It’s a tall order these architects fill — converting turn-of-the-century churches into hip hangouts or blending a client’s national image with tastes local enough to lure Charlotte’s brand of foodies. The challenge has only intensified as the Queen City’s population swells with diversity; international tastes are making restaurants rethink their approach, transforming their menu from the traditional, down-home Southern fare of steaks, fried chicken, and barbecue that once dominated the food scene in Charlotte. Alongside changing menus, diners also expect a restaurant’s atmosphere to enhance the dining experience. No group better understands this than the entrepreneurs – whether Mom-n-Pop or the power brokers of America’s multi-billion dollar fast-casual food industry – who’ve relied on the architects discussed below to make it all happen. But each understands that while food and drink are a restaurant’s main attraction, its décor can never be an afterthought.

Top Architects

9) ADW Architects

Featured Architects: John Watson, AIA, Robert Lauer, AIA, and Jim Powell, AIA
Address: 2815 Six Coliseum Centre Drive, Suite 500, Charlotte, NC 28217

ADW was founded in Charlotte in 1977 and credits its 40 years of success to a belief that “spaces shape our lives.” Over the years, it has garnered more than 25 design awards. The firm provides architecture, interior design, and master planning services throughout the US. Its portfolio is as diverse as the expertise it has gained: LEED certification for mixed-use, civic, educational, entertainment, public safety, and faith-based projects. Sustainable design has become a focus of Principals Robert Lauer, John Watson, and Jim Powell, and the firm belongs to the US Green Building Council. Among its client base are the University of North Carolina and the Coca-Cola Bottling Company.

Featured Projects
Cutting-edge real estate developer The Ghazi Company retained ADW to handle the exterior and interior architecture for The Mez at Epicenter, at 210 E Trade Street in Uptown Charlotte. The 32,500-square-foot project consisted of a motion picture theater, two bars, multiple dining areas, and a restaurant. Critics praised ADW’s “stunning atmosphere,” the result of a secluded lounge, high ceilings, and panoramic midtown views. For the exterior and interior build-out of The Brixx Wood-Fired Pizza’s 3,500- to 5,000-square foot restaurant in Charlotte’s historic Dilworth neighborhood, ADW designed a bar, wood fired oven, open kitchen, and outdoor and indoor dining area that fit the fast-casual but fine dining atmosphere sought by the franchise, which started in 1998 and now has more than 30 locations throughout the South.

8) Wilber Associates

Featured Architects: Stephen Charles Wilber, AIA
Address: 20444 N. Zion Avenue, Cornelius, NC 28031

Stephen Charles Wilber, AIA, followed in the footsteps of his architect father when he opened Wilber Associates in 1985. Church design was his original focus. But as Northern Mecklenburg County’s business sector started to burst, so did the firm’s clientele. Soon, Wilber’s focus became commercial buildings with a special focus on restaurants. Today, his firm, which still relies on only a handful of loyal employees, takes on projects in South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. But although their geographic reach has expanded, their ability to offer functional solutions and small-town service to their clients hasn’t changed. In 1997, the firm won the town’s Small Business of the Year award. Wilber is a past member of the Planning Board and the Land Use Steering committees in Cornelius.

Featured Projects
Jeff Lancaster wanted to erect a restaurant dedicated to his father and restaurateur Bud Lancaster that wasn’t another “lifeless franchise.” Wilber’s firm rose to the occasion, designing Jeffrey’s Restaurant on Trade Street in Mooresville. The design of exposed brick walls, metal pending hooded lights hanging from bars, booths lining the perimeter, and an outdoor fireplace with patio seating created a good food – good times vibe for both levels of the eatery. Wilber was the most logical choice when Lancaster expanded on the famed Lancaster’s BBQ, the restaurant his father had transformed from a former gas station into one of Mooresville’s most popular dining spots. The design of the three-level, 10k-square-foot Eastern-style BBQ – including a full bar and game room— centered around displays of racing memorabilia, a tribute to Mooresville’s reputation as “Race City, USA.”

