Architect and interior designer JJ Acuna knows a thing or two about beautiful restaurant design. The founder and creative director of JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio is behind some of the most inviting and photogenic eateries in the city, including the likes of Tate Dining Room, Hansik Goo, Miss Lee and Elephant Grounds in Wan Chai.
“When designing a space, I look for natural sources of daylight and whether or not the place has a sense of spirit or soul that I want to retain,” says Acuna. “I look at ways people could live, breathe and move about in this space. I want to inspire through design, so I consider how a space can add to a person’s wellbeing.”
This ethos permeates his work, making diners feel right at home thanks to great lighting, custom furniture and welcoming color palettes. As soon as you step into two-Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room, for instance, it has an elegant and elevated vibe that’s full of warmth thanks to the use of baby pink, brass, greenery and light wood.
“Comfort is the most important aspect when it comes to design because a space can be fashionable, but you’ll never come back again if it’s not comfortable,” says the Philippines native. “Feeling good is key.”
Likewise, Hansik Goo – a contemporary Korean fine-dining concept by acclaimed Chef Mingoo Kang from Seoul – combines a minimalist atmosphere with lots of natural stone and wood textures, alongside modern Korean art. The result is approachable, cultured and restrained – a pared-back setting that lets the food shine while still evoking a sense of intrigue.
“I take a humanistic approach to every restaurant I design. It feels easy to be in my restaurants – I try to make spaces where guests can sit for long periods of time and even daydream,” adds Acuna.
We caught up with the industry veteran to learn more about designing beautiful, inviting spaces – and how we can create a restaurant-worthy dining experience at home:
Narrow it down
To nail the restaurant experience at home without going overboard, Acuna recommends picking two or three restaurant-quality design elements that make sense for your space.
“Splurge on a fantastic, sturdy table,” says Acuna. “Maybe think about a natural material for the tabletop, such as stone or a type of hardwood with character. At home, my table is vintage, mid-century modern cherry hardwood from Boston, Massachusetts.”
When it comes to lighting, one of the easiest restaurant tricks is pendant lighting. It’s easy to install and looks elegant, instantly making your dining room look more polished. “Opt for more than one source – a pendant light and a wall light work well together to make the food look great, and they won’t cast big shadows,” he says.
Prioritize comfort and conversations
Acuna has a “special place in his heart” for one of his first projects in Hong Kong: Elephant Grounds on Star Street, because it is a meeting point for the community. With its wood interiors and open-air layout, the cafe has become a go-to neighborhood hotspot where family and friends while away sunny afternoons.
Time with loved ones is something we could all use more of these days. So when adjusting your own dining space at home, Acuna recommends thinking about how you can bring people together and make sure they feel at ease.
A restaurant-worthy dining space should make it easier to hold conversations and relax together – not more difficult. “Soft, comfortable seats are also important. Don’t go too avant-garde, and use natural materials!”
Fresh air and greenery
“People love having access to the outdoors, which is why restaurants with terraces, open fronts or patios are popular,” says Acuna. At home, you can recreate this feeling with a few comfy bar stools and lounge chairs on a small terrace. Or if you have a larger rooftop, a spacious sharing table hugged by plants can serve as your dining oasis.
Even if you only serve a few aperitifs outside, your guests will appreciate the fresh air as they unwind before dinner. Those who don’t have a terrace or rooftop can still bring a bit of nature indoors with flowers and greenery. And if all else fails: “Even just maximizing your window spaces to bring in more natural light can make a huge difference,” adds Acuna.
Tell a story through craftsmanship
We love minimalist design at BOMSHBEE, but that doesn’t always mean brushed concrete and stark furniture. While keeping the overall look clean and simple, you can play with textures, color and details to add personality and make your dining space pop.
Acuna recommends incorporating a few carefully selected, handcrafted accessories – “everything from crockery to steak knives, handmade tables, tiles, plates, serving trays” – to showcase your personality and tell a story.
Did you find your steak knives in Buenos Aires? Fall in love with ceramics in Kyoto? Simply love a sturdy wood cheese board? Objects that mean something to you will also resonate with your guests and amplify the restaurant-like atmosphere.
Choose tableware you love
Setting your table may be the final touch, but it’s also one of the most important steps. “Tableware is as important as the menu and the finishes. Usually, when we design interiors, we design the table and chairs with the tableware in mind,” says Acuna.
For Acuna, the right tableware is all about “craftsmanship and authorship”. He fell in love with brass cutlery a few years ago and purchased a set that he treasures from Japan. “I also like earthenware plates that are free-form rather than factory-made,” he adds.
His pointers? Choose high-quality materials that suit your space and personality. “Avoid tableware that scratches easily, has an obviously plastic appearance or bland white ceramics,” says Acuna. “Trending towards texture and color makes sense for a new generation of designers and food lovers.”