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Is It Dark In Here, Or What?

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RIGHT LIGHT:A dramatic setting for Spiaggia.
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GET A GLOW ON: The dining room at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.

Noel Coward once said that 95 percent of romance is good lighting. By which he decidedly did not mean near darkness. A romantic evening in one’s house or apartment is not in any way the same thing as at a restaurant, where very low lighting can suck all the life out of a room. Indeed, the dreariest, least romantic restaurants in the world are low lit.

I cannot imagine how the idea that darkness and shadows are supposed to be the height of restaurant sophistication and glamour ever got started. That hasn’t been the case since the electric light bulb was invented. Candlelight can be seductive under the right circumstances, but a restaurant is not the place for a seduction anyway; it’s a prelude.

As soon as electricity shot into dining rooms, they became happier, more vibrant, gayer places to be. The great chef Auguste Escoffier realized this immediately and had all his restaurants painted a pale shade of salmon pink so as to bring up the brightness, reflect light and flatter women’s complexions.

The speakeasies of the 1920s were probably pretty dark for reasons of secrecy, and many restaurants’ marvelous skylights and windows were painted over black during World War II, in case of air raids. But after the war, with the onset of dynamic new restaurant design, which included new forms of lighting, restaurants became brighter and far happier places for people to spend their evenings.

Think about many of the great restaurants of the past 50 years— Lutðce, La Grenouille, the Grill at The Four Seasons, The Pump Room, Le Lion d’Or, Chez Panisse, Spago, Le Bec Fin, Michael’s, The American Restaurant, the Mansion on Turtle Creek, Commander’s Palace, Spiaggia, San Domenico, Le Bernardin, Tony’s and so many others. Not one might be considered a “dark” restaurant; in fact, almost all might be considered bright restaurants, places where people can see and be seen, places where the attention of captains and waiters is easily caught, places of color and glamour.

Ironically, some of the darkest restaurants in America in the 1960s and 1970s were the kitschy Playboy Clubs, whose low lighting was considered cool and sexy by the ersatz hipsters who used to eat at them.

One of the best examples I know of good lighting—even bright lighting—is the famously successful Balthazar in New York’s trendy Soho neighborhood. For a decade now this huge room, cannily decorated to look like it was shipped over from Paris around 1925, has rarely had an empty table at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is always packed with celebrities and it is an outpost for New York’s fashion and publishing crowd. And it is very, very bright, so that people can enjoy the other people and see who’s next through the door in an atmosphere full of life.

I’ve been in dark restaurants so somber that everyone in them whispers, even to ask, “Could you please pass the salt?” They have a funereal atmosphere, an old, faded ambience, and seem the least likely place to have a good time. I was reminded of this recently upon visiting Quinones, a new, pricey, haute cuisine restaurant in Atlanta where the lights were so low I needed a flashlight to read the menu.

(Fortunately I always carry one.) The walls seemed brown, maybe gray-brown, with no accents of color, and the lighting gave everyone—at least those I could make out in the dark corners—a decidedly unflattering pallor.

As a result, every one in the room spoke in hushed tones. All excitement had vanished, as had all color from the food, which the chef had lavishly designed on the plate.

I have often asked owners of dark restaurants who believe them to be romantic what their own five favorite restaurants in the world are. Invariably they cite restaurants with buoyant, golden, enveloping lighting.

Remember, the first thing God did on His debut was to “let there be light.” Then came Adam and Eve. He ought to know.

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