7) Spencer Architect

Featured Architects: Constance Spencer, AIA
Address: 11031 Cattail Bluff, Tega Cay, SC 29708

National franchises are repeat customers for Canadian-born and Yale-educated Constance Spencer, AIA, BEnvD, M. Arch, who works in nearby Tega Cay, South Carolina. Spencer founded her sole proprietorship in 1999. She moved to the United States and after she had already established two practices in her native country. A true specialist in restaurant design, she’s handled custom concepts, commercial kitchens, franchises, night clubs, and country clubs. KFC, Wendy’s, Burger King, and McDonald’s are just a few of her big-name clients. There were also franchise locations for Wolfgang Puck, Qdoba, SmashBurger, Yoforia, Einstein Bros. Bagel, Salsaritas, Tupelo Honey, Hickory Tavern, and McAllister’s Deli. Added to that list are at least seven custom restaurants she’s designed in Charlotte alone. Spencer is a contributor to The Huffington Post. Her January 2017 article, “An Unconventional Architect,” shows a maverick streak throughout her colorful career.

Featured Projects
Spencer’s design of the Southside Drive location of The Broken Spoke, a bar that features typical pub fare, premium crafts, and homegrown spirits, lets patrons relax on oversized leather couches as they enjoy the Irish distilling-themed atmosphere. The 3,500-square-foot Italian panini café Blue Basil at the Cotswald Village Shops and the Just Fresh Kitchen Bistro, a health-oriented café with seven locations in Charlotte, both required counter-serve designs. Major renovations were needed for the design of the upscale Bonterra Dining and Wine Room on Cleveland Avenue, which was converted from an old church building in Dilworth. Spencer’s elegant and romantic design of the structure, which was built in 1895, kept the high ceilings and created a side patio and private balcony to host weddings and private events for up to 175 guests.

6) Miller Architecture

Featured Architects: Tony F. Miller, AIA, LEED AP
Address: 715 North Church Street, Suite 140, Charlotte, NC 28202

LEED-accredited Tony F. Miller founded his Charlotte firm in 1995. His website proudly states that “no Miller designed restaurant has ever closed.” Though specializing more in multi-family and specialty projects, he’s certainly done enough of those restaurants – at least 23 in North Carolina alone, and most of these were in Charlotte. The eateries range from small Mom-and-Pops to hotel kitchen upfits and new breweries. His list of awards for his portfolios of work is almost as long, including the National Awards of Excellence from BALA Best in American Living, the NAHB National Association of Home Builders Award, and both the AWI Architectural Woodwork Institute and Top Honors from CWB Custom Woodworking Business for Millwork Interiors. In 2014, Miller was voted Charlotte’s Best Architect in the Best-of-Business Awards survey. In 2016, he was honored with the ARDA Award for Outdoor Living Design from the AIA. The full-service architectural and design firm has NCARB accreditation in North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.

Featured Projects
Miller’s restaurant designs range from adding hibachi preparation stations to designing interiors that reflect unique branding concepts of such Charlotte establishments as The Pump House, American Burger Company, Bad Daddy’s Burgers, Living Kitchen, Wild Wing Cafe, Yama Izakaya, Midwood Smokehouse, and Yafo Kitchen. No project is too small, such as when Kathi Alexander, owner of the wildly popular SUGAR doughnut shop, decided she needed another location to keep up with Charlotte’s doughnut hysteria. Miller built her a “pop-up” production and take-out facility, which opened in October 2015. A bigger challenge was the design of one of Charlotte’s hottest dining locations, Sea Level Restaurant, a 5,500-square-foot eatery in the Hearst Tower off Fifth Street in Uptown. Miller’s client wanted an atmosphere that connected diners with the marshes that gave birth to the fresh seafood they were consuming. Miller’s design fit the bill because it combined oyster shell colors with industrial light fixtures, brick and wood accents, a “crushed oyster” wall, and a palette of oyster shell colors. In 2015, the third Viva Chicken restaurant he’s designed for the fast-growing franchise opened at Northcross.

5) Cluck Design Collaborative

Featured Architects: Kevin Kennedy, AIA, and Chris Scorsone, LEED AP
Address: 1523 Elizabeth Avenue, Suite 120, Charlotte, NC 28204

When cool vibes and serious professionalism are mixed, the result is Cluck Design, an unconventional architecture collaborative founded in 2004 by Kevin Kennedy, AIA, as “a place to do good work.” The firm handles projects ranging from urban planning to fast food design. Kennedy is a guest professor at UNCC, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture. In his pre-Cluck years, he was honored with AIA Charlotte Honor Awards in 1998, 2001 and 2002. He was one of 50 architects whose drawings were featured in Digital Architecture, published by McGraw-Hill in 1999. Co-founder Chris Scorsone, LEED, is a guest critic at universities in the Charlotte area. Scorsone had served as design director for Little Diversified Architectural Consulting’s award-winning work on commercial, urban planning, and restaurant projects. He’s been honored with two AIA Charlotte Merit Awards, a Southeast Construction’s Best of 2005 Award for Best Private Design on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Headquarters, and a North Carolina American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award.

