Ambience - An Opinion Piece
Opinion piece by Aaron Shuttleworth.
When you type 'Ambience' into Google you come up with two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary.
- 'The Character and atmosphere of a place'
-' The quality or character given to a sound recording by the space in which the sound occurs'
There's a beautiful harmony to that phrase 'the quality by the space in which the sound occurs' and I find it most applicable when trying to pinpoint just what makes ambience so important in the bars and restaurants we frequent.
Sounds are a significant part of this; the music, the general hum of the room, the staff working. Just as important is lighting and how we view the space. Frequent complaints these days centre on the difficulty of reading a menu, but just as noticeable is stark lighting that invades a space and leaves us shielding our faces from the imaginary paparazzi.
I focused on these aspects intensely when I opened my most recent venue. Over 3 nights we sat at different locations in the room and made ourselves guests. That downlight is too harsh, the backbar not bright enough, the table lights not working in consonance with everything else. We tinkered and tailored, more soldiers than spies methodically plying our trade. Once we were satisfied we moved onto the music, curating our playlists to different times of the day, varying levels of patronage who would provide the ambient noise. None of this gives us a perfect formula but merely a baseline to adapt from as the situation before us ebbs and flows.
We tend to pay ambience less facetime because it is multifaceted. It's so easy to pinpoint when a certain aspect of the ambience is off kilter, but homage to it as a whole is less tangible than the martini in our hands playing on our senses of touch, taste and smell.
What I'm trying to say is that you can have the best food, drink and service in the world, but if the space you're in isn't inviting, if it doesn't possess that elusive character and quality, then will you return?
Nowhere shone a light on this more (forgive me…) than recently being in Paris and London. The best food in Paris was unquestionably in the most bizarre space; a beautiful old dining room with LED lighting emanating from a chandelier that pierced through your sense of comfort, only becoming more accentuated through no music at all. Even with the quality of food the whole experience felt unmanaged, ambience something to be left to those who needed it as a cheap prop.
Then there was St John. No music, stark lighting against the sanitorium-esque fit out, yet a curated ambience that was entirely deliberate, giving you the feeling that you were sitting down to dine in the church of excess and the offer of just one more tiny wafer would be administered if you clasped your hands in prayer and asked for it before your Doctor Henderson.
Back on home soil, the one place that speaks of a dedication to ambience more than any other I've recently been is Ante. Matt Young and his team are undeniably amazing at what they do, yet they all get the chance to be that because you feel so at home in the immaculately curated space. The lighting is soft enough to touch your menu without needing your phone. The records hug the space with that fuzzy warmth they have a tendency to and keep you wrapped tight throughout your stay, never straying either side of the line so you can hear both their impact and your guests' stories. ‘The quality of the sound recording in the space in which the sound occurs’ gives the whole place character.
Next time you’re out and about, give yourself a second just to sit and think about how a place makes you feel; how the music interacts, the light touches you, the space draws you in or pushes you away. Chances are it’s deliberate, and that natural feeling has a little bit more behind it than you first thought.