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Q: Why are expensive restaurants often dimly lit?
Zach Davis, Rocky Mount
A: There has been extensive study and thought spent on this tasty topic.
Start with thoughts offered at the website of the National Restaurant Association, which bills itself as “the largest foodservice trade association in the world.”
“Lighting can set the mood in your restaurant, creating a soothing ambience that encourages customers to linger or a vibrant atmosphere that helps turn tables,” the advice reads.
Bright and subdued lighting serve different functions.
For instance, at fast food restaurants, the goal is volume sales. The more customers served in the shortest amount of time, the better.
At so-called “fine dining” establishments, the idea is to keep the customers in their seats, presumably to continue ordering more high-dollar food and drink.
Low lights are also believed to encourage romance.
This brings us to another bright idea.
Consider the wafting aroma of sour cream-cappuccino brownies just emerging from the oven at the neighborhood bakery or the heavenly scents of Chanel No. 5 at the beauty counter in the mall.
Call it “sensory marketing,” a term employed by University of South Florida associate professor of marketing Dipayan Biswas.
“Anything that appeals to our senses are more impactful in sort of influencing our behavior, our choices, and often, it happens at a very subconscious level, so we are not even aware of that,” he said in Mark Schreiner’s 2012 piece at the USF Public Media site.
The professor went on to explain the differences in goals between a fast food and gourmet eatery.
“Usually, more expensive restaurants have more dimly lit environments than, let’s say, a fast food, low-priced restaurant,” Biswas said. “So we would often associate a dim light with something being more expensive, more fancy.”
No wonder that entree is priced in such frightful fashion. High-end restaurants can spend a bundle just trying to strike the proper mood.
“Fine-dining restaurants often have more ‘layers’ of light, which include down lights, accent lights, sconces, chandeliers and cove lights,” the restaurant association article said.
“The more layers within a space, the more dramatic,” the article quoted Anne Kustner Haser of Anne Kustner Lighting Design in Evanston, Illinois, as saying.
To develop the proper ambience, music (or lack of), artwork, and lighting work in concert.
Studies have shown that different types of lighting can have an impact on the way people perceive their food, according to the marketing professor.
For instance, common sense tells us food that looks good usually tastes better than more pedestrian-appearing fare.
There’s more to it than that, according to one study by the USF professor. Asked to guess the amount of calories in a dish, customers in better-lit rooms typically suppose a lower number of calories for the food served.
“So that again provides sort of evidence that our brain is wired in a way where the taste thing is not just formed from the tongue, it plays just a small role, the visual and the smell cues play a big, big role,” he said.
To bolster that point, the scholar found in one of his examinations that most subjects blindfolded with noses plugged could not tell the difference between cola and lemon-lime soda in taste tests.
It’s not just the appearance of food that depends on the right luminosity. Restauranteurs are urged to provide warm, eye level lighting near bathroom mirrors.
“You want people to look their best, so they’ll stay longer and buy more,” the Illinois lighting expert said.
A 2016 Cornell University study for which Biswas was the lead author found that customers in dimly lit establishments tended to order dishes that were 39 percent more calorie-filled.
On the other hand, in well-lit eateries, diners are 16 percent to 24 percent more likely to make healthier eating choices.
“Process evidence suggests that this phenomenon occurs because ambient light luminance influences mental alertness, which in turn influences food choices,” the paper said.
Inadequate lighting does have certain merits, one being that diners do take their time and eat more slowly.
On the whole, though, most customers are irritated by dingy viewing, especially when it comes to menu reading and rest room finding.
Specialists recommend indirect light fixtures along the perimeters of rooms and small table lamps or candles to help alleviate the issue.
They better hope those measures work. That fine dining crowd can be ruthless.
According to a June 2015 Washington Post food blog post, Tom Sietsema wrote about a lunchtime episode at district steakhouse Mastro’s during which he requested more light to examine writings about the day’s fare.