The stage is the driving metaphor for arch­itect David Rockwell, one of the country's premier restaurant designers, a former theatrical-lighting specialist who designed the sets for the Tony-nominated show Hairspray. Restaurants, he says, are all about people connecting with other people.

"Theater represents a relationship between the audience and the performers," he says.
"In restaurants, the relationship is between diners and other diners. I visualize something like a script for the experience: How does it feel when you come through the door? How does it feel to be one of the first 20 people in a 200-seat space?" At restaurant Town in the Chambers Hotel in Manhattan, for instance, Rockwell sunk a major chunk of his design budget into the 18-foot walnut doors. "When you enter you almost embrace these doors," he says. "It's like moving through a proscenium. Inside you find all this backlit mahogany. The wood glows, and people look incredible."

RESTAURANTS are notoriously risky business ventures and the stakes are higher than ever. One in four restaurants fails within its first year; 60 to 70 percent are shuttered before their fifth anniversary. Throw too much money around at the start, and you'll never pay your mortgage. Spend too little, and your dream restaurant will disappear as fast as beluga caviar on an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Enter the restaurant designer, who translates the vision of owner and chef into a pleasing and profitable space. These days, the most in-demand designers - who command fees as high as $500,000 - help their clients create the concept, locate the space, oversee construction, and, in some cases, find the right chef. Many custom-design the furniture, the fixtures, and even the tableware to give each restaurant its one-of-a-kind look. Some designers, like Kuleto, Adam D. Tihany, and Sir Terence Conran in London, own restaurants themselves.