Bathrooms are often my favorite part of a restaurant’s design. Even though my selfie skills are subpar, I excitedly snapped a shot in the well–documented, colorful (but now permanently closed) bathroom at Please in Cincinnati. In the powder room at the Grill in New York, I touched up my red lipstick with the help of softly glowing globe lights affixed to the mirror, a look so iconic I eventually commissioned a small painting of the space. And at the now-shuttered Lalito on the Lower East Side — my favorite restaurant bathroom ever — I watched green dots strobe across the dim space and admired the lush faux plants that hung from the ceiling years ahead of the trend, all set to a looping soundtrack of Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight.” Lalito’s bathroom was transportive and weird and fun.
But before a restaurant bathroom can be as great as any of the ones above, it first needs to be good. And a restaurant bathroom simply cannot be good unless its doors have a lock that actually fucking works.
Truly, there is no status candle or mood lighting that can make up for someone walking in on you while you pee.
Restaurant bathrooms are private spaces in public places. They are where we go to hit pause, re-collect ourselves, and, especially when it comes to taking bathroom selfies, figure out which version of ourselves we want to bring back out into the dining room. They are also where we deal with our bladders and bowels and take care of some of our most basic physical needs. So it’s impossible to feel as cool as a restaurant’s design wants you to if you don’t feel relaxed when using the bathroom for its ultimate purpose. And to feel relaxed, you must first feel safe and secure. Truly, there is no status candle or mood lighting that can make up for someone walking in on you while you pee.
Too many restaurant bathroom stalls have broken slide-latch locks and perilous gaps between the door and the frame. And when you encounter a blessed single-occupancy restroom (truly the best and safest type of bathroom, particularly as hateful ‘bathroom bills’ put trans people in danger), push-button or twist-lock doorknobs are often deceptive.
There’s a particular dance I dread that goes something like this: I squint in fuzzy light at the door handle to make sure I understand how to lock it. I push the button in the handle’s lock but can’t tell whether it worked, so I go ahead and test the handle to determine if I have now unlocked it, proving I had successfully locked it in the first place. Then I relock it, head to the toilet, wonder if I, in fact, did relock it, go back, repeat at least one more time, and then just throw all caution to the wind and hope for the best.
The best bathroom locks are intuitive. My strong preference is for basic deadbolt-style locks because I can easily see when the lock is engaged. Deadbolt locks are also remarkably easy to operate while holding a paper towel, my preferred way of engaging with bathroom doors for sanitary reasons. And even though it kind of kills the vibe on the other side of the door, I also appreciate when bathrooms have a vacant/occupied indicator. There’s nothing quite like someone knocking to make you feel guilty for having a human body with human needs.
While seemingly not as big a decision as selecting a wallpaper or soundtrack, choosing the right lock is utterly essential. Restaurant bathrooms have long been where some of the best design in the business happens, but it’s also where our own business happens. And I’d prefer to keep mine — and yours — private, behind a door with a good lock.
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.