About once a month, we post an interview with a successful restaurateur, chef, supplier, brewery professional, or a hospitality industry authority. To keep things short and concise, some interviews may be split into two parts. If you enjoy the article, please share. If you’ve got a suggestion for an expert we should interview, let us know.

This “Ask the Expert” profile with restaurant designer, Lisa Gilmore, will introduce you to a great design talent I discovered while dining in the Tampa Bay area. Lisa will share some of her creative insight and 5 “must-haves” before any restaurant hires an interior design professional.

I first learned about Lisa as a customer when I dined at three restaurants she designed. I loved all of them from both a food and experience standpoint. I had no idea they were all the creations and work of the same local Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg designer. It was only when I started researching the roots and history of each of the three restaurants that I uncovered something that they all shared in common; Lisa Gilmore. After seeing her fabulous work, I think you will agree Lisa is a need-to-know resource for restaurant design. Her projects are not only aesthetically appealing and provide practical functionality, but they are also all spot on in their expression of the restaurant’s unique brand and story.

My first experience with Lisa’s work occurred when on the hunt for a new Sushi place in my neighborhood. I stumbled upon Kelp Sushi Joint, a small restaurant in the corner of a cluster of retail shops near my house. The unassuming restaurant caught my eye; it had an intriguing and hip façade unlike any other sushi places in town. The vibe was cool. The interior elements included slate walls and donned a calming blend of metal textures with painted black brick and warm woods. The look was finished with industrial lighting and large Sepia tinted photos of the proprietor and his family. The restaurant menu had the same imagery and touted its food as local, fresh, and sustainable. The space and design were a perfect compliment to the restaurant concept.

Kelp Sushi Joint: Nina Grace Barron Photography

Kelp Sushi Joint: Nina Grace Barron Photography

My next experience of one of Lisa’s creations was a modern bistro called Piquant Restaurant. Situated in Old Hyde Park in Tampa’s historic district, Piquant is an elegant, casually glamorous place. You truly feel like you are in Paris. The space marries the rich colors of a perfect cup of coffee or cream-laden cappuccino with the visual seduction of beautifully displayed, mouth-watering sweets. The dining room and bar are appointed with an interesting mix of Lucite dining chairs, oversized leather couches, delicate chandeliers, and a fireplace.

Piquant: Lisa Ferrante Photography

Piquant: Lisa Ferrante Photography

My last of the three wonderful design finds from Lisa came about when road construction detoured me to a new wood-fired pizza place called Fabrica near the port of Tampa. The pizza was amazing and the interior was equally spectacular. Again, like the first two restaurants, the interior was simple, yet it delivered a distinct brand story.

Fabrica: Amy Lamb Photography

Fabrica: Amy Lamb Photography

Q & A
Lisa, tell us about your background.
I first discovered my love for art and color at a young age. I was constantly surrounded by both art and color, as my great grandmother was an artist and art teacher who had a large influence on me as a child and teenager.

I began my professional design career in Central Florida after obtaining my degree in Interior Design from the International Academy of Design & Technology in Tampa. My career path then lead me to Chicago where I worked at a prominent interior design firm. While in Chicago, I utilized my design skills on a variety of interiors ranging from city life condominiums to custom-built, luxury homes.

In 2011, I returned to Florida and launched Lisa Gilmore Design where I share my love of interior design and get to help businesses be more successful with memorable spaces and environments.

Tell us, what’s the biggest mistake you see in restaurants when you are designing a new place or doing an update?
They underestimate the importance of the restrooms. They often leave it off the budget or think nothing has to be done at all which creates a huge disconnect for your customer. It’s kind of like dressing up for a wedding in your best dress, forgetting the heels and just opting for what ever is in the closet. It just doesn’t make sense.

What’s your favorite restaurant (design wise) that you were not involved in designing, and why?
This is a hard one to answer because there are so many beautifully designed restaurants! Recently, I fell in love with Buddakan in Chelsea, NY. I loved the mix of traditional wood elements, carvings on the walls, ornate chandeliers, all combined with a dark interior and jolts of bright fretwork motifs throughout the space. It just felt so grand without being stuffy.

Where do you find your restaurant design inspiration?
It varies with the project and what the client is desiring. Some places I find inspirational include: nature, fashion, and architecture. Really, inspiration is derived from all over!

What are “must-haves” for a restaurant before hiring a design professional?

Designing the interior space for your restaurant, pub, wine bar or lounge can be both exciting and challenging. There are so many variables to address. Early planning and making smart decisions is key.

We’ve put together a list of five must-haves before an operator decides to work with an interior designer:

  1. Be clear on the target market
    Who are you aiming to attract to your delicious space? Millennials? Snow birds? Wine connoisseurs? Beer lovers? Non drinkers? These details are important to design the best environment for a restaurant, as different types of patrons have unique space and functionality needs.For example, a family-friendly ice cream shop and bakery used for kids and after school visits will require different materials than a high-end, posh champagne room. These considerations will not only add years of usage to your furniture and design elements, but will provide the most bang for your design and build out buck! Also, always make sure your professional team is designing to comply with ADA codes and addressing any zoning requirements for your area.
  1. Be concept ready
    A designer works best when you provide her/him with what you’ve envisioned for your restaurant. The more vision you provide, the easier it is to bring your ideas to life. It is best to have your brand solid and in place prior to contracting with an interior designer. When a brand concept is not solidified and the direction keeps changing, your interior designer may have to keep revising the design plan, which can mean costly revision fees for you.
  1. Have your space secured
    It’s a good idea to have a restaurant location and space either lined up or in the final stages of being in your possession when you engage your designer. That way, your designer can quote you specifically for that space and also build a design that works for that property. If you don’t have a space yet, some designers (like me!) will offer consultation services to help review potential spaces with you and will involve a general contractor to make sure the potential fits your envisioned needs.
  1. Know your budget for materials and furniture
    The truth of the matter is, designers can’t create magic out of nothing. While we all love those “Do it yourself” (DIY) shows that make a beautiful space on a shoestring budget, it’s rarely (if ever) reality. First, you need commercial-rated materials that will last longer than the first six months you are in business. Second, who’s going to be doing all the DIY’ing? If you are working with a professional interior designer, it may not be the best use of their time to be hammering palettes on your walls to save a few bucks. Be realistic. By investing a little more in your upfront budget for materials, you will get a much better and more professional end result that will serve you better in the long run.
  1. Budget for your designer
    If you choose to work with an interior design professional, they will need a budget to cover their time, talent, and expertise. This budget is often confused with the materials budget. This fee is outside of the materials/furniture budget and costs. A great designer brings priceless value to a restaurant design project. Plus, they need to eat too. Beyond their vision and creativity, they bring years of construction and materials knowledge, an insight into consumer traffic and usage behavior, and a vast network of (often hard to find) resources.

In closing, can you share how designers charge and anything else about the selection process?

Every interior designer charges differently and fees will often vary depending on your location.

Once you’ve got your must-haves in order, make sure to shop around and speak to many interior designers before making a final selection. You’ll want to feel out their styles, make sure they can handle the work, and that you’re comfortable with her/him as you two will be working closely together to bring your vision to life!

Good luck on your project!



Lisa Gilmore-Sarnowski is the principal designer of Lisa Gilmore Design, an interior design firm focusing on commercial, hospitality, retail, and luxury residential environments. Lisa’s interiors are known for being livable spaces with a glamorous edge.