THE GOURMANDS of Paris feasted among the opulent decoration of Restaurant Maxim with nude bathing beauties set in a Garden of Eden, its flower and plant forms translated into mahogany and copper.
The Sezession intellectuals of Vienna's blumenzeit talked of the higher criticism in the mathematical design of Cafe Fledermaus in Vienna.
The artsy/craftsy esthetes of Glasgow dined among the rigid geometry of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Willow Tea Room.
The royalty of England dallied with feasts of food and each other in the private dining rooms of Rosa Lewis (the Duchess of Duke Street).
Now restaurant design in Washington is beginning to revive some of those turn-of-the-century tricks for making the patron feel lavish in a lush setting.
Fin de siecle restaurants were theaters. The best, most advanced architects, artists and artisans of Art Nouveau and its variations produced stage design calculated to make diners the stars.
People dined in spendor as though taking the leading roles in some classic drama. Poor folk stood outside the restaurants to watch the carriages and the limousines roll up and the gentry emerge in their starbright jewels, festoons of furs, and languid lame.
Inside the restaurants, men were seduced by chorus girls (and vice versa), deals were consumated (more than one kind), fortunes exchanged hands over cards or other devices, duels were challenged (and sometimes fought). People dined on delicious delights -- frequently food and ice twisted into monstrous sculptural castles, swans and angels.
But after the great burst of Art Moderne style in the '20s and '30s, a period of austerity set in, with the pall of the depression settling over anything that smacked of conspicuous consumption.
"Less is more" became the dictum. In the '60s, the only attempt at design was Early Dark (the olde Englishy Puby). In the '70s, Late Light (California garden) style seemed a great advancement. Still, the mass of restaurants were principally concerned with basics.
"The hour or the two-hour chair was the principal decision," said Elizabeth M. Siber, president of the Restaurant Corporation of America, which runs the Watergate restaurants.
Fancy restaurants chose chairs comfortable enough to last two hours through multiple courses and bottles of wine. Fast food places wanted chairs to nudge you to leave after a half-hour.
In the '80s, restaurant design is far more sophisticated.
The renaissance started with the Four Seasons in New York City, surely the most elegant restaurant anywhere, designed by Philip Johnson in the mid-'60s. The chairs and sofas -- all well spaced -- are great classic designs by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Sitting in the Four Seasons, you can't help but feel as though you yourself must be terribly important and elegant, even though you can only afford the prix fixe before the theater dinner, and your stockings caught a run.
But it took a long time before the Four Season's attention to visual delights -- and the money to pay for them -- spread across the country. The next big trend was the California garden restaurant, which filtered throughout the country in the mid '70s. The California style carried with it an emphasis on health food and green plants. It was sometimes hard to tell if you were supposed to eat the greenery or look at it.
Washington was slow to have elegant restaurants, unlike Paris, Vienna, London and New York. And with good reason. Washington is full of stately homes, elegant embassies, magnificent mansions, all equipped with large staffs and choice chefs. Here the important invitation has always been to the ambassador's residence, or even the consul's cottage. But today, even the old embassies are finding it hard to keep up royal court standards, and the new embassies haven't the background for it.
Washington's new importance as a place for corporate expense-account entertaining, as more organizations move headquarters here, has to be one of the reasons for the great number of new expensive restaurants. The Kennedy Center and the revival of the whole theater scene here has encouraged dinner dining. And the return from the suburbs of the moneyed has helped support downtown restaurants.
Restaurants themselves have found that it isn't enough that the food is good, the ambiance must be right as well. Partly it's a feeling that if you're going to charge the customer that much, you'd better do ii in a soothing setting. You'd better make the diner feel wealthy before you present the bill.
The restaurant trend of the 1980s seems to be away from the rabbit greenery taste and toward a sybaritic, sophisticated style, reminiscent of a 1920s' drawing-room comedy -- it's the Jean Harlow look.
Best part of the trend is that the great craft revival has produced a marvelous selection of arts/crafts people to make special effects that give restaurants individuality. Not since the turn of the century has there been such a magnificent corps of talented people willing to make useful objects. As one architect said recently, "Now-days you can find an artist-craftsman who can do anything you'd like done."
So important artists are commissioned to make works of art to embellish restaurants. Other restaurateurs amuse the customer.
Unlike the old days, when restaurants were often designed by the cook or the man who sold the stove, today design professionals -- architects, interior designers and restaurant specialists -- work hard to make eating a tasteful experience in more than one way.
Diversity is the most they have in common. We chose eight spread all around the Washington area to show the new trends (though there are other good ones): Clyde's new $4,500,000 Tysons Corner restaurant; the View atop Marriot's Key Bridge Hotel in Rosslyn; Jean Louis in the Watergate; the Broker on Capitol Hill, Charlie's on the Georgetown waterfront, La Fonda on M Street, Le Premier and La Detente on 19th Street.
The new restaurants have much the same attitude: to make a setting where people are happy even before the food is served.
"If the setting is good-looking enough, people are not nearly as impatient with the service," said Barbara Lockhart, the California designer responsible for the new View. "People first eat with their eyes."