What does it take to be a successful restaurateur?
Hustle. Thick skin. And an endless amount of creativity.
According to Statista, the number of restaurants in the United States reached a total of 660,755 in Spring 2018. And according to Toast's 2019 Restaurant Success Report, a whopping 45% of diners go out to eat multiple times a week, with another 20% going out to eat once a week.
So how do you make your restaurant stand out? How do you get people excited to enter your restaurant? You need to come up with great restaurant ideas that will draw guests in and keep them coming back for more.
To help you get started, here are 50 ideas to create an unforgettable restaurant concept, including examples of real restaurants that have cracked the code for how to generate repeat customers.
50 Unique Restaurant Ideas for 2020
1. Team up with local farms
More and more, diners are becoming conscious of where their food comes from. Creamline in New York, NY has a "from farm to tray" model that combines ingredients from local farms and purveyors.
2. Let robots do the cooking
Spyce in Boston has created the world’s first restaurant run by a robotic kitchen. 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, PA 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, MA market before opening their doors in Fenway.
5. Feature rotating chefs
Every month, invite another chef to take over your concept and showcase their talents. City Grit in New York, NY 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 US and global chefs.
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, MA combines Area Four and Roxy’s Grilled Cheese for an awesome 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, MA and barcito in Los Angeles, CA, 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 these places be making more money if they combined concepts? For example, Fifth Frame Brewing Co. in Rochester, NY is 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, MA, and Journeyman partnered with Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, MA to cook meals specifically for beer pairings.
11. Serve draft coffee
We’re used to draft beer, but what about draft lattes? La Colombe Coffee Roasters in Boston combines milk and coffee, delivering the frothy texture you expect from a latte in a can, so guests can take it on the go.
12. 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:
13. Offer a tasting room
Do your guests like the finer things in life? If you’re a bar, appeal to the whiskey snobs 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, MA.
14. Offer self-serve beer
Yes, you read that right: self-service beer. With hundreds of beers on tap, Tapster in Chicago, IL, 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 or have difficulty picking which one to drink.
15. Take beloved pop culture and bring it to life
Saved by the Max in West Hollywood, CA 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 names on them, and even the exact layout from the show.
16. Open a tribute bar or restaurant
In that same vein, perhaps your bar or restaurant could be 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, VA is a great tribute to Edgar Allan Poe.
17. Turn off the lights
Teach your guests to experience food in a new way. The Seattle Blind Cafe in Seattle, WA is pitch dark, facilitated by legally blind staff, and designed to change the way you “see” the world. They focus on creating a sensory experiences that forces guests to connect with those around them, despite the darkness, in an emotionally powerful way.
18. Take your guests to another world
Ninja New York sends guests to a subterranean labyrinth where servers are dressed as ninjas who not only serve food but also perform magic tricks and regularly tumble around. It’s an experience like no other.
19. 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 is an eco-focused concept that powers its stores with sustainable energy and uses compostable packaging. Their “naturally fast food” appeals to all guests, eco-friendly or otherwise.
20. 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.
21. 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 in Swansea, MA creates seasonal sauces and flavorful slow-smoked meats to reflect the spirit of New England.
22. Use the view to your advantage
Oasis Restaurant in Austin, TX 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.
23. 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 we think they’re still a great idea. Take the food to the people. Here are some of our favorite food trucks across the US:
24. Allow guests to build their own meal
Fire + Ice is a well-known concept that gives guests the power to build their own meal and watch as it’s cooked by expert chefs. Many pizza concepts are also adopting this idea, including Pieology and Blaze Pizza.
25. Open multiple concepts in one location
If your restaurant has multiple floors, you can have a different concept on each so guests feel like they’re having multiple experiences within one building and can have more menu choices. For example, Sienna Mercato in Pittsburgh, PA has three stories: The first floor is Emporior, 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 sliding glass ceiling.
26. 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, CT is a historic gas station turned gastropub cocktail bar.
27. Do one thing… really well
Center your restaurant or cafe around a single item you are constantly improving upon. District Donuts in New Orleans, LA 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. Turn dinner into a game of chance
With an ever-changing menu and concept, Next Restaurant in Chicago is known as an innovator within their community. What makes their concept really unique is the ticketing system that leads diners to an online waiting room where people play a game of luck (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.
29. Reduce overhead by offering your restaurant as a coworking space during 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 that uses beautiful, dinner-only restaurant dining rooms as coworking spaces by day.
30. 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 us produce that is blemished or misshapen that otherwise would have gone to waste. Food For All allows people to buy cheap leftovers when restaurants close, preventing them from ending up in the trash.
31. Combine food and beauty
The Beauty Bar in NYC serves martinis and manicures, combining two comforts in a delightful way.
32. Give your restaurant a kitschy theme
Some themes can be gimmicky. Others can make the restaurant experience extremely fun. Beetle House, a Tim Burton-themed bar, and Jekyll & Hyde, a supposedly haunted bar, are great examples of the latter.
33. Just add water to the experience
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 board a lightship and dine on a floating lighthouse.
34. Give your guests a show
“Dinner and a show” is a retro-inspired restaurant concept enjoyed by many diners. Supperclub in Amsterdam presents a rotating list of live performances, artists, and more, all while guests lie down on beds.
35. Food and drink can be medicinal
At The 2019 National Restaurant Association Show, one of the more talked about menu trends was 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 stage, or chemistry lab, where bartenders have the cure to what ails you.
36. 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 is a refined bar and lounge, where sommeliers climb ladders up vertical bookcases to fetch bottles.
37. Invite guests to climb a tree to get to your food
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 down.
38. Use history as inspiration
Many restaurants are influenced by the history in their community, but what about theming your restaurant around a period 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 is the exact location of the restaurant and bar.
39. 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.
40. Give your servers the opportunity to lift their voices
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. Because it's located near Broadway, many servers have gone on to perform on the stage, including Brandon Ellis and Eric Michael Krop.
41. 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.
42. 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, lets kids dine with their American Girl dolls.
43. 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 lair.
44. 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.
45. Invite guests to dine 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, MT.
46. 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 all proceeds.
47. Turn the kitchen into a stage
Turn your chefs into the stars of your restaurant. Restaurants like Alinea and Roister in Chicago put their chefs front-and-center so diners can see them at work.
48. 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.
49. 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 keeps guests pleasantly surprised and delighted by the abstraction.
50. Scrap your menu completely and personalize the experience
Some restaurants do away with menus to create a wholly personalized guest experience. Restaurants and bars like Restaurant Jezebel in Lockhart, TX, 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.
Have an exciting restaurant idea?
People are coming up with unique restaurant ideas and concepts every day. What are some of yours and how will you bring them to life?