Take a moment to reflect on one of your most memorable dining experiences. What about that meal set it apart from the rest? Was it the first bite of that divine dish? The music and ambiance? The people you were enjoying it with, perhaps? For a complete sensory experience, outstanding restaurants should check all the boxes, while also featuring innovative decor that’s just as aesthetically pleasing as the food on your plate.
“Restaurant interiors should be expressive, but not demanding,” says Rebecca Courtney, principal of the architecture and design firm Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK). “Your eye should land on something beautiful but not demand attention away from the food experience. We’re always looking for that element that is beautiful and special in the moment — but when you look back on it, you’re remembering an entire experience versus a standalone component.”
Natalie Lieberman, interior designer and founder of Collect + Curate, notes that restaurant interior designers are able to use the chef’s cuisine and passion as inspiration for the design of the restaurant itself. “For the guests, it’s a theatrical experience,” she says. “We are setting a mood, exuding a feel, and telling a story.”
Here, we showcase a collection of Memphis’ most interesting restaurant interiors concepts, and we share thoughts from the designers on their approach.
The Liquor Store
Natalie Lieberman, Collect + Curate
“I approach every design project with a story, and I think every space and client has a story to tell. Projects like The Liquor Store are particularly fun and successful when you have a highly creative and talented client duo like Lisa and Luis Toro.
“From the beginning, The Liquor Store was a diner concept, but as things evolved, the concept became a bit more elevated and Latin-influenced. It also needed a day-to-night feel for a bar scene. We wanted honest, hardworking finishes that you would find in a diner. Luis, who is co-owner and a graphic designer, and I designed the custom palm pattern printed on laminate for the bar top and tables. Knowing this would be an impactful design feature, I wanted everything else to retreat to a clean, white interior.
“This project was about editing as much as it was about design, and playful elements like the palm pattern and astroturf patio keep the design from feeling too stark or elegant. The interior design, branding, and menu design end up being fluid and cohesive.”
The New Lucky Cat on Broad
Sarah Pardee and Zach Nicholson, husband-and-wife owners of Lucky Cat
“To begin the design process, we picked out a few strong elements — the lush green sofa, statement lighting fixtures, and red chrysanthemum wallpaper, among others. The rest of the elements sort of fell into place by sticking to a color palette and adding different textural components.
“We brought the communal ‘bowling table,’ made from reclaimed wood from a local bowling alley, with us from our Cooper & Peabody location, and we commissioned Woodland Tree to make matching smaller tables using the same wood. The red chrysanthemum wallpaper was inspired by one of our favorite restaurants in Austin. The industrial elements are contrasted with warm leather and wood, which we gave a shou sugi ban-esque treatment to pay homage to the Japanese influence in our concept. Work by the local mural artist Birdcap has been a longtime favorite of ours, and his 30-foot-long jigsaw-paneled wall piece adds a lot of character to our space.
“Lighting is so important when it comes to creating the vibe of a restaurant, and we faced a particular challenge in making the space feel intimate with such high ceilings. By painting the upper part of the walls a very deep shade of charcoal to lower the perceived ceiling height, and hanging pendant lights that give off an amber glow, we were able to achieve this effect.”
Hu. Diner + Hu. Roof
Karina Benloucif, Senior Designer with HOME Studios
“Taking inspiration from the ’50s and ’60s golden era of Memphis, and as evidenced by its name, the design of Hu. Diner is rooted in the enduring concept of the iconic Southern diner. Classic diner motifs are elevated and reinvented through rich materials and a modern, sophisticated palette. Copper and zinc make the space shine, while wood floors, oversized leather, maple banquettes, and glowing custom lighting soften the space. The result is an interior that manages to be both a welcoming neighborhood joint and a destination dining experience — the perfect backdrop for the elevated comfort food on offer.
“On Hu. Roof, the design draws inspiration from and celebrates the extraordinary city views provided by the Hu. Hotel. Folding doors open the space out to the deck, letting the breeze flow in along with the good times. A palette of blues, whites and peach; custom upholstered outdoor communal seating; and a glowing corner bar all add up to create this unique lighthearted setting in the sky.”
