Get local news delivered straight to your phone

There are no barstools at Derek Brown’s newest bar.

In the original Columbia Room—actually a converted closet—10 elevated seats were crammed together in front of the bar. “We had this one friend who’s just literally a giant,” Brown says. “He sat down and I just felt bad every time watching him crunch in.”

And occasionally, if someone hung a purse on the back of one of the wooden, partially upholstered barstools, the whole chair would tip over.

In the new Columbia Room, which opened in Blagden Alley earlier this month, the difference is like being upgraded from coach to first class. The 14 fully upholstered leather armchairs are extra wide with plenty of elbow room on each side—more like a board room than a bar. Your feet remain planted on the ground, while a sunken bar brings the bartender to your level.

“There is maybe some psychology behind it in the sense that what we’re going for is a very different experience than what most people expect out of a bar,” Brown says. “Most places, they’re looking for an hour-and-a-half seat. That means that your butt hurts after an hour and a half of sitting there. It’s very convenient for most restaurant and bars to have that because without you having to be prompted, you are going to leave… With the Columbia Room, it’s the opposite.”

Like Brown, a lot more restaurateurs are thinking about the “psychology” behind their furniture these days. As restaurant design and ambiance become as important to a dining experience as the food, establishments are putting an increasing amount of thought and money into their tables and chairs. Edit Lab at Streetsense Senior Project Designer Brian Miller, who helped design Columbia Room, says restaurateurs are also growing more savvy about what the competition is doing with their furnishings. In the past, they might not care that five other places had the same chair. Now, many are looking to set their restaurants apart with custom furniture.

“They’re getting really picky,” concurs Brooke Loewen, a senior interior designer for GrizForm Design Architects, which has worked with Doi Moi, Estadio, Fiola, and others. Five years ago, she says the only questions restaurateurs really had about chairs were “Can I afford it?” and “Is it comfortable?” Now, they’re concerned with all manner of things from height to design to whether the material feels too cold.

At the new Founding Farmers in Tysons Corner, all of the furniture is custom-made. To complete the “modern farmhouse” look, Loewen worked with fabricators to build furniture that looked residential, but could endure thousands of diners a week. Loewen tried to mimic the sofas or comfy chairs you might find in a living room or sunroom, but all of it had to be mounted in place with no removable cushions. And in order to attract diners to what might otherwise be the least desirable area in the floor plan, Loewen commissioned big circular “bedroom booths” that would feel cozy and exclusive.

Aside from booths and banquettes which often have to be custom, Edit Lab’s Miller says roughly a quarter of his clients are commissioning their own specialty furniture. Five to 10 years ago, none of his clients were doing that.

While budgets vary from project to project, Miller says restaurants are also generally spending more on furniture than they used to. And often, the pieces are not cheap. A single barstool, for example, may range from $100 for something backless made of wood or metal to $600 or more for a leather seat with fully upholstered back that you’d find in a four-star hotel or high-end steakhouse.

Custom pieces appeal to restaurateurs who “want to be able to tell stories about the furniture,” Miller says. “It’s the same way people want to connect with ingredients.” For example, a Maryland millworker custom-built The Dabney’s tables to resemble the floor pattern that Thomas Jefferson designed for the parlor at Monticello. Meanwhile, the Windsor-style chairs are modeled after those that were popular in the mid-Atlantic in the 18th century.

“The same way his food speaks to the traditions and roots of cooking in the area, we kind of wanted to do some things with the furniture that spoke to that as well,” Miller says. “If you’ve got values you want to express, you want to express those throughout.”

Restaurant designer Allison Cooke of Core is also seeing custom furniture in restaurants where she previously might not have  expected to, like in fast-casual eateries. Both Cava Grill and Sweetgreen, for example, have commissioned their own tables and chairs rather than ordering them out of a catalog.

With the mounting pressure to offer something new and cool, Cooke says furniture manufacturers are getting more competitive by offering custom prices. “Where clients before would think, ‘Oh, I could never afford a custom chair,’ well, now manufacturers are more willing to do that,” she says.

Many restaurant designers are also hearing concerns over the comfort of barstools, especially as diners increasingly use bars as a place to eat a full meal rather than grab a drink while waiting for a table. That means less metal seating, especially as the “industrial chic” trend begins to wane. “People realized that metal-legged furniture on concrete floors is just not a welcoming thing,” Miller says.

At The Dabney, Miller says the owners initially were looking at less-cushy bar stools. But as they thought more about the experience of eating at the bar, they upgraded to upholstered, cushioned seats with backs. (The dining room chairs are unpadded wood.) Miller says sitting in barstools with your feet dangling is inherently less comfortable than sitting in a dining chair for longer periods. To have an equal amount of comfort in a barstool, you have to make it cushier and bigger than a dining chair.

Then again, not every bar is after the same kind of seats. For every new plush armchair, there’s still a hard wooden chair. “I go to Momofuku and it’s not like, ‘Wow, I’m glad furniture is getting more comfortable,’” Miller says. “But they seem to be doing just fine.”

In a more social, crowded bar, larger chairs with backs can act as a barrier; people can’t easily swivel around to talk to friends who are standing. Miller intentionally put backless bar stools in The Riggsby because it’s a hotel bar. “It’s a place where people come and go a little bit more. You don’t know the size of the groups, how crowded it’s going to be. Are they going to be two, three deep during happy hour?”

One typically less comfortable seating trend that persists: reclaimed church pews. Left Door, Kangaroo Boxing Club, Smith Public Trust, and The Royal are among the many restaurants and bars that have incorporated them into their decor.

Pews are readily available because so many churches have closed over the last decade or so. And restaurateurs like them because they’re able to get a long bench seat for as little as $60 to $75, says SwatchRoom designer Maggie O’Neill. Second Chance, which sells used furniture and antiques in Baltimore, will even slice off the arm and modify it to the length needed. “It satisfies the quirk factor,” O’Neill says. “When in doubt, grab a church pew.”

Not everyone is a fan though: “You walk into a space, you’re like, ‘Oh this restaurant’s cool, it has an old church pew.’ But then it’s really bad if you have to sit in them,” Miller says. “No one ever says, ‘You know where I was really comfortable? Church.’”

Ultimately, though, many new restaurants and bars aren’t going with a single type of furniture. Instead, they’re trying to create various “microclimates” in the dining room. “It’s so rare now that we’re picking one chair and one table for the whole restaurant,” says Cooke. “Everybody wants to create these mini-environments.”

At Centrolina in CityCenterDC, for example, Cooke points out the mix of banquettes, tables, a booth that overlooks the open kitchen, bar seating, plus the adjoining market—each with its own vibe. Ten years ago, she says, there was a lot more uniformity in seating.

Loewen adds that restaurateurs are becoming more accommodating to the idea that the same guest might go to the same restaurant for different reasons.

“You go with your girlfriends for catch-up night. You go on date night with your significant other. You go with your parents when they’re in town. Each of those times you want to sit in a different type of environment,” Loewen says. “Everyone is trying to be aware and make sure we’ve got those areas: the quieter areas, the more lively and happening areas. And the seats help to dictate that’s what this area is.”

Photos of The Dabney by Darrow Montgomery