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November 21, 2013updated May 31, 2022

What Makes a Good Restaurant Atmosphere?

It’s about more than just a dining room away from home.

By Elite Traveler

Which are the best restaurants for atmosphere and how do they create it?

A restaurant’s atmosphere sets the stage. It’s about more than just a dining room away from home. Food takes the spotlight as guests become its audience. Factors such as music, lighting, artwork and spacing combine to create comfort, intimacy and even romance.

“Atmosphere – it’s of the utmost importance. It’s very key. The lighting has to be right. And table settings have to as well. It’s about trying to space tables out nicely so you have that atmosphere no matter how busy you are,” says Scott Andrews, operations manager at hotel and restaurant Gidleigh Park.

The Devon destination received two stars as well as four forks and spoons for comfort in the 2014 Great Britain & Ireland Michelin Guide. He explains just how much thinking goes into dining room layouts.

“We try to ensure people aren’t sat on top of each other. They have a good amount of space between them. We need to look at that very carefully. If you have a large table in a dining room you want to make sure they’re away from others. We try not to put small tables in with large ones because they’d just get overpowered. There are so many elements you have to take into mind,” he says.

Artwork also plays a part. Paintings hang on the walls of Gidleigh Park as they do at many restaurants. Andrews says: “It sets the mood to portray to your guests. It also gives them a point of interest. There’s nothing worse than staring at a bare wall. You do need a focal point in any room but nothing too overpowering.”

Gidleigh Park’s architecture and surroundings provide the best art of all: its large dining room windows frame a view of the 109-acre garden. Outside’s greenery blends in with the interior wooden walls to match the color palette of the landscape. It takes advantage of its location in the Devon countryside.

That emphasis on nature also applies to Gidleigh Park’s treatment of sound. Andrews says the restaurant avoids music because it would otherwise overpower the three small dining rooms there. It instead allows natural noise from the space to provide that tune.

“Atmosphere comes from guests, their conversations, the clinking of glasses and cutlery. It’s a very relaxed environment. Our guests have always preferred not to have music. We’ve had a lot of comments on the positives,” he says.

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The Square in London also avoids music. It has two Michelin stars and four forks and spoons for comfort much like Gidleigh Park. Matching interior brightness to outside light is another way for the restaurant to keep its atmosphere relaxed and natural.

General manager Nicolas Digard says: “We dim the lights as the night goes on. It starts quite bright but at the end of the night it’s very low. If night falls early, we dim the lights early. In the summer, we dim throughout the night to match the light outside.

“We don’t want the lights to be too bright for the customer. We just want the customer to feel relaxed and enjoy their meal. When it’s too bright it’s not enjoyable.”

But factors such as music, lighting and table layouts are only as important as the staff that make the restaurant work. Brett Graham, head chef at The Ledbury (pictured) in London, thinks personalizing service has been the key to his restaurant’s success.

“I want people to come here under all different, individual circumstances. That’s what I really try and put across to the staff. I try and get the staff to read what people may want on that particular service because the way you treat this table may be completely different to that table,” he says.

Gidleigh Park’s Scott Andrews agrees. “The main thing we do here at Gidleigh for atmosphere is the staff. We try to get that balance between professionalism and care and being attentive without being stiff and overbearing. We’re there when the guests need us, and when we’re not, we’re stood back keeping an eye,” he says.

Tailoring to a customer’s needs reverts to the same principle of keeping things natural. Service is not forced and neither is a vibrant atmosphere. These restaurants strive to make the dining experience as organic as possible. They enjoy the best atmosphere because they understand ambiance is merely harnessed.

Continue reading to find out about the best restaurants for atmosphere.

The Square

Head chef Phil Howard is also co-owner of this two-star restaurant in London’s Mayfair. It has held those two Michelin stars for more than 15 years since opening 22 years ago.

The spacious layout and classic look of the restaurant allows a relaxed ambiance to come through. General manager Nicolas Digard says: “You’ve got a lot of space on the table and between each table. Customers can have their own intimacy.”

The Ledbury

The Ledbury in west London has two Michelin stars. Its head chef Brett Graham won a Young Chef of the Year award in 2002 when he was at The Square.

Graham has brought with him to The Ledbury the same success he enjoyed at The Square. Both restaurants used interior designer Claire Nelson to work their space. But Graham places emphasis on his staff who try to tailor their service according to the customer’s needs.

Gidleigh Park

Gidleigh Park lies in the countryside of Dartmoor, Devon. Executive head chef Michael Caines leads the restaurant, which has two Michelin stars.

Operations manager Scott Andrews says the restaurant’s three dining rooms adhere to the traditional feel of the country house. The countryside backdrop complements the interiors of this country house. “You’re looking out onto 109 acres of garden, which is key,” Andrews says.

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