The Gray Canary
Rebecca Courtney, LRK
“In an existing historic building such as The Gray Canary in Downtown Memphis, a design vocabulary exists. To its restored core, we aim to layer supportive elements to the chef’s menu vision and diner experience.
“The Gray Canary is all about adventure and creativity. A community gathering space is at the front, taking advantage of the streetscape, and we sought to showcase the theatrics of the kitchen’s open-fire cooking, the oyster bar’s shucking, and the full bar’s mixing — drawing in and immersing the diner into the experience.
“The Gray Canary’s palette was a little bit darker, more moody and mysterious than Catherine and Mary’s (also helmed by chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman). Drawing from the food of the fire, ash, and sea, these natural elements set the colors and tones. The art throughout the restaurant was somewhat serendipitous, as their whimsical, playful spirit appeared toward the end of construction. Just like the restaurant’s offerings, our interiors aren’t static or set; they’re always evolving.”
Ann Parker, Parker Design Studio
“Ultimately, the feel of the space paired with the culinary experience is what should keep the diner coming back for more. As a design team, we incorporate the colors and textures of the menu to design a completely holistic space. Every detail counts: the door handle as you enter, the signature cocktail, flatware, presentation of the menu and meal, and even the pen when signing the check — these are all critical aspects of the total design experience.
“The ownership group of 117 Prime sought a great steak house to complete the Downtown Memphis scene. The key concept was kitschy comfort with some simple, vintage details. Chef Ryan Trimm’s vision was for the diner to experience a Southern steak house with a thread of modernity, nodding to those we remember going to as children with our grandparents.
“A big part of the experience plays with scale, as we kept some of the original lighting and paired it with oversized bar lights to host the old with the new. We were especially intentional in using the old-school captain chairs as comfortable, but nostalgic, seating. Our intent was to provide a light, airy, and comfortable experience, with a little humor in the details.”
The Pocket at Tailor’s Union
Ann Parker, Parker Design Studio
“The Tailor’s Union experience is set by the element of surprise. The client desired mystery, which we brought to life in the entrance and continued into a bar, combining the feels of New York City with Los Angeles. Tailor’s Union is a true marriage of many different levels of design, which collectively provide an experience unique to any other in Memphis.”
Gwen Driscoll, Driscoll Design & Decoration
“Acre was a dream project for the Driscoll Team. The investors, who are longtime clients, wanted this project to be a gift to Memphis. I love the clean, yet rustic, aesthetic we created together. Acre feels like you’ve been transported to another locale. Looking back almost ten years later, I wouldn’t change one thing about the design.”
Gwen Driscoll, Driscoll Design & Decoration
“Folk’s Folly was an amazing project, truly a Memphis favorite for all generations. It was an amazing honor being tapped to rejuvenate a celebration spot we have all loved for years. The most transformative space was the Folk’s Folly bar. We redesigned it with comfortable banquette seating so patrons can relax, linger, and enjoy a meal.”
Lauren Ricks, LRK
“Global Cafe in Crosstown Concourse is all about celebrating the work and talent of these global refugees from Nepal to Sudan. The concept, while very experimental and new for Memphis, has totally been embraced. The interior and flow of the space are centered around openness and transparency, providing the opportunity for diners and visitors to interact with new cultures and people in a casual, airy environment. The concept has been incredibly successful in opening people’s eyes to using food as a conduit to community.”
Elemento Neapolitan Pizza
Rebecca Courtney, LRK
“For Elemento Neapolitan Pizza, the artistic elements of pizza-making provided clarity for the interiors. The color palette, textures, and spatial layout were all built off of the food, and the beautiful wood-burning pizza ovens provided a natural central anchor. The space is spare, with minimal architectural elements: a dark, metallic wall to backdrop the white tile ovens and copper branding; dark pendant lights against exposed raw concrete; and a concrete bar with bright, white top to highlight the fresh makings of traditional Neapolitan pizza.”
Now, go immerse your senses in one of the fabulous eateries!
Swoon over more amazing interiors in our archives — click here!