“Less is More” Problems

The simplicity of today’s contemporary fine dining can bring unwanted side effects.
The move away from lush, fabric covered surfaces and toward more glass and concrete - as seen here at Cochon Butcher in New Orleans - can create accoustical problems.

In days of old, the words “fine dining” evoked cushioned chairs, sumptuous drapes, plush carpets, two layers of tablecloths and wood-paneled or lavishly papered walls. All of this blended well with the rich foods that covered platters from margin to margin.

The waiter, dressed dapper in black and white, might have offered you a creamy sauce or thick gravy from a tureen. Candles glimmered on tabletops. Brass chandeliers and wall sconces gave a warm, 40-watt glow. The mood music depended on the restaurant, but it was probably classical or, at an Italian restaurant, opera.

Nowadays, the food is different – and everything else has followed.

Today, fine dining increasingly evokes images of plates with ample white space around a stacked, compact entrée with a sprig of something sticking out the top and streaked with scribble-scratches of sauce. The walls might be glass or masonry; the floors painted concrete, the chairs spare wood. The candles are gone, and the glow is halogen and LED.

The mood music, if there is any, is as likely to be Moby as Mozart.

“It all starts with the menu,” says veteran architect Brooks Graham, whose firm Graham/Little/Studio has designed or redesigned numerous restaurants in New Orleans and beyond. Recent projects in town have included Herbsaint, Mariza and La Boca. Projects in the works include restaurants for chef Justin Devillier and the Brennan family.

“Menus have been stripped down a good deal. The prominence of the individual ingredients has become more important,” Graham says. “Because the dishes have been stripped down, so have the rooms.”

That brings new challenges. There was a method to the magnificence in the restaurants of yore. All those fabric-covered surfaces absorbed sound in large, open rooms. Glass and concrete and bare tabletops do not.

Restaurant design involves working with a variety of driving factors: the menu, the existing configuration and patina of the building, the owner’s aesthetic, the intended dining experience, finances, time constraints and requirements of the local building code. It also involves operational considerations, such as how the wait staff moves through the dining room and the relationship between the kitchen, the dining room and the bar.

“It really is a complex, three-dimensional puzzle,” Graham says.

But Graham says restaurateurs also need to give urgent attention to acoustics or risk creating an unpleasant dining experience.
“Where you get into trouble is when the sound in a room is uncontrolled and therefore is just bouncing all around the room,” he says.

Sometimes, the acoustics are so bad that you can hear the person at the next table better than you can hear the person next to you. Graham recommends interventions such as discreet ceiling materials, panels or textures on the walls to dissipate noise, and window treatments that are spare, yet sound-absorbent.

Energy-efficient lighting poses another problem, because it produces a cooler effect than traditional incandescent bulbs.

Graham says strategically distributing a number of dimly-lit fixtures, along with the right choice of warming colors and materials, can help mitigate that cooling effect.



Categories: The Magazine