Betsy Berry was certain she’d found the ideal chair for Workshop, Charleston’s first upscale food court. The interior designer wanted to furnish its vast dining area with chairs that would simultaneously convey the cafeteria’s emphasis on handicraft, and stand up to being scooted, shifted, shoved and sat in by dozens of customers over the course of a day.
A spindle-back chair with a beveled seat and single brace bar on which kids could rest their fidgety feet met her requirements, and wasn’t ridiculously expensive. Plus, Berry felt good when she sat in it. Like most chairs purchased for fast-casual restaurants, it wasn’t the chair she’d choose for a three-hour meal, but she figured guests could finish a grilled cheese sandwich or garlic noodle bowl in less time than it would take for them to notice the hardness of the wood, or the frail back support provided by seven vertical rods.
And then Berry, who calls herself petite at 5 feet, 2 inches, asked a man to sit in the chair.
“It was so different,” she says, describing how the chair’s sharp corners poked into her accomplice’s manspread hamstrings. “I never would have known that,” she says. “So we ordered the chairs, and had a woodworker come in and raze the edges.”
With the exception of fried fish takeout windows, hot dog stands and pizzerias with delivery fleets, almost every restaurant in the country can lay claim to at least one chair. And while customers generally don’t pay much attention to them, they’re quick to complain when their sits bones go numb halfway through supper.
“If the chair is not up to snuff, you’re going to hear about it,” says David Thompson, the architect responsible for restaurants including FIG, The Grocery, Indaco and Butcher & Bee. Poorly scaled chairs are to Thompson what bum knees are to orthopedists on their night off: “I’ve had people pull me aside and complain about a chair.”
To stave off criticism, and to differentiate themselves in a crowded market, restaurateurs are now putting more thought and money into their chairs. Naturally, Thompson approves of the trend.
“Chairs were a problem to be solved,” he says. “Now it’s an opportunity to express ourselves.”
Are you sitting down?
The first thing to know about restaurant chairs is they’re not cheap. The second thing to know, at least if you’re buying chairs for a restaurant, is there’s no way to game the system: If you want to offer your customers the chance to sit down, that hospitable gesture is going to cost you at least $500. Per chair.
“It’s a major component of a restaurant’s budget,” Thompson says. “It’s unbelievable.”
When first-time restaurateurs learn how much they have to spend on chairs, there’s usually a sympathetic friend on hand to suggest buying seating in bulk from IKEA instead. But Ellison Berlin of Berlin’s Restaurant Supply points out it’s risky to invest in anything but commercially-rated furniture, since the restaurant owner could be held liable if a chair collapsed under a customer.
“Restaurant chairs are a different animal than residential chairs,” he says.
Berlin’s has an inventory of used chairs, because it’s not uncommon for a well-made chair to outlast a restaurant: The Swamp Fox at the Francis Marion Hotel this spring is replacing chairs that date back to 1994, making them older than some of the restaurant’s employees. The hard part for Berlin is shoehorning a primary element of one restaurant’s look into another restaurant’s décor.
Still, Brooks Reitz is a believer in secondhand seating. He hasn’t repurposed any retired restaurant chairs, but the chairs at Little Jack’s Tavern came from an office furniture outlet in Summerville; he found them on Craigslist.
“These chairs were a really ugly pale wood: They looked like they’d be in an old hospital dining room,” Reitz says. “We stained them, and put pads back on, and now they look like they belong there.”
Reitz stalks vintage furniture dealers on Instagram, knowing he’s unlikely to come across any bargains, but certain that his dollars are better spent on an earlier generation’s construction ethos: “They were made with real wood, not veneers, so they actually hold up a lot better.”
But that’s not always true, as Reitz discovered after he bought 100 schoolroom-style chairs for Leon’s Oyster Shop. All but eight of those chairs have since been replaced.
“Those did not hold up,” he says. “Frankly speaking, people are heavier now than they were 50 years ago.”
Seats with style
In addition to finding the right balance between affordability and durability, restaurant owners have to consider aesthetics when choosing a chair.
“You can choose a chair that says a lot about the personality of the restaurant,” says Thompson, who was particularly pleased with the chairs selected for Donetto, Indigo Road’s version of Indaco for Atlanta. “The wood components were very traditional and familiar, but the metal components were super contemporary and avant garde. It was exactly the idea behind the food, so those were fun.”
Of course, if all goes well for a restaurant, its chairs should be occupied, which means a chair should register as stylish when viewed from behind. “You can customize the back of an off-the-shelf chair, and that’s where you get bang for the buck,” Thompson says.
Despite the opportunities for personalization, a few chair types have emerged as recurrent restaurant favorites. Thonet’s bentwood bistro chair, instantly recognizable by anyone who’s ordered wine by the pichet, is “an icon,” Thompson says. “It’s become synonymous with people who have an appreciation of the classics.” There’s also the aluminum cafeteria chair.
“That can be the right choice,” Thompson says. “It’s also become the knee-jerk Chipotle response.”
Thompson suspects overstuffed armchairs, long the default resting perch for steakhouse patrons, are on the cusp of a comeback.
“It’s the country club feel,” he says. “People are not shying away from luxury: We’re spending a lot of time looking at bigger, more elaborate chairs.”
Upholstered chairs are universally lauded as the most comfortable of them all (although Thompson has no patience for the suddenly voguish practice of strewing loose pillows on bench seating: “I don’t want to be that interactive with my furniture,” he says.) But upholstered furniture requires deep pockets and a wide berth. The wrong chairs can turn an eight-top into a six-top, which translates to hundreds of dollars lost every night.
Even so, Reitz is going with wooden armchairs for Melfi’s, his forthcoming pizzeria. “It’s unexpected luxury in a pizza place,” he says.
He doesn’t expect customers to comment on the chairs. Nobody has ever said anything about the chairs at Leon’s (original or current), or the chairs at Little Jack’s.
“But people do comment about the place overall,” he says. “And I feel like without each little piece, that overall effect wouldn’t be as potent.”