For the past few years, my friends and I have noticed two trends when dining. First, seemingly every high-end menu rebukes factory farming with an essay about locally sourced pork belly, and second, just about every one of these restaurants looks so much like a factory – with exposed light bulbs, steel details and brick walls – that I'm constantly looking over my shoulder for the foreman.
I like the industrial-chic look, but still, I wondered: Why has it permeated so many restaurants, regardless of cuisine? Hoping for an answer that involved a secret society plot, I called a bunch of restaurateurs and designers to get the low-down on the stripped-down look.
The first rule of industrial chic: You do not talk about industrial chic.
"We don't like the term 'industrial chic,' " says Jeremy Levitt, co-owner of the New York City-based firm Parts and Labor Design. "The term 'industrial' is becoming overused," he adds. "We certainly stay away from the word 'chic.'" If you must, try instead "modern industrial" or "deco industrial."
"I call it 'manufactured authenticity,' " says Cori Sue Morris, co-founder of the cheekily named brunch blogging site Bitches Who Brunch, which reviews eateries in D.C., New York and Chicago.
Call it what you will, it's everywhere. Restaurant designer Hilary Miners, of D.C.-based CORE architecture firm, had some thoughts about why. She remembers the look was popular as early as 2007, but she thinks the recession gave it staying power.
"A lot of people became a lot more cautious with spending their money, but still wanted an upscale experience without going to a white tablecloth restaurant," Miners says. The spare look of exposed bulbs, bare brick and concrete was often cheaper for restaurant owners and less intimidating to diners than a French ballroom.
Levitt adds that the aesthetic, which he estimates has been around for 10 years, may also have been a reaction to the 1990s sensibility encapsulated in restaurants like Las Vegas' SUSHISAMBA, where brightly colored, sculpted waves arch over diners.
"The '90s was an era of really modern design," says Levitt, but in the 21st century, people became more interested in the historic, speakeasy character of old brick. As for amber-hued Edison bulbs, he says, "It's easy on the eyes, and it actually makes people look good."
History and warmth loomed large in the minds of the restaurant owners I spoke to about design.
"We wanted something that felt accessible to everyone," says Bryan Dayton, the owner of Brider, which opened last December in Denver, Colo., with a slate-gray floor, steel chairs and chalkboard menu.
Marie Ziar, co-owner of Le Grenier, which opened four years ago in Washington, D.C., credited nostalgia. "We are missing something, and I believe we need to go back to a specific time. It's like we need to go back to the past." Before opening, she found old art on the brick walls and decided to keep the brick exposed.
When chef Philip Krajeck opened Rolf and Daughters in Nashville, Tenn., in November of 2012, he established the restaurant in a 19th century textile mill. The industrial look offered a connection to history, and was economical. "It was more a factor of budget and sheer will than sitting down with a Pinterest board," he says.
To my untrained eye, all of these restaurants seemed somewhat industrial, but the restaurant owners pointed out details – a bright green chair here, some custom historical element there – that kept the designs from feeling clichéd. The look has been around long enough that everyone is aware of the risk of seeming cartoonish.
Professional bruncher Morris says restaurant designs need a reboot. "I loved [the style] when I was 22, five years ago. ... But I've grown up, and the trend is still here." She calls the next "it" look "San Francisco style," a similar industrial design, but with whiter walls and brighter details. CORE's Miners also said this look is increasingly popular.
To glimpse this future, take a gander at the sustainable restaurant The Perennial in San Francisco, which opened in January. Co-founder Karen Leibowitz explained the reasoning behind the restaurant's aesthetic – a collision of industrial elements with rural sensibility. The hanging light bulbs are energy-efficient LED bulbs, the walls light gray, and the tile behind the bar an organic green.
Levitt says like fashion, interior design moves in cycles. "It's almost like how fashion regurgitates itself a bit."
Hmm, regurgitation-chic. I think I've coined a new term.