The art of ambience

Organising your restaurant space to its best effect is a fine art.

Organising your restaurant space to its best effect is a fine art.

From comfortable seats to soothing sounds, getting the right look and feel for your restaurant is an art all of its own, writes Nicole Azzopardi.

The large-scale designer

Peter Maddison

Peter Maddison Architects

From Melbourne’s Able Baker Charlie to Sydney’s1960s-inspired cafe/restaurant, Henry Henry, architect and designer Peter Maddison is busy blurring the lines between art and interior design to create restaurant ambience that is fresh and inviting.

For Maddison, the key ingredient when creating a room that works is originality.

“Design is very important to the success of the overall business,” he says.

“Have your own concept and have an edge. Don’t be afraid to have a personality. Collect newspaper cuttings, magazine articles, photographs of anything you like the look of. Get a folio of things you like, write ideas down, perhaps they’re things you’ve seen overseas.”

Knowing your market is vital when designing a space, Maddison advises. The better you know your demographic, the better you can cater to their tastes. “It’s a complex beast. For example, there’s no point putting fast food at the top of Eureka Tower.”

Quality and consideration of the space when it came to hosting guests made a big difference to the success of the business. It’s the detail that hallmarks the business and enriches a diner’s experience, Maddison says.

“You want to have people move through a space and be comfortable with the openness or density of the space you’re in,” he says.

“Consider the type of lighting—is it soft and moody? You can spend a lot on one beautiful light, but it just might be too big for the space, or too low. Or perhaps it needs to be fine-tuned or adjusted on the spot?

“How is the room acoustically? Can you hear that person? Is the person too high or too low from the table? These are all considerations of human comfort and all things that affect people.”

The furniture expert

Marnie Hammond

Café Culture

For Café Culture director Marnie Hammond, creating ambience starts with research.

“Take the time to find out what others are doing in their area,” she says.

“Define what market you are trying to target. Speak to other restaurant owners and find out what works for them and what doesn’t.”

Being realistic about your brief and your budget are also crucial considerations when it comes to a fit-out.

“It’s important to determine what you want out of your business. For example, will you sell in 12 months or will you be there in five years?

“Whatever the option, your fit-out has got to be fashionable and up-to-the-minute. It might not need to cost a lot, but it shouldn’t look cheap.”

While the design process can be overwhelming, Hammond has a few tips for the budget-conscious.

“You can afford to cut costs back on tables,” she says. “Spend more on chairs—people notice them more. The plainest black in table bases are best. They blend in and are inexpensive.”

Choose products that are designed to handle a wide range of people, Hammond advises. “Furniture at home is different to furniture in a cafe,” she says.

“Choose something commercial-warrantied and something that can handle anything people throw at it. Try and find stuff that can be refurbished later down the track. For example, solid timber table tops can be re-sanded and refinished after a few years of wear and tear.”

For Hammond’s money, selecting furniture with warmth and a variety of textures is the way to go.

Break up solid colours with grained timber and patterned fabric, different textures and layers of colour.

“For me, a warm, textured environment that’s comfortable feels like the people have made an effort in their space to make you feel at home,” she says.

“They want you stay and take your time. Not just grab a take-away, but actually sit down and have a coffee, maybe even two.”

The builder/designer

Peter Barrie


Peter Barrie has been a builder of interior fit-outs for 24 years and managing director of Insitu for nine years.

Having supplied furniture to restaurants such as Taxi, SOS and The Undertaker, Barrie believes the right choice of furniture can make a big difference to the impact a restaurant makes.

“Take your time, review all options and select your furniture early,” Barrie says.

“Consider all your requirements. Of course, dollars come into it, so define what the budget is first.”

As a fit-out specialist, Barrie says he enjoys restaurants which display new ideas with a contemporary feel.

“A lot of people use the same old chairs and tables,” he says.

“I think that’s a bit boring. There are a million options.”

A lot of decisions are made quite late regarding furniture according to Barrie, with many restaurant owners then limited to what is immediately available.

“It can be scary to take that leap, and not every furniture supplier keeps endless supplies of stock,” he says.

“You can avoid that by considering the furniture in the initial stages. It takes around 10 to 20 weeks to build a restaurant. If you choose the furniture early, the options become endless.”

There is also an art to the selection. Barrie advises against buying chairs that don’t stack; stacking chairs help when it comes to reconfiguring the restaurant.

“Chairs also need to be durable, you don’t want cheap product that is going to fall apart,” he says.

“It depends on the décor, but you could avoid using white legs on chairs and tables, as they scuff.”

And the fastest way to make a bad impression when Barrie is in the house is by having excessive cooling or uncomfortable air-conditioning.

“A restaurant’s look and feel is a diner’s first impression,” he says.

“There’s nothing worse than a vent blowing straight in your face.”

The sound specialist

Michael Guest


Whether you’re into Michael Jackson or Mozart, your music selection and sound system set up can have diners turning up or tuning out—and changing their own tunes.

Psychologists have found that playing French music in supermarkets can cause people to start buying French wine, but switch to German tunes and customers find themselves gravitating towards the Rieslings.

“The quality of music in a venue can really make or break a place,” Bose’s Michael Guest says.

“We are finding in the retail sector that there is a very large emphasis on the programming material and volume. In the same way, the right application of music in a restaurant or hotel environment can help customers subconsciously want to stay and want to purchase.”

But how do you go about selecting the right audio system with the right sound?

“Quality sounds starts with quality systems,” Guest says. “Just as a poorly recorded piece of music will result in poor quality sound, music
will sound inferior without a good amplifier, stereo system and speakers.

“Some people try to save on certain areas. They buy a $10 speaker and hook it up to a $1000 amp and wonder why it doesn’t sound any good.”

According to Guest, avoiding and correcting hotspots are one of the major challenges when fitting a sound system into a venue.

“It’s important to have even coverage in a space,” he says.

“The music needs to be loud enough to be above the ambient noise. It seems like an easy thing, but a lot of people mess it up.”

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