Damian Brown spent four months with a staple gun and $20,000 worth of fake flowers decorating his new all-day brunch spot in Shaw, Uncaged Mimosas. The over-the-top display is layered with neon signs reading “You’re Like Really Pretty” and “Drink More Mimosas.” To come up with phrases for it, Brown just Googled “best brunch quotes.”
“People want to take a picture,” he says. “They’re going to post, they’re going to tag, then more people want to come.”
Chances are your own social-media feeds are flooded with similar selfie backdrops. The faux-flora wall with the pithy quote lit in faux-neon has become ubiquitous. It’s a dramatic revolt against the industrial-chic aesthetic that dominated the dining scene a decade ago, with reclaimed-wood communal tables, concrete bar tops, and Edison light bulbs. White subway tile? Snooze. In the post-pandemic TikTok era, maximalism is in.
“A lot of places that want to have that visual social-media impact, it’s a real easy shortcut,” says restaurant designer Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense. “It just seems like, well, this is what people do, let’s do this—which isn’t to say it can’t be very effective. That’s one of the reasons a lot of people do it. There is a lot of bang for the buck.”
Greenery looks and feels great in dining rooms, but you’ve got to actually water and maintain real plants—not to mention ward off pests. By contrast, fake flowers (and easy-to-assemble flowered walls) are readily available through Amazon and other online retailers, no fertilizer needed. Meanwhile, the customizable neon signs seen everywhere are rarely actual neon, which is very fragile, but LED. The look is easy to DIY. No fancy design firm needed.
With fewer people going out post-pandemic and everything becoming more expensive, restaurants and bars are looking for ways to make their spaces feel more like a big night out. Miller has seen the trend evolve in large part from the event and nightlife worlds: “It indicates ‘Hey, this is a festive kind of party space.’”
That’s certainly the vibe at Urban Roast, a cocktail lounge and Instagram oasis in Penn Quarter inspired by glitzy hot spots from Dubai to Vegas—including a Real Housewives star’s decadent cocktail destination in Caesars Palace. The owners have an entire dining room covered floor to ceiling in fake roses, alongside a rotation of seven neon signs inspired by rap or country lyrics (“You and Tequila Make Me Crazy”). “We’ve had lines for pictures,” co-owner Joseph Azzouz says. “People bring in their full cameras and everything.”
Azzouz isn’t too concerned that so many others are trying to be spectacular in the exact same way. In fact, at his group’s forthcoming cocktail garden at the Wharf, Zooz, they’re doubling down on the aesthetic—and the artificial-flower budget. “It’s going to be triple the amount. Maybe quadruple the amount,” Azzouz says. “No doubt in my mind about that.”
This article appears in the April 2023 issue of Washingtonian.