Cracking the Casual Dining Code 

Three years ago, I introduced the world to the most difficult room in my house. On paper, it’s supposed to be a dining room, but a “formal meal” has never really been our style of entertaining—we much prefer casual dining! Plus, the room is so long that it’s earned the nickname “Bowling Alley.” Finding ways to repurpose the space has been awkward, to say the least. 

In the ten years, we’ve lived here, I have tried SO MANY ways to make this space useful for my family. Nothing has clicked yet. My last attempt, featured in West Elm’s blog, was to move the dining area to the other side of the room and add a welcoming seating area, transforming the space into a dual-purpose living room/dining room. 

Dark wood dining area, adjacent to grey couch seating area

It wasn’t a bad switch! But soon, we had abandoned both functions in the space… again. We obviously didn’t find a sustainable solution. When this happens, you know immediately the relationship factor hasn’t been fulfilled. There was no unique purpose for the room: we ate in the kitchen, and we hung out in the family room, so we never used this new living & dining space. 

Bright Living Space with grey couch and gallery wall

Many families have a room like this: an oddly shaped space that defies functionality and ends up collecting dust, no matter how beautifully it’s decorated. And now that we’re stuck inside our home most days, I’m extra-determined to find a solution. By returning to my core design methodology, I think I finally cracked the code.  

Finding the Why

My Anita Yokota Method emphasizes the importance of identifying the relationship-reason at the heart of every space. To be effective, the design needs a purpose! The first question to ponder when redesigning a home isn’t choosing from paint swatches or tile samples. It’s asking, “What do we want out of our house from a relationship perspective?” 

Consider how you want to feel in your home. How do you want to spend time with your family? What does it look like? Are your kids rough-housing with Dad on the family room floor? You’ll want space for that, and probably a soft area rug. Or, is everyone snuggled up on the couch for a movie night? Sounds like a cozy sectional is in order! 

I know, ALL THIS related to interior design, right? 

But seriously, thinking about how you want your family to interact within your home will help drive all the design decisions you’ll ever make. I could never imagine my family sitting down in assigned chairs at a regal table in order to have a meal. We’re so much more casual than that! I always loved that we gather in the kitchen — directly where the food is. 

Kitchen island seating between family room and kitchen

The eating area in our kitchen is super convenient. But SO SQUISHED. Ideally, I’d want an open area for easy traffic flow from the interiors to the backyard. However, we decided not to knock down the kitchen walls. This isn’t our forever home, and even if it makes sense from a design POV, sometimes we can’t convince our wallets (or our partners). 

So we are going to save the money and make the Bowling Alley work for us. Even though I love my casual kitchen-dinner vibes, we really don’t want to feel squished in between the Kitchen and Family Room anymore. We want to freely walk about! Maybe even extend the kitchen island (more projects, muahahah!) instead of trying to cram all our activities in one room. 

Talk about small space living transformation! Our squeezed in ...

This means our family will have to make a very significant lifestyle change: taking our food around the corner to the Dining Room. At this prospect, I found myself reconsidering a new approach to an old problem—re-envisioning my family at a dining table. This calls for something very functional and inviting! A solution that will make our Dining Room feel like an extension of the Kitchen. And then it hit me. Benches. 

Our six new maiden ferns mounted on the wall

I love the breakfast nook feel for an alternative to formal dining, and the additional storage space is a blessing in crisp, clean, coastal disguise. Plus, our dinnertime headcount is no longer limited to available chairs: anyone can slide on in! It’s a match made in design methodology heaven… and an opportunity to flex some DIY skills. 

Finding the DIY

Building benches became our eyes-on-the-prize goal, and Travis took to carpentry like a reluctant fish coerced by his partner into water. I drew him what I wanted, we discussed and watched a million YouTube videos. Plus, I am lucky enough to know a cabinet trader who can answer last-minute questions when we run into trouble.

