When grabbing a coffee takes patrons to another planet.

Faced with the ever-competitive dining and lifestyle landscapes serving Asia’s trendy urbanites, architects are going to new lengths to create standout experiences. For a recent wave of cafes and restaurants, this means taking guests to another world entirely.

Nota Architects helps popular independent Shanghai chain Seesaw Coffeeevoke a trek through an ethereal nature retreat in its newest location in a Beijing shopping mall. To reach the cafe counter, patrons must walk along a stone pathway set within a Japanese-style rock garden. Lush foliage and mossy boulders protrude from the neatly raked gravel, occasionally enveloped in white fog from a hidden smoke machine, while cherry blossoms hang overhead. Wooden decks and seating complete the atmospheric space, which also blends into a bookstore.

Seesaw Coffee designed by Nota Architects. Photography by Shiyun Qian

The branch, which opened earlier this year, is light-years away from the more minimalist interiors at Seesaw’s other locations, including a new spot in Beijing’s upscale WF Central shopping mall that opened in 2018. It’s easy to see why Seesaw Coffee may have embarked on a more topographical theme for its latest outlet—China’s generation Z consumers are enthusiastic experience seekers, and a larger percentage of Chinese gen Zers would opt for experiences over products than millennials, according to a January 2019 report by OC&C Strategy Consultants. Seesaw whisks these customers away from the chaos of the mall to a serene zen garden, without them ever needing to set foot outside.

Shanghai-based tea house Icha Chateau worked with local design studio Spacemen to create a high-end bar that conjures images of China’s iconic tea terraces. This is achieved via 35,000 meters of chains in multiple shades of gold, hung from the ceiling at varying lengths to create the illusion of depth, enveloping a narrow dining area marked by brass and gray terrazzo details.

Icha Chateau. Photography by Chen Xuan Min

Icha Chateau is just one example of China’s newest transportational tea shops, which are battling for market share in a city with the world’s largest and “most theatrical”Starbucks (according to the brand itself). Another tea cafe in Shanghai, Mistea, takes visitors into a futuristic forest, complete with curved wooden counters, tree-like green acrylic columns, and an ultra-reflective metallic ceiling. “The new environment signals to China’s reclamation of a space-forward tea culture,” according to Frame. “The focus on design is encouraged by a generation that is more willing to invest in products that provide them with a novel experience, even if that experience brings them back to their own heritage.”


Spanish architecture studio Clap opts for an outer-space theme at fashion boutique and cafe project Her, in that its layered terracotta walkway and oblong white fixtures seem as though they’re set on a faraway planet. Located in Hong Kong’s bustling Causeway Bay, Her’s interior is punctuated by an aluminum coffee counter where customers are served vacuum-packed food, nodding to the idea of an astronaut’s spacecraft. “We imagined Her as a sinuous landscape, with impressive mountains and pure materials—all together as a new space that’s yet to be discovered, like planet Mars,” the studio told Dezeen.

HER store. Photography by Daniel Rueda

In Tokyo, Nikunotoriko is a destination for yakinikuJapanese-style barbecue, just like countless other restaurants in the city. Except at Nikunotoriko, diners are ferried into the belly of a cave, thanks to the imagination of architect Ryoji Iedokoro. “You’ll find Japanese yakiniku restaurants everywhere,” Iedokoro told Dezeen. “It always tastes good, which makes the competition in Japan very high. To make a unique restaurant can thus be quite a challenge.”Iedokoro has opted for a translucent floor that mimics water underfoot, while low-lit, jagged walls round out the look. Floor-to-ceiling steel pipes that double as coat racks are surrounded by plants and bushes, as if to give visitors the impression they’re grilling their dinner in a campsite.

If these meta-destinations’ elaborate, organic environments are anything to go by, travel need not involve a plane or train—just a penchant for next-level culinary adventure.

Main image: Seesaw Coffee designed by Nota Architects. Photography by Shiyun Qian