Featured Projects
Cluck’s project on 2911 Griffith Street was to handle the architecture for Suffolk Punch, the coffee bar/café-tap house owned by Hyde Brewing Company. In the heart of historic downtown Waxhaw, at 115 East North Main Street, is the site of a former fire station that Kennedy and his crew turned into The Dreamchaser’s Brewery, which opened in 2017. To maintain the building’s history, Cluck turned the roll-up doors into the tap room’s entrance and kept a diamond plate under the bar. The firm’s design of the ultra-trendy burger joint Moo & Brew at Plaza Midwood was praised by Zagat for its rustic appeal and patio seating. And Cluck won two AIA awards in 2017 for its sleek Southern-accented rendition of Haberdish, a restaurant built around a menu of fried chicken and biscuits. The design called for warm Edison lights to contrast the washed-brick walls, and white beams to connect the restaurant’s interior to the patio.

4) D3 Studio

Featured Architects: Scott Betzold, AIA, LEED AP, Michael Baujan, and Laura Hoover
Address: 1318 Central Avenue, Suite A10, Charlotte, NC 28205

The designs of D3 Studio have shaken up the Charlotte restaurant scene. Managing partner and owner Scott Betzold, AIA, LEED AP, got his master’s in architecture from Savannah College of Art and Design, then spent 13 impressive years with big-name firms in Charlotte — as an architectural intern at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, then as an associate with Reinhardt Architecture, next as project architect with Shook Kelley, and finally returning to Little as project manager/architect of record. Partner Michael Baujan was also an intern at Little. Baujan received his bachelor’s in design and architecture from the University of Florida and his master’s in architecture from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Laura Hoover is director of interiors. Her bachelor’s in interior design is from Appalachian State University. Before d3, she specialized in commercial design for ESD Architecture and the RBA Group Inc.

Featured Projects
Catawba Brewing Co. on Louise Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood is a 10k-square-foot construction. In addition to a main bar featuring 30 taps, D3 designed a second bar surrounded in glass to offer another 20 to 30 taps. Soaring ceilings with pendant lights, high pub tables surrounded by saddle wood stools, steel beams supporting the ceiling, and a stone floor left unfinished add up to a rustic ambiance. Denver-based, fast-casual Asian chain Teriyaki Madness wanted D3 to handle its first Charlotte location. Although the franchise has many venues, it wants each to look local. D3 maintained the chain’s brand colors of red, black, and white. Its design called for globe lights in frosted white, gray stone walls, gray tile floors, and natural wood tables, to add an upscale vibe. 204 North on North Tryon in Uptown Charlotte is one of the city’s trendiest new restaurant-bars. D3’s plan calling for exposed duct work to run down the length of the ceiling gave the establishment a decidedly homespun look.

3) Starrdesign

Featured Architects: Steve Starr, Mimi Williams, and Brie Carlson
Address: 1435 West Morehead Street, Suite 240, Charlotte, NC 28208

When award-winning designer and author Steve Starr first moved from New York City to Charlotte in 1996, he spent 11 years running the restaurant and design studio for Little Diversified Architectural Consulting. In 2007, he founded Starrdesign, a full-service firm that handles high-profile projects nationwide. Starr received his bachelor’s in architecture Washington University in St. Louis and his masters from UNCC. Associate Partner Mimi Williams graduated with a bachelor’s in architecture from the University of Tennessee. Brie Carlson, also an associate partner, got her bachelor’s design in architecture from Clemson University and her master’s in architecture from the University of Michigan. In 2013, the firm received design awards from the Association of Retail Environments for the signage and lighting used at Zoe’s Kitchen. Starr has been written up in Modern Restaurant Management and Charlotte business journals. He is also is a regular columnist for Restaurant Development + Design magazine. The firm was given a guest column on, a blog devoted to news and events in the restaurant industry.