One trip to the hardware store later, and we’re in business. We started with pine 2×4’s for the frame, ½” thick MDF for the paneling and trim, plywood for the covers, and a LOT of wood screws. But more than anything, we used our communication skills. As two licensed therapists, we approach household projects as a relationship journey, and we both know it’s important to touch base often and offer empathy while solving problems. 

DIY bench banquette

Anyone who has ever put together IKEA furniture with a partner knows that taking on a DIY project with your spouse is no joke. We are 100% self-taught, and this is our largest wood-working project, although the garden boxes we built earlier this summer make a close second. We are SO PROUD of ourselves! Infamously detailed, Mr. Meticulous is really proving himself to be a great carpenter! 

DIY bench banquette

Everything starts with the frame, and we began with the window side of our L-shaped bench. We decided the box itself would be 87” long, 22” from the wall, and 18” tall. Using the 2x4s, we created two identical 86”x 21” rectangles for the top and bottom of the bench, (that’s one inch less to account for the thickness of the MDF side panels and trim) and these are joined at the corners by four vertical pieces of equal length: we used 10¼” pieces for a box that is a total 18” deep. Travis’ precision was perfect for this task: measure twice and cut once! 

Next, we built the shorter side of our L, which isn’t even the full length of the short side. To find the right measurements, we took the length we wanted, 98”, then subtracted the width of our first frame, 21”, plus an extra 1” for panel and trim thickness. Our second frames were 76” x 21”. We added 4 more 10¼” upright corner pieces to create a box of the same depth as our first. 

From here, we strengthened the frame with vertical and horizontal reinforcements. This meant cutting more 2x4s into seven 17½” and six 10¼” pieces that we added to the longer box, and another six 17½” and six 10¼” pieces for the shorter box. We used that seventh 17½” piece in the corner where the two boxes intersected for extra reinforcement.  

While we used regular construction screws to secure the horizontal supports, the vertical supports require an extra-long screw to get through the 2x4s, which are 3½” wide. We opted to use pocket screws since we had already perfected this technique working on the garden boxes!  

Our ratchet screwdriver proved indispensable when installing the support beams, since our power drill didn’t fit in the small space. We put in 72 pocket hole screws in just one day, PHEW. All this while avoiding TikTok-ing teens, making dinner, and managing the little ones. 

We have zero childcare so we have learned to be flexible, creative, and extend lots of grace toward one another—especially through mid-project realizations that send us back and forth to the hardware store. (Thank goodness for minivans!) After some research, it turns out MDF is okay for tabletops but can sag when you sit on it. We decided on plywood for the seat instead, which will hinge at the top to turn the bench into storage! 

We still used MDF for the face of our fully-framed shaker style bench, using the circular saw to cut at a 45° angle, so the pieces would join together flush at the corners. Cutting MDF produces more sawdust than other woods and releases cancer-causing chemicals into the air, so we vacuumed a TON as we cut and sanded to keep the dust down. 

One of the smartest decisions we made was to paint all the pieces before assembling. We rented a pro-grade paint sprayer for the project, and Travis got extra meticulous when it came to tarping down our yard. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise: the pain sprayer splattered EVERYWHERE before we refined our technique. In the end, the sprayer gave us a nice, smooth finish we never would have achieved with brushes, but it was a messy work-in-progress! 

We finished by adding the painted MDF panels with wood glue and a nail gun, and screwed on our hinged plywood seats. The result is a clean, beautiful window seat that looks perfect with or without the dining table! It was important that in taking on this big, bespoke build that the final product work for the room long-term, even if my 7th attempt at this room doesn’t last. But with a space that looks this good, I’m not worried at all.  

Our finished bench, complete with casual dining table

Finding the Right Cushions to Buy

What are benches without comfy cushions, anyway? When we started our search for our custom seat cushion, we were insanely picky. After all, these cushions will sit atop our beloved bench, built with sweat, bruises, and many patient conversations. They had to be perfect

Our new, Sunbrella cushions!

