Eating is a delight for all of the senses. The smells you experience whilst waiting for your dish, making your mouth water. The beautiful colours and appearance of your food as it is served to you. The textures and tastes you experience when you eat. A good meal can delight every sense. However, I often wonder whether we eat with our eyes? Whether the appearance of a dish can change the way it tastes, the way it feels, how happy it makes us. Perhaps as certain colours can elicit certain reactions, the ambience in restaurants can change how you react to the food.
The look of the dish
There is a reason that dishes in high-end and Michelin–starred restaurants all have a similar look. As soon as we see these dishes, with sauces and compotes lovely brushed-along ceramic, food perfectly stacked and beautiful colours we know the quality we are going to receive. Similarly, there are key indicators we have in a dish that we don’t think we will like.
The look of the dish starts the process of eating with your eyes. If you look at a dish and are not appetized, that preconception can affect your overall judgement of the dish, including the taste. A dish that looks delicious, more often than not tastes delicious.
This impulse we have when we see food that excites us can be perfectly summed up by looking at one simple action. I know I am guilty of it, and I’m sure you are as well, but a server walking past you with someone else’s meal and you instantly thinking ‘that looks good, I wonder what it is’ is the clearest version of us eating with our eyes, just from the look of a dish!
As well as the appearance of a meal, the look of the packaging can help sell if you are in a supermarket or store. A recent article by FoodNavigator, a food research website, explored how social media and online image sharing has meant the demand for colourful, picture-perfect food is increasing. Sarah Browner of Innova Market Insights told FoodNavigator: “Colour is a key driver of food purchase. There is an increasing number of food and beverage launches centred on colourful efforts to stand out on the shelf. Instagramability of a food is a major driver for consumers, especially millennials and Gen Z drive this trend.”
The setup of the table
As well as the look of the dish, the setup of the table can also be a big factor in how much you enjoy your food. A table set with luxurious placing, perhaps garnished with a beautiful bouquet and hosting accompaniments is bound to have a different effect on you than sitting at a simple, lifeless table. These additions not only affect the ambience, but also how you eat. For example, whereas in Europe it’s most common for each person to have an individual dish and perhaps a bread bowl or light tapas to share, in countries like Korea, food is a more social affair and tables are laid out to encourage this type of dining.
The interior of the restaurant
The interior of a restaurant has a massive bearing on not only the food you will eat there, but the experience you’ll have. From American-themed diners with booths and wait staff on roller blades to industrial-looking coffee shops with exposed pipe and vintage style light bulbs, the look of an interior will instantly tell you what to expect.
When I last visited the gorgeous M Restaurant in Threadneedle Street, I knew immediately that I was in for a treat. The restauranteur Martin Williams had briefed René Dekker design team to create a vibrant, luxurious venue and as I sank into the cobalt blue banquettes, next to the dark, chocolate coloured walls and a view of the glass displays with the different cuts of steak, I relaxed into contemplation of the menu and delicious anticipation.
In fact, the ambience of a restaurant has long been thought to have a bearing on the dining experience. In a 1982 edition of the New York Times, Moira Hodgson wrote how the ambience of a place might change someone’s experience: “One might ask, just how much does ambience affect the enjoyment of food? Does the atmosphere of an elegant restaurant enhance the pleasure of what is eaten there? Does it really matter if we are watching the news, reading a book, having an argument or listening to classical music while we dine?
“An inspector for Guide Michelin once said that if the food was good enough he would give three stars to a restaurant that had Formica tables, neon lighting and blaring music in the background. ''But,'' he added, ''in actual fact the kind of place that goes to the trouble to make that sort of food naturally takes a great deal of trouble with the ambience.'
This notion has continued to today and is now more considered than ever. It’s fair to say, designing a restaurant or bar is now more science than art, and by creating a certain type of environment, customers can be subconsciously persuaded. In an article published last year by Psychology Today they look at into some of the things that have been found when it comes to interior restaurant design affecting consumers: “Companies consciously adopt colour schemes they believe will influence their customers. Green is thought to facilitate the ordering of salads and other healthy foods.
“It’s even been shown that the colour of orange juice can alter how sweet it seems, a glass of wine tastes sweeter under red lighting and whiskey is thought to have a “woodier” taste when it’s sipped in a room with wood décor. Dimmer lighting brings people closer together, causes them to speak more softly and leads to longer stays.
“High-end restaurants– with their plush decor, dimmer lighting and more comfortable furniture – make customers more likely to linger over post-dinner desserts or order just one more round.”
In fact, even the sounds around you in a restaurant can subconsciously alter your experience. The Psychology Journal article claims: “Soft jazz music tends to also keep people in the restaurant longer – which has been shown to lead to higher food ratings (and a larger bill).”
Looking into this more I found that a study recently published in the Springer Journal found that ambient sound and background noise can not only change the food sales, but what you choose to eat. The Independent reported the findings: “As part of his research, Biswas conducted an experiment at a café in Stockholm where various genres of music were played separately at 55Db and 70Db.
“The items on the menu were then divided into three categories: healthy, non-healthy and neutral.
Analysing the behaviour of customers over several hours on multiple days, the data revealed that 20 per cent more people ordered something unhealthy when exposed to louder music than those who dined during the quieter time.”
Although I do believe everyone is subconsciously aware that their surroundings are changing their opinions, I love to consider how much the taste of a dish can change, simply by altering one’s surroundings. This goes to show just how important it can be to consider every detail of a restaurant when working in the restaurant business.