THE ARTS Dinner Theatrics

Good food isn’t enough to keep restaurant customers coming back

My wife and I have special affection for a small restaurant in Florence, across the street from the Uffizi. It’s not much to look at, a long, sleeve-like space that might be mistaken for a bowling alley, but it features one of the shrewdest dining gimmicks I’ve ever encountered. Every night around 7:30, as the early arrivals are nibbling at their antipasto, a boy in black trousers and a work shirt comes strolling through carrying a tray of fresh bread and pastries. A marvelous aroma fills the air, heads turn, and eyes brighten as the boy makes his way toward the kitchen. An hour later, just before the espresso and spumoni, a second boy arrives with a tray of apricots, oranges, lemons, and other fruits. Fresh from the grove! It took several visits before we realized that these dramatic entrances and exits were as precisely staged as a Marx Brothers routine, and that if we lingered long enough we could catch the second show at ten and eleven. Turns out the boys were the nephews of the owner, Alfredo, who had apparently decided that he’d rather have them working for him than chasing girls around the piazza. They were his extras, employed to carry props in one door – and out the other.

Then there is a seafood restaurant in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, that has a picturesquely scarred dragger tied up to its dock. As the first guests arrive, men in yellow slickers and rain hats, like figures out of a Winslow Homer painting, appear on deck and begin sorting fish into baskets, which are then carried past the dining room into the kitchen. There’s something reassuring about seeing your entree float by your window. “No Filet O’ Fish tonight,” you whisper contentedly. It took a summer for us to discover that the dragger, named something like the Martin Luther or the Hester Prynne, hadn’t left the harbor in 10 years, and that all those colorful old salts arrived each morning from Down East Casting to put on this little charade for tourists. Another example of Yankee ingenuity, no doubt.

Now compared to these ruses, what goes on in the average Dallas restaurant may seem pretty straightforward. Yet the theater analogy holds here as well. In any restaurant worthy of the name the customer is a spectator to be humored, cajoled, pampered, and manipulated as the situation demands. One of the first rules of restaurant design is to convince the customer that he’s somewhere he isn’t – Tahiti, Dodge City, a greenhouse, a whorehouse, it doesn’t really matter so long as the decor doesn’t suggest the office or the family living room. The average person eats out for the social experience rather than the food anyway. “Deliver me from the ordinary and the hum-drum,” he begs. “Take me somewhere I haven’t been.”

At least that’s the assumption designers like to work from. Their goal, broadly defined, is to create some kind of total environment in which everything from the lamp shades to the serviettes contributes to an overall look or impression. In a seafood restaurant, for instance, this may mean nets and buoys on the walls, a scattering of compasses, sextants and other authentic nautical gear straight from Taiwan, tables made from hatch covers, maybe even a menu in the shape of a flounder or a striped bass. A real uptown establishment might add a strolling clam shucker or crab-claw snapper to help simulate a bustling waterfront environment, especially if the restaurant is in Omaha. And of course the entrees themselves must be appropriately identified – The Windjammer, The Cape of Good Hope, The Old Man and the Sea. “Catch of the day” or “Our famous fried clams” just won’t do in a designer restaurant.

The same basic principles can be applied everywhere from a western steak house (unfinished woods, a chuck wagon salad bar, Tex Ritter and Gene Autry tapes) to a sophisticated Italian restaurant. Il Sorrento is certainly the epitome of one kind of total environment. In addition to your saltimbocca and veal scallopine you get crumbling stucco, strolling minstrels, and designer bird droppings on all the statues. Now that’s alfresco dining!

One thing that designers try to avoid is that single indiscretion that gives the game away, that destroys the fantasy. It may be something as basic as misjudging your clientele (trying to push chili cheeseburgers on a filet mignon crowd) or as subtle as choosing the wrong color scheme for the mood you want to create. Browns, tans, and earth tones are very popular these days. Apparently they offend no one. Blue, on the other hand, is one of the riskiest colors. It suggests loneliness and melancholy. Blue is trouble. Purple is disaster. Never eat in a restaurant the color of an eggplant. Or in which the waiters try to pass themselves off as celebrities. I remember going to the Bijou one night and being greeted by a fellow who insisted he was Spencer Tracy. He wasn’t Spencer Tracy. Too smooth-skinned and debonair. He looked much more like Ray Milland or Robert Cummings. Any restaurant that doesn’t know Spencer Tracy from Robert Cummings is asking for trouble.

Naturally there are exceptions to these general rules. A bit of grit on the floor and a few dangling light fixtures are perfectly appropriate for a hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant. Tackiness is part of the appeal, an expression of authenticity. After all, what chef dedicated to perfecting his beef bourguignon has the time to worry about decorator wall coverings? Then there are the party restaurants (Old Spaghetti Warehouse, The Time Machine) in which a central visual theme is scrapped in favor of an “eclectic look” – barber chairs in the cocktail lounge, a canoe over the cash register. Taking things out of context creates an amusement park atmosphere in which the experience takes precedence over the food. With a calliope tooting in your ear you’re inclined to overlook the fact that your quiche is dry and crunchy and that those “garden fresh vegetables” taste a bit like the Green Giant’s. This is a party. Laugh. Drink. Don’t think about your stomach.

