If you consider that a single restaurant seat can bring in as much as $100,000 a year or more, you'll see how certain design decisions - such as the number of tables - have implications far beyond the visual. The design team carefully determines how much space each diner will be allowed, ­using a rough formula of 15 to 20 square feet per person. "The higher-end the restaurant, the more space per customer," Rockwell explains. "In New York, you tolerate a little less." With construction costs ranging from $250 to $600 per square foot, your million-dollar budget could evaporate long before the first free-range chicken gets anywhere near the table. To build the 340-seat Aureole in Las Vegas, a stunning showcase for the cuisine of chef Charlie Palmer, the Mandalay Bay Resort forked over $7.5 million. Per Se in New York cost more than $10 million to construct.

Since 75 to 80 percent of the construction budget is devoted to essentials the customer never sees - things such as air conditioning, heating, plumbing, electrical, and kitchen equipment - designers "really learn to stretch the 25 percent we're left with to create a seductive environment," Rockwell says. Often, one dramatic design statement can command an entire room. Take the 30-foot communal table at Asia de Cuba in New York or the cross-shaped one at its L.A. counterpart, or the enormous golden Buddha that peers out at diners at Buddakan in Philadelphia. Then there's the $1.3 million steel-and-glass wine tower at Aureole in Las Vegas, with its cat-suited wine "angels" who use rappelling wires to scale the four-story tower and retrieve bottles as they're ordered. "Not only is it breathtaking," says chef Palmer, "but the angels add that element of pure ­Vegas showmanship."