The Role of Restaurant Decor

Isn’t owning a small cafe or a restaurant just about everybody’s alternative dream career, one of those things you’d gladly try if you had an opportunity? Maybe not, maybe it’s just me. However, I’m sure you like to eat out occasionally at a nice place where you feel comfortable and relaxed.

Aria, Toronto: by Sifu Renka

My question is, how important is the restaurant environment for your dining experience? Whether you agree of not, Susskind & Chan (2000) found that food and decor are more strongly related to a high rating by customers than service. The importance of good food is self-evident, but, interestingly enough, many gourmets I know deny the importance of ambience for their satisfaction.

A street restaurant in Rome; photo by p medved

I guess they’d be surprised to know that decor of the restaurant can influence our perception of  what’s the most important  in the restaurant, the food. Bell et al. (1994, according to Stroebele & De Castro, 2004) showed that by changing the ambience of a restaurant. They created a typical Italian atmosphere with red and white checked tablecloths, the Italian flag, menu written in Italian, and other Mediterranean symbols. Even though the actual menu was the same for the Italian setting and in the usual restaurant setting, all meals were rated as more Italian under the “Italian condition”. The customers also consumed more dessert in the Italian ambience, thus the environment actually influenced their behavior – could we say that they acted “more Italian”?

Restaurant at Ikea in Schaumburg, Illinois; photo by kenfagerdotcom

There are other favourable  outcomes for restaurant owners who take care about the ambience. In one study, customers in a more pleasant environment were more likely to dismiss service failure as being a one time only, non-recurring event. However, they attributed more control over the problem to the service provider than subjects in a more pleasant environment and expressed higher dissatisfaction about it. In other words, their expectations were higher. A more pleasant environment was also associated with more favorable evaluations of responsiveness, reliability, assurance and empathy (Leong et al., 1997), in other words, it was related to better perception of service.

The colorful Fork Restaurant in Lyons, Colorado; photo by Rockin Robin

What “the pleasant environment” should exactly look like is hard to determine. Luckily, there is room for great diversity in restaurant decor solutions, just as it is in the menu compilations. Only the choice of color for a restaurant is something you can dwell on for ages. Studies show that, generally speaking, young people prefer bright, strong colors, whereas adults mostly enjoy their meals in weak, unobtrusively colored environments (Grunert 1993, according to Stroebele & De Castro, 2004).

Dew Drop Inn Tea House at Nan Tien Buddhist Temple, Australia; photo by Vanessa Pike-Russell

Another interesting example of how color choice influences the dining experience is that coffee drinkers judged the same coffee served from a blue pot as mild and from a brown pot as too strong. The best judgment of “aromatic and strong” was given to coffee served in a red pot (Favre & November, 1979, according to Stroebele & De Castro, 2004).

KOI Kemang, Jakarta, Indonesia; photo by Chuzai Living

Lighting is important to consider as well. Eating in a softly illuminated dining room might contribute to decreased food intake, whereas eating in a brightly illuminated area might promote the intake of rapidly eaten meals of greater total energy content (Stroebele & De Castro, 2004). Just think of  the bright lights in fast food restaurants!

BLT Prime, New York; photo by Muy Yum

There are interesting studies about the influence of music on restaurant customers’ behavior, usually concluding that the faster the music, faster people eat, and less time they spend in the restaurant – again, just remember the music in fast food restaurants (Milliman, 1982; according to Caldwell and Hibbert, 2002;  Roballey, et al.1985; according to Caldwell and Hibbert, 2002).

Vegetarian restaurant  Il Margutta in Rome, Italy; photo by Oggie Dog

However, a recent study examined the effects of both music tempo and preference, and found out that it is actually the liking of music what the customers respond to, and not the tempo. If  people like the music, they spend more time in the restaurant, and spend more money on both food and drink (Caldwell and Hibbert, 2002).

Tarry Lodge in Port Chester, NY; photo by Laissez Fare

Timing seems to be crucial for customer satisfaction. In our fast forwarded lifestyle, we like to think that we can’t afford to spend too much time eating. In a study by Wildes & Seo (2001) all subject groups, but particularly younger people and people with children considered slow service a major problem. There are also some cultural differences, which demonstrate just how obsessed with speed the western culture has become. For example, in a study by Becker and Murman (1999) Hong Kong subjects preferred to linger much longer at the table before receiving the check (26 minutes) than their US counterparts (6 to 10 minutes).

KOI Kemang, Jakarta, Indonesia; photo by Chuzai Living

As my friend’s mother, a true Mediterranean woman, always says: A good meal should make you not only filled, but fulfilled. So, if you’re a restaurant owner, I challenge you to ignore the customers’ preference for speed. Not by too slow service, of course, but by creating an atmosphere for a fulfilling dining experience. Some things are just better if they’re not rushed.

Mamacas, Greece; photo by Eleftheria G

Carefully arranged ambience is a great start, with a convenient choice of decor style, colors, illumination and background music. Of course, you can do much more – ambience is just the frame where everything happens – the content is crucial (and in this I agree with my gourmet friends). If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to check out which of the Slow Food movement principles are applicable to your business. Everything about dining is worth the effort since much of what’s really important in life happens around the table.


Becker, C.  and Murrmann S. K. (1999) The Effect of Cultural Orientation on the Service Timing Preferences of Customers in Casual Dining Operations: An Exploratory Study. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 18, 1, 59-65.

Caldwell, C. and Hibbert, S.A. (2002) The Influence of Music Tempo and Musical Preference on Restaurant Patrons’ Behavior.  Psychology & Marketing, 19, 11,895–917.

Leong, S. M.,  Ang, S. H., and  Hui, L. L. (1997)  Effects of Physical Environment and Locus of Control on Service Evaluation: A Replication and Extension. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 4, 4, 231-237.

Stroebele N. and De Castro J.M. Effect of ambience on food intake and food choice. Nutrition, 2004; 20: 821-838.

Susskind, A.M. &  Chan, E. K. (2000) How Restaurant Features Affect Check Averages: A Study of the Toronto Restaurant Market. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 41,6, 56-63.

Wildes V.J. & Seo, W. (2001). Customer vote with their forks: Consumer complaining behaviour in the restaurant industry. International  Journal of  Hospitality and Tourism Administration2(2), 21-34.


7 Responses to “The Role of Restaurant Decor”

  1. I just wanted to say thank you for using my photos! Great post! I agree with your friend’s mother that good meal should make you not only filled, but fulfilled. Indeed!

  2. i like all your post. i come again to see again.

    • Thank you, Ana! I’m glad you do. I can see that you’re dealing with education as well (I work as a psychology teacher) – if you notice any environmental influences on your work, please share (or anything else you find important for quality education) 🙂

  3. Howdy!
    I make some restaurant décor that I am looking to sell to view pleas go to cowcampart by steve southerland on face book .

  4. Now I am going away to do my breakfast, once having my
    breakfast coming yet again to read further news.


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