The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England knows a thing or two about atmosphere.
Order “The Sound of the Sea” dish, and you’re served briny oysters atop a mini beach. We’re talking foam, seaweed and sand, on your plate. The waiter hands you an iPod—nestled in a shell, of course—that plays a seaside soundtrack of crashing waves and squawking gulls. A sea-inspired scent is currently in development to be spritzed around the table.
The point? Mentally transporting you to the ocean will enhance the flavor of your food.
Recent research has shown that your dining environment is just as—if not more—crucial to your opinion of an eatery than the food itself.
“It’s that sort of paradox where a glass of rosé tastes better sitting under the Mediterranean sun than on a gloomy winter’s night,” says Professor Charles Spence, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist at Oxford University who worked with chef Heston Blumenthal in creating The Fat Duck’s signature sea dish.
Restaurant owners are scrambling to add multi-sensory swag to their spaces, looking at everything from lighting to music and glass shape to plate size, to turn every bite into an experience. Here’s how they’re influencing our meals.
Savvy restaurateurs are now pairing meals with music, just as they would with wine.
Sound can influence our senses to change our perception of food, and complementary pairings can enhance flavor and enjoyment. In one study Dr. Spence, who specializes in this field, asked subjects to match instrument pitches to food types. High-pitched notes on the piano correlated with sweet dishes, while bitter-tasting foods (such as dark chocolate and coffee), matched with lower-pitch notes on brass or woodwind instruments.
Sound can also amplify your perception of specific flavors. Dr. Spence has shown that bacon and egg ice cream (um, yuck!) is reported as tasting more “bacony” when subjects hear the sound of bacon sizzling in the pan, while it tastes more ‘eggy’ if sounds of farmyard chickens are played instead.
The right lighting not only makes your date look better, it’ll also make you eat more.
According to some researchers, soft, soothing lighting may make us feel less inhibited and less self-conscious, encouraging us to linger, nibble and imbibe. Studies show that the later the hour and the dimmer the lights, the less able diners are to restrain their food intake. Bright lights have been shown to make us to eat more food, faster, which is why they’re often found in high-volume fast-food restaurants.
Food tastes better when you’re in high spirits, and out-of-the-box experiences improve mood. The Michelin-starred Denis Martin restaurant in Vevey, Switzerland, serves punchy visual dishes, like pigeon cooked and delivered inside an Air Mail envelope and chocolate-filled balloons that you burst at your table. “The cooking is serious, but the eating is fun,” says chef Denis Martin. At The Fat Duck, chef Blumenthal brings a “sense of theater” to the dining room—servers performing magic tricks with your food.
While entertainment adds to your enjoyment, it may make you eat more. Distractions in the environment—such as reading, playing on the computer or watching television—prevent you from keeping track of your food intake. Studies show that eating while watching TV or playing a computer game impairs your memory for how much you’ve eaten and leads you to overeat at your next meal.
One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people who ate lunch while listening to a detective story had lower self-restraint, which led them to eat significantly more than those who were fully focused on eating.
Most of the food we eat is served in bowls, plates and glasses. While we mentally rely on dinnerware to measure our portions, their shapes and sizes can create optical illusions (anyone who’s sipped Syrah from a glass the size of a fish bowl knows this).
Large plates make a serving of food appear small; smaller plates make the same portion appear significantly larger. This throws off your estimate of how much you’ve actually consumed. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab has found that people ate 22 percent less just by switching from a 12-inch to a 10-inch dinner plate.
Portion distortion also influences our ability to sense fullness. In one study, Dr. Wansink and colleagues served unknowing diners tomato soup in bowls that were constantly refilled through concealed tubing. People eating from the “bottomless” bowls ate 73 percent more soup than those eating from normal bowls, and estimated that they ate 140.5 fewer calories than they actually did.
The same holds true for drinking glasses. We focus on the height and downplay the width when measuring the amount of liquid poured into a glass. When veteran Philadelphia bartenders were asked to pour alcohol into short, wide tumbler glasses, they poured 20 percent more than what they poured in tall, narrow glasses.
If diners hold their dishes, they may like their meals more. “Servers traditionally place dishes in front of guests,” says Dr. Spence. “We perceive heavier things as higher quality, so what if instead of placing a bowl of soup on the table, it’s placed in your hands so you can feel the weight?”
Dr. Spence has extended this theory to cutlery and is currently conducting tests to see if different metals, with their various weights and tastes, have an impact on the dining experience.
“Many chefs claim it’s all about the ingredients, and always serve their food on the same white plate,” says Dr. Spence. But color plays a huge part in our perception of food. Coffee drinkers judged the same java as mild when it was served from a blue pot and too strong when it was served from a brown pot. Coffee served in a red pot was ranked best, as “aromatic and strong.”
The ability to assess temperature, which can affect how hungry you are, is also influenced by color. For example, a study found that subjects in a blue-green room sensed cold at 59 degrees, while those in an orange room only sensed a temperature drop once it reached 35 degrees. There’s a reason why that’s so appealing for a restaurateur: cool temperatures and warm colors tend to be physically stimulating, making you more likely to overeat.
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