Featured Projects
Starr was the corporate architect for the six Charlotte locations of health- and Mediterranean-themed Zoe’s Kitchen’s. Its design will serve as the template for the quick-serve franchise’s other locations. Starr also handled the environment, graphics, interiors, and patio design for Tupelo Honey Cafe, which is based in Asheville. The brand started in 2000 and now has four locations in North Carolina.
Other Starr-designed projects were Mellow Mushroom’s two locations, one Uptown, near Charlotte Knights Stadium, and the other in Ballantyne. Starr created a 1960s space age theme for both locations, with wall murals, hanging art, life-size rockets, smoke-producing illuminated glass towers, dark purple ceilings, mosaics, and hammered brass surfaces. For Brixx Wood-Fired Pizza locations in Charlotte, the goal was to design an interior that would update the brand concept around a family theme. This was accomplished with booths and a chalkboard for children to draw on. New York-based Italian brand Dean & DeLuca wanted to change the market cafe concept into a cafe/full service theme. Starr revamped the wine room to serve as a full-service dinner location. The design turned into a prototype for the brand’s other locations nationwide.

2) The Johnson Studio At Cooper Carry

Featured Architects: Bill Johnson, AIA, Brian Finkel, AIA, NCARB, and Anita Summers, AIA
Address: 191 Peachtree Street, Suite 2400, Atlanta, Georgia 30303

Soon after Principal Bill Johnson, AIA, opened this Atlanta-based firm in 1986, it became known for delivering award-winning hospitality and restaurant projects. Johnson received his bachelor’s in architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Associate Principal Brian Finkel, AIA, NCARB, came aboard in 1992. Finkel’s bachelor’s and master’s came from Georgia Tech, as well. He’d already established himself for taking on challenging interior architecture designs in restaurants in Atlanta, Chicago, and St. Louis. Associate Principal Anita Summers, AIA, received a bachelor’s in architecture from North Carolina State University and has designed restaurants for Legal Sea Foods and the Ritz-Carlton. The firm’s local, national, and international work is celebrated in numerous national and local publications for its fine details and high architectural standards. In 2015, the firm merged with acclaimed design firm Cooper Carry, which specializes in government, hospitality, and retail projects nationwide and in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Central America.

Featured Projects
Rooster’s Wood Fired Kitchen occupies 5,000 square feet in the Bank of America Center’s urban garden. Zagat has called it one of the best restaurants in the South today. The two-story eatery has a comfortable and casual atmosphere. Hand-forged iron, wooden wine racks built into walls, and furniture fashioned out of antique barn wood create a rustic element. Diners are especially fond of the communal seating, accent lighting, and warm wood tones. High on Zagat’s rating is another Johnson project, Vivace, which serves sophisticated Italian cuisine on Metropolitan Avenue in midtown Charlotte. “Vivace” means “vibrant” in Italian, and that is exactly what Johnson’s design achieved throughout the multi-level interior. Giant, glowing orange pendant lights run throughout an open dining area. The bar upstairs offers an exquisite view of downtown Charlotte.

1) Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

Featured Architects: Phil Kuttner, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
Address: 5815 Westpark Drive, Charlotte, NC 28217

This international design firm, with more than 375 employees, is based in Charlotte and consistently ranks as one of the city’s largest and most prestigious architectural enterprises. It provides in-house expertise in sustainable design, planning and land development, and architecture. Little has five locations in the United States and one in Beijing, China. It has been ranked by Architect Magazine as one of the Top 50 firms in the country. In 2013, it was the recipient of the North Carolina Firm Award, the highest AIA honor a firm can receive. Partner and Chief Executive Officer Phil Kuttner, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, has served as a board member on AIA’s Charlotte chapter and has been a featured speaker at the AIA National Convention and INC Magazine’s CEO Symposium. Clients included Duke Energy, Bank of America, The Home Depot, Nike, and Time Warner.

Featured Projects
Little’s work on the 7,000-square-foot Aria Tuscan Grill fetched the IIDA Carolinas Design Award. Aria’s owners wanted the restaurant, located on N. Tyron Street in the Bank of America Corporate Center, to have a modern Italian atmosphere that evoked images of Tuscany. Little handled the exterior and interior architecture along with the brand communication and design, built around a theme of squares and angles to reflect the shape of the pizzas served. An upstairs lounge was fitted with polished dark wood tables and white chairs. Diners at the lower level can watch the award-winning chef and his team through large glass expanses. Located in Founders Hall on N. Tryon is the 5,500-square-foot City Smoke. Little’s objective was to rebrand the restaurant into a smoke house, speakeasy, and rotisserie, which was accomplished through an open kitchen, lunch counter-style eating, custom signage/lighting, and a custom millwork bar. Also located in Founders Hall is Taste, which occupies 11k square feet on the third floor. This upscale cafeteria boasts an elegant lounge and outdoor patio seating for patrons to enjoy views of the Charlotte skyline.