panels in burlap to add quiet to the dining room, Convival in Washington, D.C. wraps the wall in red felt, and State of Grace in Houston, Texas frames sound panels and nails deer antlers to them.
State of Grace; Credit to State of Grace and Zagat
64. Test your more shareable menu items. Create more shareable menu items as a way to sample the menu. A platter at Ampersand Wine Bar in Chicago, Ill. for example. includes cookies, truffles, candies, chocolates, and other sweets.
65. Go cashless. Tired of dealing with cash? If the legalities make sense, try going cashless. Sweetgreen is testing out going cashless in many of their locations, and plans to go fully cashless in 2017. If you don't own a fast casual restaurant, you could still test going cashless with the use of mobile POS tablets.
66. Partner with charity organizations. Many restaurants donate a certain amount of the check to charity organizations. Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, Calif. donates $0.75 to the SF-Marin Food Bank; Inspiration Kitchens in Chicago, Ill. offers a foodservice training program to support in-need community members and train for careers in hospitality; Oregon Public House in Portland, Ore. gives customers a list of charities to choose from, and 100% of the proceeds go to that charity.
67. Do away with the brick and mortar, and focus solely on delivery. Food delivery is becoming more convenient for diners everywhere. Some restaurants are doing away with rent costs and focusing solely on delivery; some examples are Maple and Ando in New York City, N.Y. Sprig and Munchery in San Francisco, Calif.
68. Turn the kitchen into a stage. If you think about it, your chefs are really the stars of your restaurant. Put them front and center, so guests can see how they work. Great examples are Alinea and Roister in Chicago, Ill.
69. Go all in with prix fixe. Make a seasonal prix fixe, so your menu doesn't get too complicated. Prix fixe literally means "fixed price" and are often great ways to feed large crowds while still offering menu selections within a certain price range. Lenoir Restaurant in Austin, Texas is a great example of a restaurant that uses three-course prix fixe menus smartly.
70. Really simplify your pricing. Many restaurants overthink their menu pricing; and consequently, so do their guests. Try simplifying your pricing; don't just get rid of the dollar signs, get rid of the numbers altogether. TBD Restaurant in San Francisco, Calif. (which has since rebranded to Fenix Restaurant) had a menu with squares and triangles as prices; guests have to use a "key" to see the menu prices based on the shapes they see.
TBD Restaurant; Credit to Julia Spiess at Bureau Jules
71. 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, Mass. draw QR codes onto certain dishes with squid ink; customers can "scan" the meal and land on a webpage about that dish's ingredients, step-by-step details on how it's made, and videos that educate on the background of the meal.
72. Wax poetic with your menu item names. Common menu advice is to "write enticing descriptions." But what if your menu names and descriptions were not only enticing, but poetic? Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Calif. has menu items called "the half moon, silky, and smoky" and "nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories." The menu reads like a poem, and guests are pleasantly surprised by their choices.
73. Or, scrap your menu completely and instead totally personalize the experience. Do away with the menu, and instead get to know your guests. Restaurants and bars like Restaurant Jezebel in Lockhart, Texas, Drink in Boston, Mass., and The Fat Duck in the U.K. customize the menu based on your life, and what they think you'll like.
74. Get guests out of their comfort zones with communal seating. We're used to communal seating at hibachi restaurants, but most other restaurants segment their guests into separate tables. Gunshow, Kevin Gillepsie's brainchild in Atlanta, Ga., offers a bold take on traditional dining, with dim-sum-style roving carts doling out bites to communal tables.
Gunshow; Credit to Gunshow Restaurant
75. Let guests try your specials “live.” Servers at Sarma in Somerville, Mass. walk around the dining room with featured items in hand. Guests can see specials - some of which aren't even on the menu - before ordering them, while each plate that is chosen is marked down on a card. Guests never know what they're going to get, and this element of surprise makes the experience that much more exciting.
Every great restaurateur has had a great restaurant idea. Many of them have even come to fruition. I'm looking at you, successful restaurateurs! Every day, hundreds of people have an idea for a great restaurant. What's yours?