March 22, 2021

Lighting, furniture, decor, music, and of course, food, are the building blocks that make up a restaurant’s ambiance. The difficulty is knowing what to do with those elements to get the right result. How can you tell if the vibe is on or off? If business is slow, how do you know what you need to tweak?

There’s no simple formula. But there are some helpful places you can start looking for answers.

Listen to the Neighborhood

Independent restaurants are often hyper-local — right down to the neighborhood. What works in one part of town may not be a success just a few miles away. If your concept needs some adjusting, start by looking right in your own backyard.

In Austin, Texas, the owners of a successful gastropub expanded with a new concept in the southern part of town. They purchased an old dive bar and refreshed it into a living room lounge-style cocktail bar with a food truck.

The problem? In this business area, in a building that once welcomed the likes of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, the trendy vibe and slightly upscale food options weren’t what the community needed.

The owners listened, and did a full brand and atmosphere refresh. They changed their name from Nicolaza’s to The Far Out Lounge and Stage, playing on Austin’s musical heyday of the 1970s and the venue’s distance from the expensive downtown area.

Simple white walls made way for the oranges, pinks, and reds of the disco decade. And they went all-in on the music — especially important in “The Live Music Capital of the World,” when many of the city’s old venues are under threat by major development. The stage in their large backyard has live music seven days a week.

Rear view of the man sitting play acoustic guitar on the outdoor concert with a microphone stand

Focusing on the features of your restaurant’s neighborhood can help you create an inviting ambiance

The bar still has great cocktails, and several high-quality food trucks in the stage area give the whole backyard a music festival vibe. Now, The Far Out is one of the most popular dining, drinking, and gathering places in all of South Austin. By taking their cues from the neighborhood, the owners saved their venue and turned it into something more appropriate for the area.

Keep Up With Current Events

There’s no question that COVID-19 has had a major impact on the restaurant industry. It has forced many restaurants to rethink everything from their food to their sanitation policies to their internal operations. The result has been impressive creativity and innovation as business owners try to create a highly controlled atmosphere where guests can feel safe while still getting the social interaction we’re all craving.

Restaurant owners must stay agile, able to pivot and make changes quickly when events require it. Sometimes, these changes can actually be better for the restaurant in the long term.

Denmark’s Mediamatic ETEN restaurant created an enclosed yet expansive dining experience by adding mini greenhouses to their waterfront venue. This lets guests enjoy the beautiful views while sharing their meals in an intimate and safe space. Servers deliver meals on long wooden boards, so they don’t have to enter the greenhouses to serve their guests. The spaces are so fun and popular, they may keep the greenhouses even after COVID restrictions have eased.

outdoor decoration of the small glasshouses with dinner table and chairs on pale blue background

These mini greenhouses have let ETEN provide a fun, socially-distanced dining experience without compromising on the views

Embrace the Outdoors

People have always enjoyed dining alfresco, but the pandemic has made our appetite for the outdoors soar. Unfortunately, some restaurateurs treat their patio and deck spaces as an afterthought, instead of as an important space that needs its own special ambiance.

Embrace the outdoors for what it is, instead of trying to recreate an indoor experience on a patio. Use planters and greenery to mark out the space, and add speakers for music to help set the mood. Lighting is harder to control outside, but strings of café lights are nearly always a great way to cast a warm glow on a patio or deck.

Charleston, South Carolina, restaurant Babas on Cannon faces a sidewalk, so they had very little outdoor space to work with when the pandemic hit. But as a European-style café, they made the most of what they have — just like the cafés of Paris.

Charming outdoor sidewalk cafe in Paris, France with black and white chairs

A quaint sidewalk café in Paris, France

First, they added a couple small bistro tables to the sidewalk and an adjacent alley. They also worked with the city of Charleston to commandeer two parking spaces out front, to turn them into a tiny park-like patio. With bright greenery and cheerful umbrellas, they made this on-street patio feel like a tiny European oasis right in the heart of Charleston.

With the café’s Old World feel, this small scale approach to an outdoor space is just right.

Approach Sound From the Guest Perspective

The number one complaint about restaurants is bad service. Number two? Noise.

Ambient noise and music volume can be a difficult problem for staff and managers to recognize, since sound builds gradually throughout a shift. And over time, servers and bartenders get so used to the volume that they even develop something called “bar ears” — the ability to pick out conversation across the bar from among the din.

But for a guest who just walked in, the volume can be unbearable. Shouting your way through your meal to communicate with your dinner companions is an unpleasant way to spend an evening.

At Comal, a Mexican restaurant in Berkeley, California, they know how important sound is. The owner is a former band manager, so he knows how to create the right balance. He installed a state-of-the-art system that uses speakers and sound absorbing panels to either increase or decrease the noise level, based on time of day or busy-ness of the restaurant. It allows the restaurant managers to tweak the ambiance to make sure brunches are buzzy but relaxed, and dinners are more upbeat.

But you don’t have to invest in a pricey sound system to make sure your ears aren’t too attuned to the restaurant volume. A decibel meter can be a great place to start, giving you an honest reading of how loud the restaurant actually is. And if the problem is ambient noise rather than music, you may need to install some sound absorbing panels or drapery to help reduce the din to a hum.

Rely on Guest Feedback

As you start to improve your restaurant ambiance, remember that the best source of feedback is always your guests.

Online reviews are a great place to start. Avoid the grouchy one-star reviews for clues to restaurant ambiance. Instead, look at the three-to-five star reviews, where you’ll find an honest assessment of what people enjoy or would like you to change.

woman sitting in the street holding her smartphone looking for Tio Manolo restaurant
You can also ask the waitstaff and bartenders what they hear the most often from guests. Many guests will chat with their servers in person, but won’t go the extra step to leaving an online review.

Where to Start

An education that focuses on the guest experience could be the right starting point to building a restaurant with a can’t-miss ambiance. Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts online Associate degree in Food & Beverage Operations includes elements like working on a restaurant concept and psychology principles that may help graduates to better understand their customers.

Learn more about this exciting program — that you can complete from home!

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