Restaurant Reviews

Karen Hanlon: restaurant designer extraordinaire

For most diners, selecting a restaurant boils down to food and ambiance. The menu is created by the chef, but the real stars might be interior designers, who touch all of your senses and keep you in your seat. With Art Basel just finished, it's appropriate to showcase Karen Hanlon, an accomplished woman who has left her mark on the South Florida dining and entertainment scene for more than a decade.

Whether she's working on a corporate chain such as Houston's or on her recent project in Aventura — Zuckerello's — Hanlon concentrates on the customer's five senses. She has worked with some of the most innovative restaurateurs, and her career has taken her from Chicago to New York to South Florida, where 13 years ago she started her own firm: Karen Hanlon Design Inc. Her insights give us a new appreciation for our surroundings.

New Times: How did you get your start in designing restaurant space?

Karen Hanlon: As a kid, I was always drawing and building "models" of the buildings. When I ran out of Legos, I built models out of cardboard, paper, and whatever else I could find. Our living room was always full of my construction projects. I spent my high school and college years working in restaurants and was truly fascinated by them. I graduated from Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration but spent my first year in the School of Art, Architecture, and Planning there. After transferring to the hotel school, I "designed" my own independent study program in facilities management and design.

Take us through the main parts of the design phase.

We always start with the menu because that gives the flavor of the space. The next two most important influences are the space itself and the clientele — the local market. You can't design in a vacuum — take a concept and design out of New York or Las Vegas and expect that it can work in a place like South Florida. People have very different expectations in different places.

Do you usually work independently, or do the owners get involved?

Typically, the owners do not have much design input. They are focused on the menu and putting the operational part of the concept together.

What are key considerations when designing restaurant space?

Bringing in the energy. It is the most critical part of the entire project. There has to be built-in energy. That is, first and foremost, a product of the space planning. We also always try to create a presence on the street — bringing the inside out. That means the energy is obvious and visible from the moment you drive up.

Which is most important to you in restaurant seating: design or comfort?

Restaurant seating must be comfortable. I don't believe in the old adage that if the seats are uncomfortable, the turnover will be faster and the restaurant will make more money. That is simply not true. In general, people do not know why they feel comfortable or uncomfortable or why they just don't want to go back to a restaurant. It is a very subconscious experience. But if the chair is uncomfortable, it is very obvious. Personally, I will not return to a place where the chairs are simply uncomfortable. I will order take-out instead if their food is great.

We've heard that when designing a restaurant, you have to take into account all the senses. Is this correct?

Certainly. Lighting is the single most important element. How you look and how others look makes all the difference in the world. Of course, smell is also incredibly important, which is why I always prefer an open kitchen — for the energy factor as well. Touch is also important; anything you touch should feel like quality — solid, warm. If a surface can't be cleaned properly, that will produce a negative experience for the guests. The music sets the tone. It should probably not have lyrics and should relate in some way to the menu and/or design.

What is the most extravagant design you have worked on?

I designed the Hard Rock Café in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was a pyramid complete with two sphinx fountains and an awesome entry. The opening party came complete with hunky Egyptian slaves fanning the people walking in. The entry is about 2.5 stories above the dining room and the stage, and you feel so powerful looking down on the whole scene. But I prefer creating the neighborhood joints — a place to hang your hat, where you want to keep going back because you feel at home but totally stoked to go every time. That is my joy.

What have been some of your favorite projects and why?

I loved working on Houston's in New Orleans and on Atlanta Fish Market. Early in my career, I got to work with industry greats like George Biel — the owner and creator of Houston's — as well as Pano Karatassos from Atlanta. Both of these men were heavy influences. I learned from the best. I also truly enjoyed working on Yolo and Vibe in Fort Lauderdale so much. The team was amazing, and the results have been a huge success.

Which is your favorite restaurant in Miami to dine?

Honestly, I do not go out in Miami very often. I am also a single mom, so my social time is limited. But I have enjoyed Sugarcane a lot. It has great energy and a very down-to-earth appeal for me. I am a very low-key person. I look for places that are real, that attract an interesting and diverse crowd. It has great people-watching.

Does your career affect your dining experience?

I am not sure how to answer that. I have always been in this business and have always been inspired by it. I can thoroughly enjoy myself without being verbally critical. My perception is constant no matter where I am. I am probably more critical of every experience than most people — that is my nature. However, I can be inspired just about anywhere.

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Christina Staalstrom