Our criteria were firm: We knew we wanted a single-seat, instead of multiple slip-slidey pillows. It would be important for the cushion to last since we plan to use our new dining nook daily. With three kids, spills are inevitable, so our ideal seat needs to be durable, wear-resistant, and easy to clean. And beautiful. Of course.

We ultimately landed on Sunbrella. Performance-durable and family-friendly, they’re stain-resistant and super easy to clean. Plus, unlike the other options that touted endurance as a strength, Sunbrella fabrics are soft and cozy. We know that our new cushions will last—and look good doing it. 

We still needed to pick out fabric! Sunbrella had a lot of great options to choose from. I waffled a long time between their geometric and marble options, and finally landed on this incredible indigo tie-dye style that gives us the best of both worlds. The print is bold, but it blends into one cohesive design with a repetitive, monochromatic theme. Plus, blue is my favorite color! 

A punchy fabric is a great way to infuse color and pattern into space without feeling too busy or overwhelming. Pick something symmetrical with one bold color and notice how space brightens with a fresh, dynamic element! A print can really thrive when it isn’t competing for visual attention with other loud colors and patterns.

Kitchen island seating between family room and kitchen

I pondered painting the windowless wall varying shades of blue/green to match. You LOVED helping me on IG with the decision process! I still love the blues we picked out, but in the end, a fresh, white wall is best. I plan to add a unique architectural detail to our wall in the near future, and I remembered… It is A LOT of work to paint over dark paint. Good point. Better to use our time wisely.

So instead of blue paint, I added plants! They make any space really come alive, adding dramatic interest while helping to clean the air inside our home—an ideal feature in cities where air quality fluctuates. I absolutely adore living walls, and I have been trying to create one in our own home forever. It was only a matter of time after gawking at hundreds of plant decor images on Pinterest.

Our six new maiden ferns mounted on the wall

The maiden fern is one of my most favorite plants. They are simply ethereal and airy and magical. Maiden ferns can be a bit finicky in sunny LA since they love the shade, but that feature actually makes them perfect for this darker corner. We removed the shutter, letting in the perfect amount of light for them. They get some sun, but for the most part, it is nice and shady. I think I could stand to add another row, to be honest. Don’t be surprised if by next week you see another set of ferns up there! 

And the fiddle. Man, I love a good fiddle fig plant! He is by far the biggest one I have committed to, and I truly hope I’m able to be a good plant mama. We love adding plants to our home because they are proven mood-boosters and add lots of life and natural color to a room while absorbing excess noise. I always feel like I can take a deep breath when I’m in a plant-based space! 

The textured, woven pendant light over the table

We polished off the decor with Target’s Opalhouse light. The seagrass material is perfect and echoes the room’s natural textures for a beachy, yet modern feel. The oversize dome shape softens the straight lines from the bench and windows and casts a warm glow that looks like light between the leaves of a big tree. Very dreamy.

Finding New Perspectives to Try

After ten years of struggling with this room, we are SO ready to start enjoying this space again! I really think that this time, our hard-won efforts will stick, and we’ll be hanging out in our new dining nook as long as we live in this house. Already, I’m loving retreating to the table with a snack when the kitchen feels too full, or I want a little one-on-one time with my youngest.

Anita and Natalie having snacks in the new dining nook

It all goes to show that there’s a method to the madness: the Anita Yokota Method, to be exact! At the core of every room, there should be a purpose and maybe even a problem to solve, like our need for more space in the kitchen. This certainly frees me up to start thinking about remodeling that room next… Just kidding, Travis! All joking aside, I’m so grateful to have a hands-on partner that helps make our dream home a reality. 

DIY banquette bench seating dining plants living wall

This project is also a great example of how a room’s purpose doesn’t need to reflect its style or approach. “Dining Room” doesn’t have to mean stiff or formal. Approach any room with a casual perspective and an understanding of how you want to relate within the space, and the possibilities become endless—no assigned seating required.

Xo,

Anita 

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