How can I make the ambience in my restaurant more convivial?

30 November 2006
How can I make the ambience in my restaurant more convivial?

Why do customers feel they need to talk in hushed tones in my restaurant? We play light classical background music and staff are instructed to talk in an everyday voice, but people feel they should adopt a church-like whisper both in conversation and when ordering. How can I make the ambience more convivial?

Peter Hepworth, Hepworth Acoustics

The way in which people speak in public places is often a reflection of how comfortable they feel and how at ease they are with their surroundings. If customers are speaking in hushed tones, it's an indication that they don't feel fully at ease.

It may be that the music level in your restaurant is too low. Some people will lower their voice if they don't feel comfortable with the level of acoustic privacy in a room. If the level is too low, they may feel inhibited at the thought of other customers being able to listen in on their conversations, and therefore speak in hushed tones. Playing the music a little louder will provide them with a greater sense of acoustic privacy and should encourage them to talk normally.

The knack is to find the level of music that provides acoustic privacy without forcing clients to raise their voices too much. Try gradually raising the level of music and note the response. If customers start talking at a normal volume, then you've found the appropriate level.

It's also possible that the style of music might also be influencing their behaviour. The light classical music may be creating too much of a "concert hall" atmosphere. This might encourage customers to be quiet and therefore reluctant to talk.

A different style of music such as "dinner jazz" might create a more relaxed and convivial ambience. It would be worthwhile trying out some different styles, listening to the response and getting feedback from customers on whether they prefer the new music style.

Chris Morton, Chris Morton Associates

There are three possible answers, and the solution may be a mix of them all. It could lie in the design and decor, the welcome received by guests, the type of customer you attract or a combination of all three.

Why and when are people quiet? It's often when they feel reverential, nervous and uncertain, intimidated, overheard, out of place or simply because they have nothing to say.

• Design and decor. How comfortable do diners feel? Are the atmosphere and furniture overbearing to the point of intimidation? Harsh surfaces, wooden floors, bright lights, bare walls and open areas can all create a stark, intimidating feel, particularly during quiet times.

Try changing the music to something more contemporary - not everyone dines well to Vivaldi. Test volume levels too. Talk to the local college design department. They may have some great ideas for free.

• The welcome. It may be better to employ a host with no trade experience but an outgoing and friendly manner. One of the best appointments I ever made was a former trumpet player with real personality. Not all owners make the best hosts either.

• The customer. Do you attract mainly couples, particularly young romantics or middle-aged "said-it-alls" who are much quieter than groups? Larger groups are noisier and less easily intimidated by the prevailing atmosphere. Are groups welcomed and marketed to? Are there enough customers to make the restaurant buzz - or do diners feel "on show"?

Why do people dine with you? To celebrate (sounds unlikely) or to enjoy a quiet meal away from busy family pubs and unruly areas? Depending on your market, you may have got it right, particularly if you have large numbers of repeat customers.

Robbie Bargh, Gorgeous Group

We're all so typically English when it comes to eating and chatting. We don't like to raise our voices in restaurant environments. I've just returned from Barcelona, where there's no such thing as a quiet, hushed and subdued atmosphere in a restaurant.

To create a more convivial atmosphere, first you need to look at the lighting. Changing the lighting can give you a completely different look and feel. There are some fantastic products out there, ranging from Tom Dixon copper balls to Chameleon LED lights. Low lighting and perhaps candlelight at tables should create a warmer atmosphere and encourage guests to chill out and relax.

Second, you should consider the volume and type of music being played. These two factors affect guests' behaviour. You could also try playing no music at all and see if this changes the ambience for the better.

Third, staff should be trained to remember that the best restaurants are those where guests don't know they're being served; they are, in fact, simply being looked after.

Last, I would say that behaviour breeds behaviour, and managers or owners need to lead by example, be able to read their guests and make them feel at ease. This can include looking at the design, lighting and music in a room, but most important, encouraging them to chill out and enjoy themselves.

After all, eating out is a natural part of the life we live today; not being able to relax and enjoy the experience would indeed be a sad thing.

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