Many Americans are losing their inhibitions, at least when it comes to choosing to sit down and dine next to strangers. Communal tables are fast becoming familiar features in concepts that range from the hip and trendy indies that introduced them more than a decade ago, to fast-casual upstarts and the biggest of QSRs.

The full-service, 175-seat Panda Inn restaurant in Ontario, Calif., has been reimaged with a dramatic, contemporary design. The 7,500-square-foot freestanding space, 1 of 6 Panda Inn locations in Southern California, features distinct dining rooms and a long central corridor that San Francisco-based design firm Tesser transformed into visual depictions of Chinese festival celebrations.

A disjointed, subterranean space in a Harvard Square parking garage is transformed into a classic, comfortable neighborhood hot spot.

Design Insights on PARK Restaurant & Bar. For a complete profile click here

From sidewalk cafés to posh patios, well-designed, carefully maintained al fresco dining spaces benefit operators and guests alike.

Would your spouse believe that you've changed simply because you drop a couple of hundred dollars on some expensive new denim and a designer jacket? (Well, my wife tells me that she expects more.) The trades are filled with stories of restaurants reimaging and redesigning their stores, often including quotes from the CEO or CMO about building the brand. Without question, a store's appearance is an essential component of a brand and keeping the brand relevant to customers. However, many redesign efforts result in limited, short-term impact because, like the new denim and jacket, they're only cosmetic changes.

It's only five years old, but the fast-growing Smashburger "better-burger" chain just unveiled its third design iteration. That's more significant design changes than many established chains have pulled off in two or three times that span.

Mark Godward

The drive to reduce kitchen footprints is essential to deliver foodservice to more convenient locations with a reasonable investment.