Food court fever

The casual feel of Guzman y Gomez restaurants is welcoming and individual.

The casual feel of Guzman y Gomez restaurants is welcoming and individual.

Dining establishments such as Guzman y Gomez and Din Tai Fung are elevating the offering at shopping centre food courts, writes Kerryn Ramsey.

Once a fast-food haven for exhausted shoppers, shopping centre food courts have undergone a real transformation over the past decade. Dining venues have upped the ante, lifting the quality of their cuisine. As a finishing touch, eateries are embracing high-level design, replacing the fast-food feel with a casual dining ambience, making them a destination rather than a pit stop.

Designer Brad Ward is well aware of this dining revolution. He was commissioned by Steven Marks and Robert Hazan, owners of Guzman y Gomez, to design their inaugural Mexican taquería in 2009.

“From day one, we didn’t want it to look like a clichéd Mexican eatery,” says the man who runs Brad Ward Design. “We wanted the same design to work whether it’s in a small-scale shopping centre or a large-scale street environment.”

Ward knew that authenticity and originality were key for Guzman y Gomez to attract hungry customers. “We were one of the first in Australia to use yellow Tolix steel stools. That was quite a costly exercise as they were imported from France, but it became a signature element. Then the chairs became ubiquitous, so we now use a simpler, more tubular steel stool in red, white and black.”

Ward, who has designed 38 of the 56 Guzman y Gomez venues in Australia and internationally, had to meet many guidelines at shopping centres. “The look of the shopping centre often drives the design,” he says. “Some malls, for example, have an open dining precinct with no shop fronts. That’s why Guzman y Gomez’s strong branding means it’s easy to spot in any venue.”

Virtually unseen in shopping centres a decade ago, an open kitchen has become a clever device for eateries, creating a fresh, vibrant feel in a busy food court. This is a case for one of the world’s most celebrated dumpling chains, Din Tai Fung, which first opened in Taipei in 1974. Now operating in 12 countries, the chain runs seven outlets in Sydney and a recently opened venue in Melbourne, designed by Kristina Hetherington of Design Clarity.

Similar to Guzman y Gomez, Din Tai Fung venues have been tailored to the customer market of the area. “Central Park [in Sydney’s inner west] is on the fringe of Chinatown and in the university district, so the restaurant has to appeal to young student customers,” says Hetherington. “The Miranda venue is more suburban and near the beach, so it’s more casual with a water theme.” And the Emporium Melbourne venue—a 235-seater on the top floor—aims at a sophisticated clientele, be it businesspeople or high-end shoppers.

While Din Tai Fung’s signature logo and other graphics are present in all venues, individuality is never ignored. Hetherington says that when she’s designing a new venue, she “keeps aside some of the budget to buy specific vases or other accessories. We always spend time selecting the artwork on the walls. They’re all researched and bought specifically for each project.”

As shopping centres keep expanding, they’re always signing up new restaurant ventures. “It’s a competitive field,” says Ward. “Shopping centre companies now spend a lot of time with you to try to get the fit-out up to a high standard.”

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