All of which might suggest that a designer has a free hand in creating a restaurant, like a Cecil B. DeMille or a Samuel Goldwyn. Not so. Just as Michelangelo depended on the Medici, a restaurant designer depends on an entrepreneur, who in addition to putting up the cash decides two critical matters: the menu or ticket price, and the bar / food ratio. The second is particularly important. Knowing how much liquor you want to sell pretty much determines the look of the place you sell it in.

Let’s assume a client wants an operation with an 80/20 liquor-food ratio – a hard core bar, in other words – in which food is merely a sideline. The strategy here is simple: Get a lot of people drinking and mingling and keep them drinking and mingling. This calls for a large open room in which everyone can see everyone else, yet one that is also broken up by railings, service bars and so on so that customers don’t feel that they’re in a gymnasium. No one can be cool and nonchalant in a vast open space. It’s too much like a high school dance. Mirrors help simply by increasing the number of visual images, and many of the most successful singles bars, like T.G.I. Friday’s, also use different elevations to improve the sight lines. Upbeat music and plenty of noise are plusses, but the key factor is the design of the bar itself. It shouldn’t be long and horizontal like the one in Gunsmoke, but U-shaped or circular in order to accommodate as many drinkers as possible and allow them to circulate. This is especially important for the serious cruisers, who don’t want to have to retrace their steps if they fail to make contact. With a round bar they can just keep on moving. Saves face.

When the ratio drops to 60/40 or 40/60, then a whole different set of strategies comes into play. Now the idea is to encourage customers to drink, but not so much that they won’t be able to find the restaurant for dinner. Consequently the bar will be smaller, still bright and welcoming perhaps, but not the sort of place you’d be inclined to spend an evening. No deep upholstered chairs, in other words, into which you can disappear without a trace. The same with the tables – large enough for a drink and a basket of popcorn but too small for a four-course meal. For that you have to go into the restaurant, which just happens to be a few steps away.

Designers seem to agree that the elegant restaurant, where the ratio is 20/80 rather than 80/20, presents the fewest challenges. There are no multiple messages here. Everything must say class and sophistication – linen napkins, china, silver rather than stainless, a som-melier with a polished Berlitz accent. No vinyl or neon allowed. Colors must be subdued, generally reds and blacks, and the lighting should be discreet. In most cases the bar will be clearly separated from the dining area, not only to screen out the sound of cocktail shakers and tinkling glasses but to enhance the feeling of personal service. If you want a drink, someone will bring it to you. Cigarettes? The hostess will take care of that. There’s never a question of doing something for yourself at Arthur’s or The Old Warsaw. You’re there to be pampered. Everything revolves around your wishes. Enjoy yourself – quietly.

In the opinion of many Dallas designers – Tricia Wilson, Bill Reed, Charles Daboub – there is currently a trend away from theme restaurants (mainly because there aren’t that many themes left) toward inexpensive, casual, quick-service operations like Chili’s and The Black-Eyed Pea. The aim here is to turn tables four, five, six times a night. Everything is conceived with this in mind. Lots of warm colors, for instance – orange, yellow, red – that complement the food while gently assaulting the eye. There’s only so much Utah Sunrise or California Gold that you can take before you start getting a headache. Carry this idea to an extreme and you end up with the Dunkin Donuts motif, purple and magenta against white and stainless steel. About as hostile a scheme as one could imagine. And for good reason. You’re expected to take your dozen honey dips and flee instead of hanging around to talk with the waitresses.

But there are much subtler ways of achieving the same effect. Like chairs. In quick-service restaurants the chairs must never be too comfortable. Bentwoods are ideal, or those scratched, mis-matched high backs that always show up at flea markets and garage sales. If they’re also a bit unstable, so much the better. Many of the franchises along the interstates – Denny’s, JoJo’s, Kips – also like to tilt their seats forward slightly so that you can feel yourself slipping toward the floor with every bite. Under no circumstances can chairs have arms. As soon as a customer finds a place to rest his elbows, he’s with you for hours. Noise helps, especially the clatter of plates and silverware from the grill area.

And if these strategies don’t succeed in turning the tables, there’s always the spectacle of the waiting line, a herd of hungry, irritable people lusting for your place. Inelegant restaurants you never see the huddled masses, of course. They’re off in thelounge or the garden, waiting patiently.But in Denny’s or Friday’s you’re subjectto mob pressure. There’s nothing like amenacing stare or a clenched fist to makeyou vow that from now on you’re goingto eat at home. Until, that is, you hearabout that new seafood restaurant onNorthwest Highway that’s designed likethe inside of an aquarium or that steakplace over in Fort Worth where you eaton stacks of oil pipe and your drinks areserved in miniature derricks. Have to trythem, just once.

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