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

December 10, 2008 | By | COMMENTS

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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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Categories: Florida

  • http://www.behindtheburner.com/ Caroline Alexa McBride

    Lighting is extremely important—it sets the mood. If you want romance, you must dim the lights! Candles add that soft touch. But don’t go too far. I heard about a restaurant that served meals in complete darkness so that people were forced to focus on the taste of the meal instead of how it looked. Interesting way to test your palate, but I’m a gourmet enthusiast like you—I want to see what I eat because the presentation of the food is part of the thrill of dining out. Your meal should look as good as it tastes.

  • http://www.halfassedkitchen.com Half Assed Kitchen

    Too dark is highly annoying. As is too bright. I would probably choose a place with only single votives casting light than some strip mall asian joint with all the lights fully ON. Nothing kills the mood quite like being able to see everything a little TOO clearly. And now I’m rambling. So I’ll stop.

  • http://addmorewine.net CDC

    I prefer a happy medium – not so bright that my eyes hurt, but I do like being able to see my food.

    Darkest restaurant I ever remember being in was a Cuban place in Philly. Food was spectacular, but everything could have used a smidge more light.

  • Rose

    How did you ever read the menu with that low light?!

  • http://cs.uoregon.edu/~abetz Adam Betz

    Interesting article – I have never “actively” thought about lighting in a restaurant before, although subconsciously I’m sure it has influenced an opinion of a restaurant as good or bad.

    Right off my cuff, I can say that I tend to think that restaurants that gravitate for a darker and subtly ambient lighting scheme are somehow more “fancy” in a way than restaurants that offer stark, bright fluorescent light. One example that comes to mind: P.F. Chang’s, which I think is fairly good American-Chinese food, is a place that is plunged in darkness: the walls are dark, the floors are dark, everything is lit by candlelight and dim ceiling lights; even the waiters are dressed in black! But it all lends itself to a more sophisticated appearance, which I think may be a part of why their franchise is thought of as more upscale than your typical Chinese restaurant.

  • http://feistyfoodie.blogspot.com Yvo

    That isn’t *that* dark… a friend of mine went to Il Mulino (http://swanchen.blogspot.com/2008/10/il-mulino.html for her full review) and said that to see the menus, the waiters had photon lights to illuminate them. I would be really upset if I couldn’t see any of my food. When it’s really dark in a place and I’m trying to see something, I become distinctly uncomfortable and agitated (I know, I’m weird, but when I’m uncomfortable, I become agitated and irritable). Anyway, still, that’s pretty dark and I’d be unhappy all the same… You still managed to take some decent photos :)

  • Jiuyen

    No no… that isn’t dark. I was once forced to go to Dans le Noir in London (http://www.danslenoir.com/london/) – a complete dark restaurant in which you are served by blind wait staff. You are not told what you will be eating (although you get the opportunity to specify your allergies, etc. and have a vegetarian meal choice). Only after your meal are you told what you have eaten.

    In theory, this enables you to truly focus on the taste of the food.

    In reality, everything tasted terrible. About 16 of us went to the restaurant, and 16 people all agreed that the food was bland and boring (and that we are not fans of eating in the dark). I’ve always wondered if the food would have tasted nicer if I could have seen it, as it looks pretty on their website (which is the only place you *can* see it). You are absolutely right – seeing your food is an important part of appreciating and enjoying it.

  • Julia

    I prefer it medium-dark, with warm puddles of light that resemble candlelight, gaslight, or firelight. Maybe that’s because I’m in my 40′s, and I want everything lit like that! But, I did want to say, I don’t really think of dining as theatre. Granted, I live in Boston, where chilly reserve is de rigeur . . . but, I guess I do think of restaurants as places where multiple private parties congregate, and don’t necessarily interact. I’m way more interested in the plate than my fellow diners, whom I generally only notice when they’re being problematic. Wow, I sound like the Grinch of eating ;-)

  • cybercita

    as it happens, one of my favorite restaurants in new york is cafe loup on 13th street. the food is frequently indifferent, but the lighting and overall ambience are so wonderful i am willing to overlook it.

  • http://mrswskitchen.blogspot.com Amanda

    How aggravating! Dining in a too-dark restaurant not only makes it difficult for people who see well, but what about people who are vision-impaired? Is a “dark” ambiance worth such insensitivity? There’s a fine line there.

    Coming off my soapbox now, I want to say that this post made me really miss south Florida’s seafood. There’s really nothing like it–and here in Central NY it’s all pre-frozen.

  • http://girlrobot.tv Ricky

    I am so wise.

  • http://www.northshoredish.com Jill Rose

    Was that fish you had for an entree? Could it have been walu? Also called butterfish, it’s served at a Mexican restaurant not too far from where I live, and I love it.

  • http://londoneater.com kang at londoneater.com

    I dont mind it being a dark restaurant as long as there is enough light for me to make out what im poking.

    i ate this restaurant in london, pitch black twice and will not do that again.

    kang at londoneater.com

  • http://www.tabibito.biz Susanna

    The E.U. on E4th St is crazy dark. The place was so dark we nearly couldn’t make out what’s on the plate. The food wasn’t bad, but we won’t return to the restaurant, it’s TOO DARK, just crazy.

  • http://kateortiz.wordpress.com/ kate o.

    i’m a big “michael’s genuine” fan but have to admit you’re on to something here.

    i hadn’t thought much of restaurant lighting until my husband took me to “baleen” on biscayne bay. we laugh about it to this day because all we remember are large white (so we think) dishes with black holes in the middle. so dark that the waiters would walk around with little pen lights. seriously?

  • http://allergicgirl.blogspot.com/2008/11/gustorganics-nyc.html allergicgirl

    I was at Michael’s over Xmas and ate at the bar and saw everything no prob and it was all delish.

    but yes lighting is crucial esp for someone with allergies. I *really* need to see my food. for ex: what if someone sprinkled some last minute walnuts as a garnish. could spell disaster for a nut-allergic person.

    (that didnt happen at Michael’s they handled everything very well).

    so yes lighting for mood but yet must be able to see my dinner.