Restaurant & Bar Design Talks: The Future of Restaurant & Bar Design in the Middle East


Written by Gemma Ralph, Deputy Editor – Hospitality Interiors

Held at Mint Leaf of London in Dubai on 29th October 2015, the first international Restaurant & Bar Design Talk was enjoyed by almost 100 influential hospitality operators, developers and designers. With Isabel Pintado of LW Design as host, Tim Mutton (Blacksheep), Robert Angell (Robert Angell Design International) and Steve La Bouchardiere (DesignLSM) took to the stage with a lively and wide-ranging debate about the hospitality industry in the Middle East.

The undeniable speed and zest with which Dubai has catapulted itself into the thriving global hospitality market was at the crux of much of the evening’s discussion. That Dubai is considered an emerging centre for design is a given, but whether it’s artistic identity is strong or distinct enough to bring longevity to this prominence was a key topic of debate.

I fear that 20 years ago prolific investment and the desire to build tall buildings meant that the true vision for Dubai was blurred by one single factor, and that was tall buildings with little soul.
Dubai has grown so much in past years and this second coming now is seeing exciting new brands emerging. The way things were done in the past are done completely differently now, and I think now’s the time that edgy venues must start to provide a contrast to the new, polished feel.

says Robert Angell

Mint Leaf

Of course, Dubai’s reputation for buying in global brands and concepts has led to a rich and competitive offering. Without a solid complement of independent restaurants and bars, however, it could mean that the success of Dubai’s F&B sector becomes heavily dependent on that of imported concepts.

For Steve La Bouchardiere, the key to success for F&B ventures in Dubai is a rigorous focus on brand identity.

If a brand is coming over here and it’s really successful, say in the UK, it really has to have the same DNA, and if you bring interior designers in, the interior designers alone are not going to be enough to solve that problem – we can’t deliver as designers without that brand DNA also being up to the mark.
It is essential to look at spaces from a functional viewpoint rather than pure aesthetics in isolation. There is a temptation for design to become flamboyant and bold to get noticed in this market, and this may appear attractive in the short term, but successful hospitality design is more about understanding and focusing on the unique selling propositions of the brand and the entrepreneur’s vision, rather than creating cosmetic themes and palettes that may ultimately be short lived.

Steve La Bouchardiere

2015 Mint Leaf
For Tim Mutton, the strong presence of international F&B brands provides an important benchmark and catalyst for the development of local ventures.

What I’m really seeing, which I think is amazing, is that the international standards are really brilliant here, and what’s happening there is that local brands are going ‘right, because that’s the international standard, we now need to meet that and go beyond it’,” he says. “And we need to do that from a whole brand perspective, we need to do that from a service perspective, and we need to do that from an interiors and branding perspective. Branding here is, again, where there’s an opportunity. If you’re an operator here, don’t just focus on the interiors, think about your brand, and your core values. Think about how you can pit against international operators on that basis.

Tim Mutton

These issues are certainly not unique to Dubai, of course. Achieving that elusive formula for success is a universal issue for the hospitality industry, particularly when competition is fierce, and the goal posts are eternally changing.

I think it comes down to four things – choice, service, setting and authenticity, and there’s often one missing – some of the brands that come in get it completely right, and others get it completely wrong. All over, and particularly in London and in New York, 50% of restaurants fail because they miss one of those things out. On the plus side, Dubai’s restaurants really have a pull on people in this city, and I think that’s something that is very exciting.

Robert Angell

Another potentially problematic issue raised at the talk was whether or not Dubai’s local culture and traditions imposed restrictions upon hospitality design. For Tim in particular, the power and influence of landlords, as well as strict design guidelines, were somewhat limiting to his work.

I think it’s getting quite stringent on who can go where, and what they look like, and it’s a bit of a beauty contest. Although, on the flip side, some landlords help and encourage brands that don’t have strong design to improve.

Tim Mutton

2015 Mint Leaf

For Gina Munro (LW Design), however, Dubai’s regulations should simply be accepted for what they are, and have little effect upon her creativity and Robert agrees.

I think we can all sit here and say we love variety, but at the end of the day we all need to appreciate that Dubai is Dubai – it does have its limitations, it is the place that it is, we do have guidelines. Even when we opened Mint Leaf, after doing the full, detailed design we got told we may not get an alcohol license … it was almost the ultimate failure. I think Dubai does have its limitations, but you can still think out of the box. With the beautiful cities and venues we get, and the amazing clients that we work with, I don’t actually feel that we can’t push the boundaries.

Gina Munro

2015 Mint Leaf

I think pushing boundaries is what we as designers do. We challenge briefs, we challenge clients, we challenge authorities to try and develop something that’s completely unique for our clients. That in turn will make a city or destination unique and individual.

Robert Angell

2015 Mint Leaf

What emerged from the talk was the sense that yes, innovative design will certainly be paramount in the future success of Dubai’s F&B offering, just as it has been up to this point. However, without executing those key values of choice, service, setting and authenticity venues can’t hope to ride off the back of innovative design alone.

Despite problematic legislation some believe to be restrictive for start-ups, and strict guidelines that some designers believe to inhibit their creative freedom, the entrepreneurial spirit and emerging homegrown restaurant scene in Dubai nevertheless promise exciting things to come.

I am sure Dubai will grow and develop its hospitality industry to become world leading, and it seems a city that is more than willing to invest and grow and learn, but it needs to ensure it gets the global experience through the best designers and visionaries to ensure its dreams are realised.

Robert Angell affirms

2015 Mint Leaf

Here I live in a villa that’s 17 years old and we consider it ‘old’. Given how far Dubai has come in the time it has – with all of the interior design and the fairs – we’ve achieved all this in this amount of years. I think look at us in ten years time, and it will be flying.

Isabel Pintado adds

Dubai is, relatively speaking, still in its nascent stages. Given the speed with which its F&B scene has emerged, perhaps – as the panellists suggested – this next phase in its development might focus on refining its offering, identifying what is lacking, and taking the time to nurture local brands. Only then can we know Dubai’s true potential.

This Design Talk is brought to you in collaboration with Conran Contracts, Taschen, Downtown Design, Hospitality Interiors, Ali Group and Mint Leaf of London.

Ali Group

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