restaurant ambience

Five elements of restaurant ambience

By Chris Hannah

As designers and owners in hospitality, we might be inclined to use the word ‘space’ rather than place, when describing the ambience of a restaurant. The difference between these two words provides an interesting take on what makes a design good or great. Nice space can certainly support a hospitality business, but creating a sense of ‘place’ is what makes patrons come back time after time.

As interior designers, we are charged with creating ambience. When we think of institutional or corporate spaces, we may think less in these terms, but it applies everywhere – only the degree and style varies. In restaurants, the idea carries a great deal of weight towards customer satisfaction. The reasons are simple:

The design as a whole is a reflection of the owner, the menu and all aspects of the operation.

Customers spend a relatively long period of time in one part of the space, and therefore have time to take it all in.

The patrons will look for a reason to come back, and when it all comes together, they have it.

Most importantly, when it all comes together, it becomes a place, not just a space.

So, where do we start? In hospitality, a clear message that runs through all aspects of the design is the priority. You can have great food, service and ambience, yet fail due to inconsistencies throughout the concept. This is not to say that ambience needs to be the same throughout the place, only that it must all tie together in some discernible fashion.

Changing with the times

Simply saying that people’s senses need to be stimulated more than ever these days might be an understatement. Some may consider this a generational issue, but a broad spectrum of patron types has upped the ante in terms of dining atmosphere. What might have been considered ‘upscale’ 20 years ago has found its way into more casual concepts today. Also, our tolerance for noise and activity has changed, and dining as entertainment means that sometimes the activity around us is just as important as the food. Let’s face it: In today’s hospitality world, every place can’t be just about food.
Ultimately, a decision has to be made about the nature of the place. Is it one type of space, and is it therefore consistent in atmosphere? Does it have a little something for everyone? Does it allow flexibility and change so that different day parts offer something new? Any of these approaches can be valid, and the choice should become clear as you develop the concept.

Elements of ambience

So what are the elements of ambience? Everything plays a part, even things beyond our control. So rather than talk about the specifics of design elements, perhaps it’s better to discuss the desired outcome. The things that the customer responds to are the sensory results of all of the choices we make. What is the final light quality, noise level, spatial sense, textural response, temperature, smell – and what emotional response does that combined experience evoke?

Specifically, let’s look at some of these key elements:

Light quality – Natural and artificial light play a part; we tend to love natural light, but it can be an ambience killer at certain times of the day and year. Lighting needs to be in line with concept, and flexibility is key to day-part adjustments. Harsh glare is a turn off, but flat light can be simply boring. Exposed kitchen lighting needs to be cohesive with the front-of-house light quality.

Noise level – This varies widely in terms of the desired result, so concept plays a huge part. Material, texture and spatial shaping will all affect the ability of the place to absorb or reflect sound. Sound system specifications rely on a good understanding of the acoustic elements, so this is not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

Space and scale – How we view the social quotient of the concept will define scale: Do we want people to crush together and mingle or do want to afford more personal space? Should the space be expansive and awe inspiring or give comfort and enclosure?

Touch – While the look of materials will give a visual response, it is often the tactile that people remember; natural wood grains, soft leather and fabric suggest comfort, just as slick metal, stone and glass can energize a space. However, some materials (such as granite) give the best of both worlds – the rich depth of visual texture, with a slick hard tactile reality.

Smell – We will leave taste up to the chef, but smells, both good and bad, find their way to the customer long before the food. While this is not always controllable through design, it is a huge factor for both first and lasting impressions. Aside from kitchen smells (which can be a good thing if controlled), the material choices play a part – both in their inherent nature, and their ability to retain or repel operational odours (such as cleaning chemicals) that are seldom desirable.

A final word about variety, which should always go hand in hand with unity in any design: In smaller places, the opportunity may be more limited, but it is nearly always possible to alter the ambience of a space with careful manipulation of the design elements. The transition from exterior, through a hallway, into the restaurant, and even a trip to the washroom allow for the customer to have separate experiences, which, I repeat, must be held together with a unified concept. As we get into larger foodservice spaces, we open up further opportunities to provide different experiences within one whole. The result can be a new customer experience with each visit.

A sense of place comes as a result of developing a cohesive concept that ultimately makes people feel welcome and inspired to enjoy the space in a way that they expected, and the way that the proprietor intended. In a perfect world that place is where they will want to be for not just one type of event, but many.


Know your customer, know your concept, and give them what they both need.
Keep it unified, and work with all the senses.
Modulate – don’t be afraid of change and variety.

About the author
Chris Hannah is the principal of Cricket Design Company Inc. in Toronto. The firm was founded in 1988 and since then has specialized in hospitality projects of all kinds. In addition to running the firm, Hannah teaches at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design. You can check them out on the web – and see some recent work at