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Toronto’s Osteria Giulia, the recently opened Italian restaurant from Top Chef alum Rob Rossi and his business partner, David Minicucci, is a prime example of the renewed focus on decor and service.DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY/DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY

Designing a restaurant in the middle of a global health crisis isn’t exactly business as usual. But when tasked with overseeing the interiors for the Toronto Ritz-Carlton’s new restaurant, Epoch Bar and Kitchen Terrace, Allen Chan kept his eye on the future, rather than the current pandemic environment.

As the DesignAgency founding partner and his team thought about what the future of hospitality – hotels and dining – looks like, “we all agreed to design this space the way we wanted to design it, because COVID is something we will get past,” he says.

Chan is not alone in his optimism. Restaurants Canada’s annual report on the state of the country’s restaurant industry forecasts growth for food service sales in 2022, with nearly $80-billion in revenues, 3.8 per cent higher than prepandemic levels.

What’s more, in a May, 2021, survey by Angus Reid, 89 per cent of Canadians said they’re looking forward to going out to a restaurant with family and friends again, while 64 per cent said going out to restaurants will be an important part of their lifestyle once the pandemic subsides. In short: Canadians are ready to return to restaurants, and as they do it will be to spaces that focus on decor and service, not the effects of the pandemic.

Giulia has an airy, spacious dining room featuring a subtle colour palette.DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY/DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY

Toronto’s Osteria Giulia, the recently opened Italian restaurant from Top Chef alum Rob Rossi and his business partner, David Minicucci, is a prime example of this. Giulia occupies the same space that L’Unita, Rossi and Minicucci’s previous restaurant, did in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, but the resemblance stops there. Although it was renovated during the pandemic, “We certainly didn’t build anything COVID-specific here,” Rossi says. Unlike L’Unita’s moody, dark decor, Giulia has an airy, spacious dining room featuring a subtle colour palette – Italian limestone, ecru walls, blond oak tables – soft but sufficient lighting and subtle hits of texture, which can be found everywhere from the fabric-covered walls to the luxe paper menus.

Perhaps most notably, there are six fewer tables in the space than during the L’Unita days, but this is more about the diners’ experience than it is about COVID. “The old restaurant, it was dark and cozy,” Minicucci says. “Maybe overly cozy at times. The tables were very, very close together. … We wanted to give diners room, we wanted to make it more of a grown-up dining experience.”

Still, restaurateurs have had to make some concessions because of the pandemic. Chan thinned out the seating throughout Epoch Bar and Terrace to allow for physical distancing. And the lounge area of the restaurant, which has been dubbed the Green Room in a nod to Toronto’s status as Hollywood North, can easily transform into a private dining space, which may be a compelling option for diners who want the restaurant dining experience without having to go mask-free around strangers, even fully vaccinated ones.

And there is one change the pandemic ushered in that Chan sees sticking around: scanning menus through QR codes. “Gone are the days where people want to touch a grotty menu,” he says.

Over all, though, Chan anticipates few long-term changes to restaurant design trends due to COVID. “A lot of people implemented barriers and partitions, but I think they’re going to be temporary,” he says.

Restaurants are even counting on the end of physical distancing – one day at least. “It basically destroys your revenue model, especially if it’s a smaller space,” Chan says.

For now, there are still some physical-distancing guidelines in place. Most provinces are allowing restaurants to operate at 50-per-cent capacity, although there are some variations in how many people are allowed at each table (in British Columbia, it’s no more than six, while Prince Edward Island allows up to 10, for example).

Soft but sufficient lighting and subtle hits of texture can be found everywhere in Giulia, from the fabric-covered walls to the luxe paper menus.DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY/DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY

Dining up close seems to have appeal for some restaurant-goers, pandemic or not. That’s the case at Hop Scotch, a popular Halifax pop-up turned bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

“As dining-room restrictions are beginning to ease and table sizes increase and grow closer together, we were worried that people would have become accustomed to the extra space and would be wary of sitting in closer quarters,” co-founder Brock Unger says. “What we have realized is that, over all, public opinion seems to lean toward the contrary.”

That’s what Giulia’s Rossi and Minicucci are counting on, too.

“The restaurant business is about being close to people and hospitable,” Rossi says. “Certain aspects of it are never going to change, COVID or not. It’s a matter of time for it to go back to relative normalcy.”