When You Can’t See Your Food (Michael’s Genuine)

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Once I was throwing a party in Atlanta and I had the fluorescent lights on in my apartment and my friend Ricky came and said, “Adam, no, no, no, turn off the overhead lights and turn on the lamps; this is a party, not a doctor’s office.”

The lesson I learned then is a lesson that successful restaurants have long understood: lighting matters. You may take it for granted, but the difference between the corner diner with the buzzing, yellowing strips of light and the trendy, upscale bistro two doors down with sconces and a soft, ambient glow is more than just the quality of the food. Dining is theater–people go out to see and to be seen–and if a restaurant makes you look bad, or makes the food look bad, you won’t likely go back.

As I apply this theory to my favorite New York restaurants–Franny’s (darkish, but you can see the pizza), Prune (brightish, but everyone looks attractive)–it’s overwhelmingly clear that lighting plays a part, that lighting–like fresh ingredients, courteous service, and an approachable wine list–works covertly to enhance your dining experience. It’s the kind of thing you probably don’t even notice, and only when you do notice is something wrong.

Which brings us to Miami. After our tour of Miami’s Cuban scene, Craig and I joined my parents, my brother, and his fiance, for dinner at a restaurant Frank Bruni cited as the #4 best restaurant outside of New York: Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink.

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The restaurant is located in an artsy, developing part of Miami and its popularity was evidenced, clearly, by our difficulty in scoring a reservation.

The room was hip, with an open kitchen and lots of art on the walls…

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…but it was dark, dark, dark. I can’t remember ever eating in a restaurant so dark.

This is probably intentional. The darkness certainly set a mood–everyone at the various tables looked interesting and cultivated, a sophisticated Miami crowd–but the worst part was that we really couldn’t see our food.

Here are the lights that hung over our table:

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They’re certainly dramatic, but in terms of their form vs. their function, form definitely won that battle: they barely functioned. Look at my first course, if you can:

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Can you see it? No?

Join the club. Even dragging a candle close to the plate, you probably can’t tell that that’s a tuna tartare in a potato chip tower with orange segments on the side.

The food tasted really good–well balanced, well seasoned–but somehow not being able to see it really put a damper on the dinner.

In fact, I had to take a flash picture to capture my entree (and I never, as a rule, anymore, take flash pictures in restaurants) and it was only when I reviewed the picture on my camera’s screen that I was able to know what I was eating:

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That’s a wahoo (“A what hoo??!”) served with beans and crispy onions. It’s a lovely dish and, as you can tell by the flash picture, beautifully plated. Why, then, wouldn’t they want their customers to see the fruits of their labor? Taste is only one half of an eating experience; the visuals matter too, matter–I believe–almost as much.

[Note: one of the least visual, but most pleasing dishes of the night, was the dish you see at the top of this post; homemade potato chips with a pan-fried onion dip. Perhaps it succeeded so much because it didn’t need to be seen to be enjoyed?]

Let’s not even try to decipher this dessert:

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That picture best captures the lighting at Michael’s; I believe it was an apple tart with pomegranate seeds. They should’ve served a flashlight on the side; or, at least, a glowstick.

This is the first meal of my life where lighting really impacted my overall enjoyment. I’d definitely go back to Michael’s because the food was really good, but I would only go back for lunch–when the natural light might actually illuminate the food, rendering it visible and significantly more enjoyable.

What about you, readers? How important is lighting when you eat out? Is it a factor you take seriously? Have you ever dismissed a restaurant for being too dark?

Forgive me this last sentence: it’s time we shed some light on the subject.

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