Riyaz Amlani isn’t a psychic — not that we know of, anyway. But way back in 2019, the Indian restauranteur developed a dining concept alongside Sanchit Arora of design firm Renesa that separates diners into perfectly distanced pods set six feet apart. It was already slated to launch in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic hit. The name of the pre-existing restaurant chain just happened to be “Social,” allowing the team to name this particular location in New Delhi “Social with Distancing.”
At the heart of the restaurant’s COVID-compliant layout is a steel framework supporting two levels of dining booths, staggered so separate parties aren’t ever seated directly beside or underneath each other. The metal is clad in teak-finish Russian Birch plywood so it looks like solid timber. In between each “node” is a collapsible shutter that can be closed for privacy and safety. Accented with living plants and soft, warm lighting, these eating zones feel cozy and welcoming, with the aim of making indoor dining feel comfortable again to the public post-pandemic.
Arora first got the idea for a two-level dining framework after traveling to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, where stilted houses made of bamboo line the streets and alleyways. But the layout of the restaurant is inspired by Dwarka, the neighborhood where the new restaurant is located. More specifically, the designers took an overhead view of the town’s grid and translated its houses into dining booths and its streets into aisles.
“Restaurants play a pivotal role in our collective post-pandemic future, and to be able to return to them safely, they must be empowered to be active participants in the building of trust,” say the architects. “It’s time we welcome you to our latest product: ‘Social with distancing.’ Masked waiters, tables placed six feet apart, and fluted glass are all the elements that realize a half Vietnamese-half contemporary space set in New Delhi, India.”
“Renesa’s new design introduces India’s first COVID response restaurant that responds to the ‘new normal,’ redefining the boundary between communal and booth seating in restaurants. Designed before the pandemic, the idea was translated and evolved into the benefit which seemed revolutionary at the time – but is now what the market is demanding. We call it a space conceptualized pre-pandemic, designed during and for the pandemic, and sustainable beyond the pandemic.”
The designers repurposed materials and furniture from other Social locations for this project, including granite tabletops, leather benches, and teak wood tables, to complement and contrast the new restaurant’s terrazzo flooring and concrete paver cobblestones forming decorative circles. Cane-back chairs, bamboo blinds, and bricks made with rice straw add to the desired “rural yet revitalizing vibe.” And of course, various parts of the restaurant are still being kept empty to comply with COVID safety guidelines, but in the future, they can be filled in with additional seating.
It’s a smart concept for a variety of reasons, even putting the (highly likely) possibility of future pandemics aside. The two-level dining concept makes excellent use of space, fitting in plenty of customers without making them feel crammed together, and the lower level still lends itself well to guests with accessibility needs. It’ll be interesting to see whether more restaurants follow suit with similar concepts as we all adapt to this new normal.