The trend toward open kitchens lets guests watch all the action

It’s been said that running a restaurant is like putting on a show. Today’s dining experience is more theatrical than ever, with the trend toward open kitchens that let guests watch all the action.

Display kitchens are receiving a warm reception everywhere from fine dining to quick-service restaurants like Domino’s, which is remodeling its nearly 11,000 restaurants worldwide by 2017 to a “Pizza Theater” format, where customers can view their pizza being prepared.

Set design

“An open kitchen is no longer just a hole in the wall where you can see someone working,” says William Eaton, chairman of the board of Cini-Little International, the   world’s largest foodservice design consultancy. His latest projects include New York City’s Stella 34 Trattoria, which features a 200-foot-long, sculptural white marble counter that wraps around the kitchen, serving as an elegant stage front for the cook line, three wood-burning ovens, the bread station and a cold prep station with a seven-seat dining counter.

“Display kitchens serve as a focal point,” says Rodolfo Farber, co-founder and partner of San Diego-based Jaime Partners, a construction and project management company specializing in the hospitality industry. At San Diego’s Común Kitchen and Tavern, the firm’s latest project, guests seated barside will have a front-row view of the chef preparing an ever-changing nightly tasting menu. Común, opening in July, takes the open kitchen to a new level by featuring a custom-built walk-in cooler that can be viewed through a window in the dining room. “Guests can see that the produce is fresh and clean,” says Farber.

Stage directions

Putting your kitchen on show can be good for business, but it also poses special challenges. Here are some tips on how to make an open kitchen worthy of a standing ovation.

Acoustics. Place speakers near the open kitchen to counteract kitchen clatter, Farber recommends. An acoustics consultant can identify other measures needed, like acoustic foam under tables or sound-absorbing wall panels. The dishwashing area tends to be the biggest noise generator, says Eaton, who recommends shielding this region. While some restaurants use glass walls to let guests peer into the kitchen without the noise and sound, Eaton discourages this approach. “It’s a monstrous job to keep the glass wall clean,” he says.

Ventilation: “Smelling the food from the kitchen is wonderful,” says Eaton. “Smelling too much of the food is not wonderful.” He recommends using an air modulation system that adjusts the hood’s exhaust based on the kitchen’s needs. “You also want to draw the air from the dining room gently into the kitchen,” says Eaton.

Aesthetics: Plan sight lines strategically. Build a counter high enough to shield the kitchen work area and the floor, but low enough to give guests a glimpse into the action, says Eaton. Farber advises: “Let guests see the cooking line, the fire coming up and the big hood, but keep the dishwashing area hidden.” Común’s kitchen is L-shaped, with one side housing a concealed dishwashing area.

Equipment: An appliance suite that nearly seamlessly connects coordinating ovens, broilers and fryers can serve as a striking centerpiece, says Eaton. A dramatic stainless steel hood, enamel coating on appliances and copper or bronze accents all make the kitchen shine. Prepare to pay a premium for these upgrades, sometimes doubling or tripling your costs. “Decide what level of ambience your customer expects,” says Eaton, and calculate what fits your budget. It doesn’t help to have a gorgeous kitchen if you can’t afford to stay in business.

Flow: “A lot of restaurants will make the mistake of building a big beautiful kitchen for guests to see, but they don’t think about how operationally sound it is,” says Común’s Chef Chad White. He recommends a tight kitchen that increases efficiency. “We open restaurants to make money, not to have people take pictures of us.”

Cast and crew: Prepare your culinary staff for their starring roles. Remind them that everything they do will be on view. “Set the right culture and let staff know what is and is not acceptable behavior,” says White.

Cleanliness: “Have a place for everything and everything in its place,” recommends Eaton. White advises sweeping every 10-15 minutes and wiping counters frequently. “That’s how a successful restaurant is going to run anyway,” he says. “This just forces the habit.”