How important is restaurant ambience?


Food, service, environment – they all need to be of a high standard and work in harmony in order for a diner to have a good experience. It’s not a secret formula, it’s something generally accepted by restaurateurs. But how important is each aspect? Should we be spending more time looking at how people feel when they are eating out and what effect would this have on the business?

Stress is getting more and more common, partly due to the huge increase in time we are spending ‘plugged in’. Now restaurants are looking to create an atmosphere with more of a relaxed feel in order to keep people in longer and help them switch off.

It is clear that health and well-being are becoming increasingly important in workplaces, to the point where concessions are being made for people to do exercise during the day, to have more flexible hours for a work-life balance, or even just in providing healthy options to eat and drink.

It’s not just hospitality either – Greater Manchester Police, for example, are starting to give their teams mindfulness sessions, and a wide range of other professions are recognising and making allowances for the more human elements of the workforce.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to look at restaurants as somewhere to relax at lunchtime and spend some time to switch off and have a proper break, rather than somewhere to simply grab something to eat on the run or back at our desks.

It is when thinking of relaxing over a meal that ambience becomes the most important aspect. Design is itself subjective, and the reasons whether or not we like a restaurant can often be subconscious and down to the way it ‘feels’. If it’s really wrong you may even find people getting up and leaving before they’ve ordered – obviously something to be avoided – but if it’s right, then people are likely to stay a lot longer, relax properly and probably spend more at the same time.

Few consumers really know good food on an expert level, but they know good restaurants, they know where they want to spend time and what they will pay money for, and it’s affected by myriad possibilities. Music is very important – do you need background music? If so how loud should it be? People want to be able to talk, so too loud and they can’t hear each other, but too soft and some are uncomfortable speaking at a normal volume. Music is closely linked to emotion and can have a profound effect on how we feel. Listening to one’s favourite music has been shown to lower feelings of tension, but a restaurant cannot necessarily play every customer’s favourite music – it’s about the feel and atmosphere in general.

Style of music is also very important. Too classical may discourage people from talking too loudly, whereas choosing rock or other genres could easily be inappropriate – it all needs to fit together.

This is where floors and walls become very important – there is a particular restaurant in London that has the potential to be incredibly relaxing and somewhere people could really escape, but the stone floor and flat, hard walls mean noise just reverberates around and creates a strange, echoey atmosphere. A shame, as the food and service is spot-on.

Comfort is also key and surroundings need to feel good to be in. Chairs, tables, walls, smells, draughts and light are all something to be considered, as are the choice of colour scheme and décor. Is it too jarring? If so it can be the opposite of relaxing. And as we have watched the rise of bench-style set-ups, seating considerations have become interesting. This option has been used by Wagamama and the like for years to create a convivial atmosphere and casual feel, but concepts such as Beast (pictured) have taken it a step further, with high-end cuisine eaten at a very wide, communal bench. And with a spend per head of around £200 not uncommon, it’s interesting the way they’ve taken this casual seating concept and used it in a high-end venue.

“Design is itself subjective, and the reasons whether or not we like a restaurant can often be subconscious and down to the way it ‘feels’”

Staff, of course, make a huge difference to ambience. When it comes to hosting it should be remembered that not all owners are necessarily good hosts. Making guests feel relaxed is a skill in itself and it should be valued. Some of the best hosts are not actually hospitality people at all, but are just naturally friendly people with outgoing personalities. It’s also worth noting that behaviour is contagious and staff should be able to read their guests and make them feel relaxed, whether it’s noticing when they need something, are looking for the ladies or gents, etc – a good encounter can really change someone’s day, which can have a positive effect on stress.

All these considerations are, of course, subjective and depend on the audience. Questions such as how old are they, can they hear and see properly, are there any accessibility issues in the venue? If any of these are the case, then the ambience will be even more important. Somebody who struggles to walk for whatever reason is unlikely to be happy and comfortable if they’ve just climbed four flights of stairs.

It’s also a cultural thing to an extent – famously reserved, there are restaurants in London where people don’t want to raise their voices but in European cities like Barcelona and Rome, you can be hard pressed to find somewhere where the clientele are not all yelling jovially, and yet they still feel like perfectly relaxed spaces.

Eating is one of life’s true pleasures, and it’s a shame not to be able to relax and enjoy the experience, particularly when other aspects of life are so hectic.