The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dark, masculine restaurants are out. The freshest design is feminine.

Morris features a light design with floral accents. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Morris could have been — almost was — another dark and moody cocktail bar with industrial accents and heavy drapes. That was what Swatchroom designer Maggie O’Neill’s client, David Strauss, wanted, and she drew up the plans. But then, “I went home and I said to my husband, ‘I can’t do another place like this. I can’t do another dark, Edison bulb’ ” bar.

She persuaded Strauss and his partner to let her try something different, and that’s how Morris became the opposite of its original design: a bright, almost monochromatic baby blue bar with pink and floral accents, and perfume bottles with cocktail ingredients inside.

“There’s a softness that was unexpected,” said O’Neill, who cited the Wes Anderson film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as inspiration for the Shaw bar’s palette. “I think we could all use a little sweetness in our lives right now.”

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Restaurant design trends cycle in and out, and for more than 10 years, they’ve felt distinctly masculine. Edison bulbs and reclaimed barnwood conjured up the rough, callused hands of a man who worked the land. Dark, Prohibition-era speakeasies brought to mind the gangsters and bootleggers who kept their fellow men liquored up throughout that period in history. And there are always the steakhouses, with their leather banquettes and dark wood, a stereotypical Scotch-drinking, cigar-smoking, boy’s club vibe.

It’s all starting to look a little dated, though. Femininity is what’s fresh: Florals, pastels, soft fabrics and gauzy textures are making more appearances in restaurants as designers move away from oversaturated trends. And it’s not just cupcake bakeries and ice cream shops.

The Gallery at Sketch, a London restaurant fully swathed in the dusty-rose shade du jour, millennial pink, has inspired imitators in Seoul, Doha and Paris, and regularly draws visitors who dress to match it. New York’s all-pink Pietro Nolita draws crowds for its pink spaghetti, and at Stephen Starr’s La Mercerie, a floral shop and housewares store are part of the restaurant. In Washington, you’ll spot flowers on the lighting fixtures at Calico in Blagden Alley and floral toile fabric on the banquettes at (naturally) Tulips near Dupont Circle. Plenty of restaurants, such as Sfoglina, Rose’s Luxury and Elle, use unabashedly pretty mismatched floral china.

“Since we didn’t have an outside space, we wanted to figure out a way to bring the outside in,” said Nick Pimentel, the co-owner and designer of Elle, which also has floral wallpaper and uses pastel green as an accent color throughout the Mount Pleasant space, the former Heller’s Bakery. “We were trying not to do industrial and reclaimed and hard. We wanted it to be a little softer.”

Part of that meant introducing cute elements throughout the restaurant, such as bunny- and mushroom-print wallpaper by the bathrooms, and a large painting of a rather majestic longhair cat in the main space of the restaurant.

“We want to make that cat Instagram famous, but it’s not working,” said Pimentel, laughing.

Give it time: One of the things that many of these feminine-inspired restaurants have in common is Instagrammability. For Morris, that includes several prime seating areas, including one basket-weave chair that could practically be a throne. It’s also the fact that the monochromatic space is flattering to skin tones and makes people look good in photos.

“That femininity makes the women feel beautiful. That was important to us,” said O’Neill.

Feminine spaces “are just lighter, airier. They have a lot of greenery. They have a lot of details,” said Lauren Winter, co-owner and designer of Primrose, and “little surprises here and there.”

At Primrose, one of those surprises are the three ostrich-feather light fixtures. The plumes, reminiscent of frilly dresses, are a focal point of the Brookland restaurant, which has accents of pink and Tiffany blue, like a Fragonard painting.

“I wanted to do something that kind of spoke to Parisian design but didn’t replicate it exactly,” said Winter. “Paris feels feminine.”

Velvet feels feminine. Crystal champagne coupes feel feminine. Queen Anne sofas and vintage china and peacock chairs feel feminine. And with all of this feminine energy, are restaurant owners worried that their spaces will be typecast for bachelorette parties or girly brunches?

That’s not the case, says Winter: “It goes back to the old saying — if you have women in your bar, men will come.”