NELSON Designs the Ultimate Dining Experience

June 24
NELSON Designs the Ultimate Dining Experience

We recently caught up with Antonino “Tony” Donato, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, Director of Hospitality to recap his experience with Design Museum Boston’s, “Design for Dining,” a public exhibition distributed across seven restaurants in Downtown Boston, showcasing how designers shape the dining experience. Members of the Boston Team partnered with Design Museum and MAST’, a Southern Italian restaurant in the city’s Financial District, to create a “steam punk” inspired chef’s table complete with interactive technology and iPad interfacing. 


Question: What inspired you and your team to take on this project? 

Answer: NELSON had wanted to learn more about Design Museum Boston and see if there was any way we could get more involved. We met with Sam Aquillano, and during our discussion, he mentioned that they were developing this exhibit where they would pair up design firms with restaurants in Downtown Crossing [Boston]. Since our office is located in Downtown Crossing, and I had recently joined NELSON to start a hospitality practice group, it seemed like a perfect match for us.


Question: What do you like the most about your restaurant pairing? 

Answer: It's hard to pick just one thing. For one, the owners and chef are terrific. We met with them a number of times to discuss their vision for the restaurant. It's was great to see how excited they all were about our ideas. On the other hand, the food is southern Italian, which is close to my heart since it is my heritage. I was excited to see grilled octopus on the menu – It is not something you see every day. That being said, my favorite thing would have to be the Nutella pizza from MAST’s wood-fired authentic Neapolitan pizza oven. I mean come on…


Question: Which was your favorite part of the process? 

Answer: When I was growing up, my father was an Executive Chef. One of his favorite things was developing new restaurant concepts and menus. I guess that is why I can really relate to and appreciate the process. My favorite part was meeting with the owners and chefs, learning about their visions, and brainstorming ideas together. That's where everyone became really excited and there was no limit to the imagination. I preferred not to confine our discussions to décor. I also enjoyed discussing the menu and how to make the whole dining experience special for the guests. It really is all about the experience and so many things factor into that. 


Question: What were the biggest challenges you and your team faced? 

Answer: The biggest challenge we faced was the physical limitations of our Chef’s Table concept. Often, a Chef’s Table is located adjacent to or even sometimes within the kitchen. We were not able to do this because of our remote kitchen location. To solve this problem, we decided to incorporate technology by putting a Wi-Fi camera in the kitchen and providing an iPad interface at the table. Guests can watch and hear the chef prepare their meal. They are even able to ask the chef questions via the cameras two-way communication interface. The chef was very excited about taking this idea further and maybe doing some YouTube cooking demonstrations. I think we have the makings of the next Top Chef candidate.


Question: What is your personal favorite element of the table vignette? 

Answer: My personal favorite element is the chef table interface. I think it’s a great concept that may just catch on. We teamed up with Bruce Rosenbaum, owner of ModVic who is known for his steampunk creations, to develop the kitchen interface at the table. He also came up with the idea of projecting the image from the iPad onto the wall so the entire table can see the action in the kitchen at the same time. For this vignette, he has repurposed a modified Victorian projector to conceal the technology in a very cool steampunk housing. This element particularly embraces steampunk as a “subgenre of science fiction that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.”


Question: How do you think the restaurant’s patrons will react to the vignette? 

Answer: I am hoping that it is a unique experience for the diners and a fun twist on a traditional Chef’s Table. It should be a chance to learn about contemporary Southern Italian/European cuisine and taste some truly terrific food that may even be a little out of their comfort zone.


Question: What are your takeaways from this project? 

Answer: This project has reinforced my belief that every member of the team has an opportunity to contribute. When we discussed our concept with Tyrone Scoby at TriMark, he suggested that we look at some patterned plates by Churchill China, and he was spot on. Little details like this really helped to pull the entire concept together.


Question: How do you look at restaurants now compared to before the project? 

Answer: I think the restaurant already had a good start to their original vision. I wouldn't say that we are all the way there yet, but I am sure that what we have created brings us one step closer and hopefully even adds some things that the owners had not originally thought of. There is much more opportunity to fill the space with fantastical inventions and oddities ,and we have put together some people who can make that happen.


For more about the design process and the team, click here.


To contact Antonino directly, please email

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