Why does one restaurant thrive while its neighbor sinks faster than an iffy soufflé? In this highly competitive restaurant climate, it's not only what's on the plate, but what's on the walls, floor, and ceiling that makes the difference.
When San Francisco chef Nancy Oakes first saw the site that her designer/partner Pat Kuleto had found for her new restaurant, she walked up to the building and hugged it. It was a historic but run-down 1889 French-style brick building called the Audiffred, one of the few structures spared by the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Once the lease was signed, Kuleto set to work crafting a gorgeous belle époque-style interior, with hand-blown art-nouveau glass light fixtures, decorative ironwork, and perfectly framed views of the Bay Bridge. Now, more than 10 years later, Boulevard remains one of San Francisco's most cherished restaurants, thanks to Oakes' French-influenced modern-American cuisine and Kuleto's dazzling decor.

"We created Boulevard on the foundation that diners need to be comforted by their surroundings as well as by their food," Kuleto says. With that simple sentence, Kuleto sums up the primary goal of good restaurant designers and architects everywhere: to create successful and compelling restaurants that comfort and flatter their guests. Whether it's a sophisticated 60-seat jewel box or a hangar-size space for 250, designers agree that unless customers feel good - and feel they look good - in the restaurant, they'll never return, no matter how icy the gelato or how hot the chef.

"Even if the place is made of cardboard and burlap, it's the people who must shine," says architect Hugh Hardy, who has created some of the country's most majestic and important New York restaurants, including Brasserie 8 1/2 and Guastavino's, with its magnificent 100-year-old vaulted ceilings. "It fatigues the diner if everything is overly theatrical. The room can't upstage the people or the food."