Why theme is so important when nurturing the perfect atmosphere for a restaurant

Some time ago, the BBC put out a poll asking the public how they’d define their ideal atmosphere in a restaurant. 76% of respondents answered ‘relaxed’. 7% preferred a ‘formal fine dining’ setting, while 17% wanted a ‘busy and exciting’ ambience.

I don’t know about you, but in this context I’ve always found ‘relaxed’ to be subjective, if not entirely ambiguous. I wonder if this 76% figure suggests much of the population do too – at least in my experience, the amount of restaurants, even casual ones, in which you can actually feel relaxed (loud music and cramped seating arrangements are just a couple of aspects which play a part) seems quite disproportionate to the restaurants that market themselves to be exactly that.

So what, then, creates an atmosphere? What makes one good? And do these labels – such as ‘relaxed’­ – get more attention than they deserve?

It’s worth noting that atmosphere, like food, should appeal to the senses. Just as with food, first impressions are dependant on what you see. When providing a space in which to eat, received knowledge if not common etiquette suggests establishing a happy middle ground between a dimly lit room and a bright one. Then again, if you’ve been to Smokestak’s restaurant in Shoreditch, relatively speaking you can hardly see a thing. But that’s ok – the restaurant’s interior does a good job of reflecting the gritty, smoky, and industrial connotations their barbeque food its based around.

Like with Smokestak, thematics should be top priority when trying to create an ideal atmosphere. Take one step into Rules’ couple hundred year-old dining room, and due to the restaurant’s impressive history you’ll see on the walls an eye-widening amalgam of oil paintings, marble busts, stag and antelope antlers, and framed Leslie Smith Vanity Fair originals. But then you have St John: largely the antithesis of all that. Bare walls painted milk-white, wooden floorboards a little worn out, and the bordering-on-iconic black and white branding. Again, all in keeping with St John’s philosophy of seeking the pleasures found in simplicity.

It’s clear then that tasteful and abundant decoration doesn’t necessarily build an atmosphere. The same is true of acoustics – St John doesn’t put on music for its guests. A fact which, given the restaurant’s sustaining popularity and base of regular frequenters, few seem to snub. Honestly, this could be more welcome across the board ­– music which requires diners to strain their vocal cords during what should be casual chatter is still too common an issue than it should be, especially when dining rooms are not equipped with soft furniture or curtains to soak up the noise.

When music licensing costs can be an extra headache for restaurateurs, few might protest. But then, music should often be part of the occasion. Live Jazz at Boisdale with your supper is one of the main draws, while the house band at Brasserie Zedel provide a tranquil ­– if unexpected – ambiance to what would otherwise be a drop-in Saturday lunch. If it’s not live performance, then considerations for no music at all can be just as significant as those for a Spotify 80s playlist on shuffle.

Zedel Brasserie

Another thing these restaurants have done well is dedicate special attention to table layouts. This goes beyond the simple things, like not putting covers in a corner next to the loos, or behind a draughty door. True enough, spacing between tables is almost an art itself, as you’ll want the dining room to seem busy even when it’s not. But as to what positioning is the right positioning depends on the guests – is this a place where they want their own intimacy, or are they happy to rub elbows with strangers? In the right setting, the latter isn’t as bad as it sounds. Le Pain Quotidien’s communal tables in each branch hark back to the chain’s beginning, when founder Alain Coumont furnished the first restaurant with items he picked up from the local flea market ­­– a rather long table, made from reclaimed wood from the floors of Belgian trains, being one of them. In the same breath, Flesh & Buns’ long communal tables are specifically designed to imitate Japanese drinking dens.

These days, with more and more emphasis on food quality, and less on everything else, you might think atmosphere isn’t a priority. What with the ubiquity of exposed brickwork, naked light bulbs, and the like. Modern trends such as that which sees increasing numbers of street food businesses move to permanent sites, have carried this school of thought forward. But not always to good effect.

So forget the labels: what a makes a good atmosphere should be less about how ‘relaxed’ the diner is considered to be, and more about how well the restaurant’s ambience is in tune with its character and what it aims to represent.

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