Food & Drink

How Aesthetic and Atmosphere Play Into the Haberdish Experience

Vibe check

The front of Haberdish
Haberdish opened a long the main strip of NoDa in 2016. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

In 2016, Jeff Tonidandel of the Tonidandel-Brown restaurant group shared his vision for a new restaurant concept with Charlotte Magazine, “I want every meal over there to be like we’re having a Sunday dinner with the family.”

Over half a decade later, that’s exactly what Haberdish has become.

When I first moved to NoDa earlier this year, Haberdish was one of the places everyone told me I had to try — it was voted Best NoDa Restaurant by Queen City Nerve readers in 2023. I’ve always been a foodie, and while the food was good, I found myself wondering what made the experience of this restaurant and others like it so memorable.

Leveraging my background in organizational psychology, I set out to explore how a restaurateur crafts an entire world around the food, and how all of those elements work together to create an overall experience.

After all, it’s not just the crispy skin of a juicy fried chicken leg or the creamy bite of mac and cheese that keeps diners coming back; Haberdish has built a glowing reputation due to its distinct personality — a mix of aesthetic and atmosphere that Gen Z would identify succinctly as “a vibe.”

From the carefully curated ambiance to the personalized touches, every element of the Haberdish experience is designed to make guests feel right at home.

Designing the Haberdish experience

The upscale Southern experience of dining at Haberdish is a culmination of numerous tiny choices and details.

“We made thousands of decisions on space, from the lights to the materials, to the texture, to the host area,” Haberdish co-founder Jamie Brown, the other half of Tonidandel-Brown, told Queen City Nerve.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler calls these tiny decisions nudges — design choices that subconsciously influence our decision-making. Exploring these nudges can help patrons and aspiring entrepreneurs gain a deeper appreciation of what it takes to create a memorable dining experience.

Haberdish’s dining room. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Creating this vibe is no simple feat. During the design process Tonidandel and Brown considered not only the form of materials, but their function.

“The thing about designing a restaurant which is so different from a house is that you have to be so utilitarian because you have hundreds of people coming in,” Brown explained. “So for a lot of the choices, I may be like ‘Oh, this white door would be so much more beautiful, I wish we could do this,’ it’s just not smart. It’s just smarter to have black doors than white doors. A lot of decisions are moves toward darker things or textured things that don’t require much upkeep.”

Brown shared how every decision, from painting the brick exterior to the outdoor seating to the restroom lighting was designed with guest experience in mind.

“You don’t want the experience in the bathroom to interrupt the dining experience,” Brown explained. “We want the whole thing to be a part of the vibe.”

From check-in to chicken

As guests step inside Haberdish, they’re greeted by a unique sight (or lack thereof): the absence of a traditional host stand. Instead, a tablet mounted on the wall serves as the check-in point.

“We want our hosts to be greeting people right away, without anything between them,” Brown shared. “I think it creates more intimacy.”

This strategic approach puts guests right at the center of the action, allowing them to take in the entirety of the restaurant in one fell swoop, setting the stage for what’s to come.

Guests wait to check in at Haberdish
The front door at Haberdish. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

As guests absorb the atmosphere, they may notice the warm, inviting glow of the dining room as the evening progresses.

Haberdish host Forest Chilton describes the vibe in one word: “comfortable.”

“When the sun goes down, the low lighting is really nice and cozy,” he elaborated.

The restaurant uses yellow Edison bulbs in nearly all of its fixtures, and there are plenty of them.

“The sheer number of lights that we put in our restaurants is in the hundreds,” Brown acknowledged. “You don’t see them all, as many are pointed into the ceiling or the wall.”

Yellow Edison bulbs inside Haberdish
Yellow Edison bulbs inside Haberdish. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The lights are connected to a dimmer controlled by a timer, ensuring a gradual fade as the sun sets.

“Bright restaurants don’t feel romantic, warm, or cozy,” said Brown, “and we want that ambiance every night. If it feels too bright, we’re removing people from the experience.”

Once seated, guests move to the next part of the experience: the menu. For around $40 per person, they can choose from a wide array of Southern classics such as shrimp and grit cakes, fried chicken, BBQ ribs, okra, or banana pudding.

Each dish is served family-style, another intentional choice by the owners, as it’s the preferred style of eating for Tonidandel and Brown — the people, not the restaurant group, she explained.

“That’s how Jeff and I like to eat,” Brown told Queen City Nerve.

The communal serving style encourages guests to interact, share and connect over the meal, just as they would at a family dinner. It’s a subtle yet effective way to foster a sense of togetherness and make guests feel at home.

The magic of minor touches

Once the food has been devoured, a few finishing touches bring the overall experience together at Haberdish. Guests are treated to handwritten thank you cards crafted by the servers. These notes may celebrate a momentous occasion or simply express gratitude for stopping by.

Additionally, warm towels are provided to clean up after the meal. It’s a luxurious and unexpected amenity, one that leaves guests feeling pampered and cared for. These touches elevate the experience, adding an upscale and personal touch typically found only at fine-dining establishments.

According to Deet Gilbert, associate professor at Johnson and Wales University, this type of personalized service is becoming more common.

“Our society has gotten more casual, and the desire for stuffy fine dining has diminished, but the willingness to spend money at a restaurant has not,” Gilbert said. “What you once saw only in fine-dining restaurants, you’re now seeing more in upscale casual restaurants.”

Inside Haberdish (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

From the intimate check-in to the hot-towel finish, the cumulative impact of all these thoughtful details is what creates the Sunday dinner vibe Haberdish is known for.

Dr. Stephani Robson, senior lecturer emeritus at the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, insightfully notes, “Our perception of the dining experience is very holistic. The more cohesive the experience is, the more we like it.”

The success of Haberdish demonstrates that, in today’s experience-driven economy, the businesses that thrive are those that understand the value of creating meaningful, memorable moments for their customers.

As Dr. Robson reminds us, “Restaurants are not in the business of selling food, restaurants are in the business of creating memories.”

The next time you’re grabbing a bite with a friend or loved one, take a moment to ask yourself, “What little nudges led me to visit this spot or try this dish?”

Once you know what to look for, you may be surprised with the role your subconscious plays in your love for restaurants.

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