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Dim and Dimmer

Or why dining, unlike dancing and other intimate acts, is not necessarily better performed in the dark

By Christina Waters

NOT ALL DINING pet peeves are created equal. Some are merely momentary, like my quibble with today's noisy restaurants. But some are written in stone, like my current kvetch against restaurant interiors so dark that menus should be provided in braille.

What really set me off about this whole fiasco of murky restaurant lighting was my recent visit to a brand-new luxury restaurant. Eight months in the planning and involving solid management expertise, teams of architects and builders, plus what must have been bags o' bucks to pay for it all ... and the restaurant opened its doors to a new clientele with a lighting level lower than the president's IQ.

Flashlights were required just to follow the hostess to the table, and the whole place felt like Atlantis, 20 fathoms beneath the sea. Maison Murk would have been an appropriate name for this cavern of subterranean cuisine. Bistro Sans Lumière.

Here was an enormous dining room permanently suspended in the gloom of a February twilight. It was, in a word, dim. Every table looked similarly indistinct. Every patron looked generic. Imagine what fate the food was about to suffer.

With so much planning time, and so much expertise under its gastronomic belt, how could the management have overlooked one of the most important elements in crafting a memorable dining experience? Fiat lux!, and that ain't just an Old Testament slogan.

PART OF THE FUN of going out to eat is sitting in a room that sparkles and in which everybody looks and feels good. Or at least not Cro-Magnon. Well-placed lighting sources can add to that subliminal sense of pampering and excitement.

Dining by candlelight continued into the 20th century because people enjoyed an intimate dining experience. Everyone looks good by candlelight. Candlelight at each table creates a private island, shedding, ideally, enough light to make all the dishes look wonderful and yet not spilling over onto the dining areas nearby. A single votive, however, does not candlelight make, and in the world of lighting, less is usually ... less.

Unless you're on an illicit date and want to avoid being recognized, you probably like seeing and being seen from your table or booth. You can't do that if the light level is perfect for movie viewing. Many restaurants, weary of '50s chandeliers or the hippie decorator cliché of tiny white lights, have wisely invested in wall sconces.

The resulting indirect lighting casts a soft, radiant glow throughout the room. Yet no one area is glaringly bright. (If even I know that, how come restaurant managers don't know it?) Add candles to the tables--or hang one of those tiny pin spots above the center of the white tablecloth (reflection, baby, reflection), and you've got dreamy yet specific light for dining.

My beef with murky restaurant lighting is less about ambience--though surely that's also to the point--than with visibility. Chef so-and-so has cooked his brains out on his signature entree. The restaurant presents the lovely creation on attractive china. The patron is paying a significant price for this highly anticipated item. Surely, the dish has a right to be seen. At the most recently offending restaurant, my entree of whole striped bass was so barely visible that we couldn't see to pick out the bones, much less admire the bravura presentation.

It might as well have been a piece of cardboard. Somebody's gotta say it--bad lighting actually interferes with the ability to taste foods.

It's possible that there is an inverse relationship between light and pride. The more the restaurant suspects its food is cheap, tasteless and poorly prepared, the less light it sheds on the subject.

Proof for this theory can be found in bars that serve a little food on the side. No one's really there to eat. Low light discourages enjoyment of a meal. It also sends the message that the food isn't really the point.

So a fine restaurant, or one that claims to be--by pricing, menu, staff appearance--is really shooting itself in the foot by failing to pay attention to lighting. We don't taste with our tongues, lips, mouths and noses. We also taste with our eyes. Low light confuses the clarity of the sensory message. After enough struggling to taste whatever this stuff is on the fork, we just give up.

A civics teacher I had in high school tried to convince his students to stop smoking. He pointed out that it wasn't really the physical effect they liked--it was the way the whole act of smoking looked. And as proof, he advised us all to try smoking a cigarette--in the dark. He was right; it was just plain boring.

And though I'm drawing no parallel, the same goes for dining. Unless you've just finished installing the Alaskan pipeline by hand and need fuel pronto, you want to appreciate the color, texture, crispness and artful presentation of what you're eating. If this weren't true, we'd all be quite content squirting dinner into our mouths from those little plastic containers the astronauts use. Orange goo = carrots with fresh thyme. White goo = garlic mashed potatoes. Brown goo = veal chop with a reduction of zinfandel and olallieberry. The point has been made.

SO WHAT DO all you middle-aged boomers out there need? Light levels bright enough for an IHOP? Or a dentist's office? Au contraire. Probably the only thing worse than low lighting is overly bright, glaring, appetite-deadening lighting. Especially fluorescent--the kiss of death to dining satisfaction.

We don't need to notice the red veins in our companion's nose as we cut into that magenta steak. Nor do we need to be able to count every button on the vest of the guy 15 tables away. A restaurant is not a bus station bathroom, and a bank of neon suspended from the center of the ceiling does not qualify as restaurant lighting.

Now that you restaurant designers have absorbed my gripe, I'm sure you're already planning some creative changes to your dining rooms. You'll be getting rid of those antique fixtures way up high that shed light on absolutely nothing but thin air. You'll be shelling out for something more adequate for table lighting than a 99-cent votive candle.

Maybe you'll even be visiting other dining rooms, paying attention to ones that feel and look good. Just make sure that you test-drive the results before unveiling your new plans. Even intelligent lighting techniques can go wrong.

We all know restaurants where the costly track lighting somehow illuminates only the floor area between tables. Or perhaps the worst: pin spots recessed in the ceiling above tables that spill light straight down on the patron's forehead, nose and chin. You look over at your dinner date, and what you see is Boris Karloff in The Mummy.

Is it really so difficult to keep in mind the prime directive? Give patrons an intriguing enough dining experience that they'll want to come back for more. If I can re-create my dining experience at Restaurant Dim merely by stepping into the closet and turning off the light, then something has gone tragically awry.

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From the March 7-14, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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