Feast on This: New resort restaurant design

May 17, 2016
By Marla Cimini

Originally published as a feature story in Lodging Magazine.

Resorts all over the world are carefully designed and constructed to impress and delight guests from the moment they step into the lobby. Restaurants and bars are no exception, as resorts are dramatically changing and upgrading the interiors and exteriors of their dining options to ensure they represent an attractive and central focal point within the property, and not just a ho-hum place to grab a snack or a beverage.

James Geier is president and co-founder of 555 Design Fabrication Management, the Chicago-based firm responsible for a number of imaginative and cutting-edge luxury resort design projects, including the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic, and The Palms casino resort in Las Vegas.

He explains that in recent years, resorts have undergone major renovations to introduce high-end culinary offerings within their properties, as they are realizing the potential of untapped revenue. By remodeling their restaurants, resorts can now provide an enhanced and appealing guest experience, while remaining competitive with neighboring eateries.

“Hotels and resorts are now seeing the serious value in their own property and starting to activate their own real estate,” Geier says. “Why let potential dollars go somewhere else? I see that everywhere, including internationally. In fact, even moderate properties are starting to do that as well.”

When embarking on a new project, Geier says that it always starts with the potential customer, and the product the client wishes to provide. “We look at what is (and is not) available to guests and how we can create the best environment to go beyond the guests’ expectations,” he says. “The layout and design of the space is developed around the image, menu, and experience we plan to provide.”

One of 555’s recent projects, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, is an all-inclusive property with a luxurious environment from top to bottom. This was the first time the brand has entered the all-inclusive market, and has been targeting the affluent guest since its grand opening in January 2011.

The heart of the Hard Rock resort’s design is illustrated by three separate restaurants and lounges: Sun, Eclipse, and Moon, each reflecting a distinctly extreme rock ’n’ roll motif.

For example, Sun is a bright 3,500-square-foot space with a warm red and yellow color palette featuring a rope canopy, plush couches, Persian rugs, and a gaming area with live music. A stack of speakers comprise the bar’s backdrop, while chandeliers made of cymbals dangle from the ceiling.

Eclipse is a 9,000-square-foot outdoor lounge with woven furniture and scenic ocean views with three fire pits and private cabanas offering personalized bar service. And for the nocturnal crowd, the Moon nightclub offers bold, dramatic décor accented with dark lush couches. Overhead LED lights are reminiscent of the night sky, accompanied by funky chandeliers fashioned from amplifier cables and microphones. The bar, designed as an equalizer/amplifier set, changes colors to the beat of the music.

“The new Hard Rock casino and resort in Punta Cana was a lot of fun to work on. The project turned out beautifully as we introduced the highest level of experience to the customers at an all-inclusive resort, and created great venues within the resort that are atypical and inspired—and on par with major resorts around the world,” Geier says.

In the United States, the Pechanga Resort & Casino, nestled in the Temecula wine country in Southern California, is an example of strategically planned restaurant design. Owned by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, it is considered the largest casino in the western United States. The sprawling resort stretches 445 acres and boasts a 200,000-square-foot casino floor with more than 500 posh guestrooms. A resort this large is seriously committed to its restaurants and features nine vastly diverse dining options to suit just about everyone’s tastes. From the stylish, albeit, budget-friendly food court, to the award-winning, high-end Great Oak Steakhouse, Pechanga shows a major emphasis on design, ensuring that even the tiniest details within their restaurants reflect the desired customer experience.

Robert Bledsoe, public relations manager for Pechanga, explains that the resort draws from its history to embellish the property’s architecture and design. “When the tribe designed the property, they included a number of symbols and materials reflective of their native culture, including oak trees, acorns, rocks, and water features,” he says. “These natural elements are incorporated everywhere throughout the resort’s design, from the rooms, to all the restaurants, to the golf course.”

In June 2011, the resort opened the doors to its newly renovated Café at Pechanga, an upscale buffet that has the potential to turn a culinary snob into a convert almost immediately. With a new modern glass exterior, which sets it apart from the noisy casino floor, the stylish space showcases Southwestern design elements that echo the resort’s tribal symbols. For example, the resort’s oak tree and acorn themes are featured throughout the dining room, reflecting natural wood accented with brightly colored tile and cozy booths. Wooden tables showcase the native basket-weave design. Pleasant interior lighting with glowing glass fixtures further completes the relaxed mood in the café.

All of this design, of course, is backed up by the overwhelming quality, quantity, and diversity of the cuisine. For the indecisive, it can be either a blessing or a curse, as a guest can pile a plate high with a seemingly endless supply of just about anything—sushi, gourmet sandwiches, salads, and homemade pastas, not to mention carving stations, a raw bar, and seafood selections. And, of course, tempting desserts.

“When the buffet was remodeled, we wanted to make sure the design reflected the guests’ desires for upscale dining choices, and we saw the need for a very high-end, Vegas-style buffet experience at budget prices. And business has been spectacular,” Bledsoe says. “We are showing a substantially higher volume, and guests are responding favorably, which is what it was designed to achieve.”

Across the parking lot (and a world away), the resort offers a serene daytime dining option at Journey’s End, located in the clubhouse of its world-class golf course, Journey at Pechanga. Offering a sophisticated yet rustic feel, the restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating, as well as an inviting bar with floor-to ceiling windows that frame vistas of the picturesque course. This modern structure is separate from the actual casino, yet still reflects subtle design components that characterize the main resort, such as polished wood and rock.

The name Pechanga means “where the water drips,” and the restaurant’s main foyer showpiece is a three-story rock wall with a continuous trickle of water, another important tribal symbol. A large stone fireplace in the center of the dining room brings nature indoors, providing organic accents.

With a menu focusing on breakfast, brunch, and lunch, the cuisine is as stylish and organically elegant as the décor. In addition, Journey’s End also can accommodate business meetings, wedding ceremonies, and receptions of up to 350 guests.

Geier believes that large properties will continue to enhance their interiors and exteriors. “I predict that the resorts will greatly improve their restaurant design over time. The guests deserve a higher level of service—and they are now expecting it,” he says.

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