On a typical day, your restaurant’s bathroom gets to play a staggering number of roles. Depending on your clientele, your vibe, and your hours, it may be the sight of emergency wardrobe surgery or a leisurely text break from the date that will never end. It might be the site of a solemn pre-dinner wash-up, or of furtive debauchery. With flattering light and a mirror, it will be the location for many a selfie; with unflattering light and little care to the design, it will be the origin of three-star Yelp reviews that accuse your establishment of having poor energy, without anyone knowing quite why.
You may decide you want the sort of bathrooms no one ever notices nor talks about, and that is fine. Follow the ADA rules and local ordinances, and move right along. Or you may decide you’d like the sort of bathrooms people very much notice and love to talk about, and in that case, you ought to be sure that attention is positive. Your bathroom design can be an obligation or an opportunity. Do it for the ‘gram, or keep it simple, or both — just remember the bathroom may be the one place in your establishment where diners are actually alone, so it may be the only place where they stop and really absorb your design choices. Restrooms are a great equalizer. But they can also be a stealthy difference-maker.
If you’re considering a new build-out or a renovation, you’re probably already making mental notes wherever you go about fixtures, stall locks, flooring, soap dispensers, hand-drying apparatuses, and the other washroom must-haves. How much luxury do you want to offer? Bathroom attendants, perfume and various offerings are peak bougie if you have the space and inclination. I’d also invite you to broaden your imagination as you go, and think about your bathroom not as a chore, but as a place where you can silently communicate to your customers — ideas about your aesthetic, your environmental choices, and your hospitality.
They’re unlikely to be some great revenue-generator for your restaurant, but truly you never do know. The thing about bathrooms is, they’re where people let down their guard. It’s an ideal moment for a room to charm them. Here are some elements to consider as you go.
If you are of the “let’s make this playful and campy” school, bathrooms are a great canvas. Throw in fun design elements and fixtures you may not be able to place elsewhere. Luxe, hand-painted wallpaper from Etsy? Optical illusions? Two-way mirrors overlooking the dining room? A spare, um, chandelier? All fair game. Actually, please refrain from the optical illusions, we’re trying to drink here… point is, it can be fun, if you want it to be. You have a lot of flexibility and don’t have to feel overwhelmed. By this, at least.
The compact quarters of a bathroom makes it a fine opportunity to go big as you get small. You may not be able to afford a perfect mirror for the entire dining room — but one vintage full-length mirror beside the sink? Done. Go ahead and trick out the space with dried flower arrangements, scented candles, or inexplicably elegant flamingo wallpaper. If during buildout you found the tile, only too expensive to cover the floor, bar, wherever? Splurge a little for the bathroom. I love old pieces in the bathroom: interesting bottles for storing soap and lotion add character and make your whole operation more sustainable.
We’re living in an era when the phrase “Instagrammable bathrooms” makes it into actual newspaper headlines. This is permission for you to go as bright and cheery, or as goth and stormy, or as thematically exuberant as you want to be. The designer Suzan Wines, a principal at I-Beam, recommends taking your overall theme and translating that to the powder room. Is the dining room (or bar) moody? Take that with you to the lav.
You can even play right into it: At Ellen’s on Front in Greenport, New York, the very cute bathroom, with truly gorgeous wallpaper, has a sign in your toilet eye-line (for those of us who sit) that reads “You are already on your phone! Follow us! @ellensonfront.” Marketing to a captive audience, what a gift.
At Oquirrh in Salt Lake City (named for the nearby mountain ranger and pronounced “oaker”) owner Angie Burrow brought the restaurant’s mountain theme into the washroom with watercolor mountain ranges in dreamy blues and greens all along the walls. She got the wallpaper on Etsy and had her crafty brother install it. That wasn’t expensive, but these days even wacky, whimsical fixtures aren’t too expensive, so you can really go with your gut. Vaguely nautical can become fully aquatic.
Bathroom lighting, a delicate dance in any event, becomes even more touchy when people are snapping photos. In any event, a simple rule of thumb is, you want to maintain the ambiance of the main room, but still be able to see. Too bright is jarring for the person; too dark and you can’t figure out what’s where. If you’re going to err on one side or the other, opt for dim over bright.
The upfront cost of a powerful hand dryer ain’t cheap, but it’s likely to pay you back within a year, if you use electric drying in place of paper towels. Dryers also don’t create waste you have to tote out a few times a day. The one drawback: Wow, can they be loud. If you’re able, try them in your space before you buy.
Supplies such as soap and lotion, you’ll definitely want to keep in refillable bottles. Reuse chipped rocks glasses as candle holders. Find a nice dried flower arrangement rather than fresh flowers every few days. Consider bamboo toilet paper. Anything you see that can cut down on using plastic and paper will be a money-saver over time. Plus, people prefer not to trash the environment, if they have the option.
There’s a growing case, culturally and legally, for offering gender-neutral bathrooms in just about any place of business. In that regard, restaurants have long offered judgment-free spaces. Years back, when I worked at wd~50 in Manhattan, we offered unisex bathrooms that included individual floor-to-ceiling stalls and a mixed-use washing area. The design led to the occasional tomfoolery, but otherwise were not the least bit controversial.
In places such as New York and San Francisco, where real estate is expensive, unisex bathrooms were assumed to just be the way it was. These days, though, that is being written into city codes. The restaurant Mayfield, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has had two unisex bathrooms since opening in 2009. Recently, the establishment added signage to comply with Local Law 79 of 2016 that demarcated the two single occupancy bathrooms as gender-neutral. Check the latest regulations in your city and state before you undertake a build.
It’s worth noting too, that mixed-use bathrooms free up space and budget. For most restaurant operators, that means you can spring for the nicer fixtures and more plush amenities. Which is exactly what Burrows did at Oquirrh. She ditched the paper products and upgraded to real towels and nice soap. Salt Lakers who stop by Oquirrh — with its lone, gender-neutral bathroom — don’t mind sharing with whomever. And they compliment the elevated experience.
[Photo by Gabriela Pereira on Pexels]