The quest for ambience

The private room at Flying Fish, Sydney, designed by Dreamtime Australia Design.

The private room at Flying Fish, Sydney, designed by Dreamtime Australia Design.

How do you keep your restaurant looking trendy without spending a fortune? First step, says a leading designer, is to avoid trends…

When considering a facelift for your restaurant or cafe, it may be tempting to try and emulate the latest looks sported by the big names in the game. Michael McCann, principal of Dreamtime Australia Design (responsible for such stunning fit-outs as Sydney’s Flying Fish restaurant and Bavarian Bier Cafés) thinks differently.

McCann believes that perceived trends in design should be avoided. Instead, he says you should strive to enhance the natural attributes of your location, adding just a “touch” of your concept to allow diners to connect with your vision.

“Ambience,” he says, “is the most important ingredient in generating repeat business and maximising the average cheque potential, followed by food, value-for-money then service.” The right ambience can only be established with reference to your concept. A concept is distinguished from a theme, in that it is not so much an extension of your choice of cuisine, but an extension of your unique brand. In other words, according to McCann, “The most successful interiors are not a collection of furniture and light fittings from international showrooms, but a cohesive array of designs, furniture and light fittings that… fit and enhance that concept.”

In planning a refurbishment of any scale, the main thing to consider, according to McCann, is what your restaurant or cafe looks like, as well as its existing potential attributes. The starting point is the layout of the establishment.

“Trying to decorate a space that does not feel welcoming or does not spatially ‘work’ is usually a total waste of money,” says McCann. “If you can achieve an exciting layout – forget about the finishes, but a ‘good feeling’ layout—this takes tremendous pressure off the fit-out finishes, as you’re already halfway there.” Unfortunately, not all restaurateurs have the budget to consider a complete demolition or relocation. So how do you work with what you already have?

McCann says a good starting point is to study each table in your dining area and ask, “What are the guests at each seat looking at during their meal? What are they experiencing? Are they comfortable with what they see? Are they excited to be sitting there? Will they want to come back?” Only then can you work on creating a consistent ambience that your customers can all share in.

Ambience, however, is not solely about visual appeal. A diner’s experience will be informed by all of their senses. Acoustics play a large part in establishing the mood of a restaurant or cafe, and in ensuring repeat business. Think carefully about the mood you wish to create and then manage the acoustics and any music accordingly. This doesn’t have to be expensive. For example, there are a number of artistic wall panelling options on the market that can perform the dual function of managing sound while offering visual appeal.

“Ambience is the most important ingredient in generating repeat business and maximising the average cheque potential.” Michael McCann, principal, Dreamtime Australia Design

We’ve all heard the claims that up to 90 per cent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. Accordingly, the way your restaurant smells will have a significant impact on a diner’s overall experience. The sense of touch, too, will have a role to play. This can be aided through the use of natural fibres, and smooth finishes. Seating should be comfortable, but also fit in with your concept. Consider how close the diners will be seated together. Are you trying to create a sense of intimacy or a relaxed vibe? Will your diners prefer formal seating, booths, or even daybeds?

Visually, McCann says, “Lighting is the single cheapest method of creating drama and excitement.” It is not just about purchasing an of-the-moment woven birdcage pendant lamp. Consideration needs to be given to the look and mood you are trying to achieve. Brilliant lighting forms a cornerstone of every one of Dreamtime Australia Design’s projects, and the team have taken a number of creative approaches to achieve drama, including positioning open-plan kitchens at centre stage, and incorporating statement light fittings, fireplaces, natural light, and lit water features. It is important that the lighting you do select accentuates the right features within your concept while downplaying any inherent structural or layout flaws.

Colours, when chosen carefully, can also enhance the ambience of your restaurant or cafe. When it comes to choosing the right colours, McCann warns against following the apparent trend in residential and office design of leaving the walls white and bare, as this is not suited to the hospitality environment. Your choice of colours should be informed by your concept, and may involve the use of bold hues, rich earthy tones, or perhaps a neutral palette to make the space welcoming.

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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