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How to balance ambiance and aesthetics

Good ambiance balances aesthetics with customer comfort.
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The first night Memphis po’boy shop The Second Line opened its doors, Chef Kelly English knew he had a problem. “The noise was unnerving,” he recalls of that time in 2013.

He remedied the problem with a simple fix: installing standard, inexpensive sound panels—“exactly what anyone could go online and order,” he says—and immediately he noticed a difference. “The good thing about those sound panels is they dampen out what you want to be background and white noise,” English says. “They really worked for us.”

According to a 2015 Zagat national dining trends survey, loud restaurants are a deal breaker for guests—noise is the No. 2 complaint (second only to poor service). And some operators’ desire for trendiness, whether to create a bustling environment or follow the latest industrial-inspired design trends, is only amplifying the issue. The trick is finding ways to accommodate conversation while staying true to the concept’s style and vibe.

At Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland, Calif., owner Bob Klein chose a system that would provide him state-of-the-art noise control, transforming his fine-dining space into what he calls “the magic room.” In addition to padding the ceiling with wood fiber, Klein installed large, sound-dampening panels printed with photographs that eliminate reverberation. In addition, Oliveto is decked out with 19 microphones and 42 speakers that adjust the sound depending on room occupancy. This equipment samples ambient sound and remits it back, reintroducing white noise at a comfortable level while masking conversation. Despite the high price tag (the whole system can run into six figures), Klein insists that it’s worthwhile.

But noise is not always bad for business. “Our data suggests it’s an overall pleasant and welcoming atmosphere that consumers rate as most important,” says Jackie Rodriguez, senior manager at Chicago researcher Technomic. “This gives operators some leeway in managing noise levels depending on their concept positioning.”

Eli Kirshtein, co-owner of The Luminary in Atlanta, embraces noise at his French-inspired brasserie, located inside a large food hall. “People are always talking about making restaurants quieter,” he says. “Sometimes we’ve found that we want the restaurant to be a little louder. We believe that you can create a more convivial feel, and it can liven up the atmosphere.”

Design elements compartmentalize the sound: Glass windows, hard surfaces and a mirror against the wall crank up the volume at the bar, while ceiling soffits, linen tablecloths and padded seats mute sound in the more intimate dining areas with table seating.

Music is another pivotal touch point when it comes to atmosphere. According to Technomic, music is a deciding factor for about half of consumers when choosing a casual-dining spot to visit. In addition, almost all consumers who rated a restaurant’s music highly also gave high marks for their overall experience. Kirshtein uses music to his advantage at The Luminary by keeping it low on weekdays and turning it up on weekends to increase the social atmosphere. This strategy establishes an emotional connection for guests and enhances the dining experience, he finds. 

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