I conducted an ethnographic study of an old Berkeley favorite—Top Dog. Through literary research, observational investigations, and semantic interviews, I gathered the emic, etic and and historical perspectives of Top Dog's microculture. I used this information to propose a modified design that would enhance the cultural experience and functionality of the space.



Top Dog is a local hot dog and sausage diner with four locations in Berkeley and Oakland, California. Founded in 1966, Top Dog is emblematic of Berkeley’s highly political and liberal past. The ironic posters, bumper stickers and signs distributed along the shop’s walls create a casual and engaging environment for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The shop is approximately 250 square feet, not including the storage units in the back and the basement. The bar counter divides the interior into the public space for customers and private space for employees. Behind the shop is an office and storage room for Top Dog employees. The private space facilitates a triangular workflow between the grill, the cash box and the drink machine. This arrangement allows the counter person to remain engaged with the customers at all times.


Based on my initial visits to Top Dog, I observed that the space was extremely cramped both in the private and public spaces. In the private portion of the shop, I attempted to provide greater mobility for the counter person by moving the grill to the southern wall and the small counter to the eastern wall. I also proposed adding a window along the eastern wall to provide the counter person with greater air circulation and natural light. In the public area of the shop, I proposed moving the condiments bar to the western wall to open up the circulation path between the two entrances.

The Inside Scoop

I conducted several interviews with one of the Top Dog staff to understand the culture from an insider's perspective. From these interviews, I learned that Top Dog's microculture is built on concepts of freedom, personal responsibility, and critical thought. These values pervade all aspects of the shop ranging from the business structure to the interior decor. Hierarchically, Top Dog employs a system of minimal management where all employees are expected to fulfill their duties without instruction. This strategy deconstructs traditional top-down management and empowers employees with a sense of autonomy and individuality. The interior decor reflects these same values through "propergander," a collection of witty, politically outspoken, and ironic cartoons, posters, newspaper clippings, comics and bumper stickers taped to the various vertical surfaces throughout the shop.

Taxonomy illustrating the social workflow of Top Dog's space.

Taxonomy illustrating the social workflow of Top Dog's space.

the history

Gastronomic environments have facilitated social interaction and community bonding throughout history. Beginning in the 1600s ranging to the postwar 1950s, cafes and coffee shops in England provided a place for economic and cultural sharing for businessmen, journalists, actors, and the Avant-garde youth. Similarly, American diners fostered an equalizing environment for working American men (and later American families) to discuss news, politics, and sports. These typological precedents have set deep and lasting cultural associations between informal food environments, social interaction, and political sharing.

Like its predecessors, Top Dog encourages an informal, politically outspoken, and interactive environment. Its emphasis on freedom, individuality and critical thought closely resembles the English Cafe. However, Top Dog is a distinctly American experience. The shop's bar-counter, exposed kitchen, immobile diner stools, and stainless steel appliances all echo aesthetics of the traditional 1950s American diner.

my observations

The Business Space:
Top Dog’s business model is all about optimizing the small. Because only a single person conducts the shop at any one time, the space behind the counter must facilitate fast transactions and convenience for the counter person. I realized that the existing configuration of the cash drawer, drink stand, and grill created a highly efficient, triangular workflow that allows the counter person to constantly scan the crowd for new customers or potential problems.

The Customer Space:
I recognized two main flaws in the customer space of the shop. Firstly, there was significant congestion and crowding around the condiment bar. Secondly, young customers (mostly Cal students) were much less engaged in the shop's social environment than their politically charged predecessors, preferring their smartphones to the propergander covering the walls.


Final Redesign

I chose to keep the original layout for the private space and applied all of my modifications in the public space. I recognized that the kitchen layout was already optimized for business and that the retro decor held cultural importance. My most significant change was a new bar counter and large open window in the front wall of the shop. The intent of this change was to reengage customers in the social environment and establish a greater connection between the interior of the shop and the customers on the sidewalk. The additional counter would create a greater sense of place by providing a space for people to stop and eat instead of simply picking up a dog to go. I addressed the congestion between the entrances by moving the condiments bar to the west wall. This shift opened up the passage in front of the bar counter, creating a clear path of circulation through the shop.