Food v Mood – the psychology of dining out

The dilemmas of a hungry designer.  I mean literally, hungry.

You’re hungry.  You get food.  You eat.  Simple, right?

Did you ever realise the variables that come into play when you choose where to eat?  In this day and age with the rise of the ‘foodie’ and tv cooking programs, we underestimate what we need to be satisfied with a dining experience.

Obviously there’s the food – with chefs now attaining a celebrity status, they now attract a following of their own.  There’s the service – you wan’t to be impressed from the initial contact.  Then there’s the ambience – (for most of us) it’s got to look and feel like a place I’d want to experience.  (Of course there are many other factors like location, budget and cultural expectations but for the purpose of this design related article, we’ll focus on the first three)

So what about ambience?  Ambience creates the experience which remains memorable enough to potentially draw you back – or not! – and different venues evoke different feelings.

How do you like to feel when you’re dining?

Energised, sophisticated, casual, relaxed, entertained, comfortable, nostalgic..

Does it depend on your mood, the time of day, or perhaps the company you’re with?

Think about how you feel sitting at your local coffee shop on a Monday morning vs. a Saturday night dinner celebration with friends.  Different feelings, different intentions, different people and a completely different mood.  Some venues may have a targeted customer focus, but one common goal (I hope!) they all share is to make the customer feel so special, they would want to return.

What does it for you and what draws you back time and time again?

What creates a memorable experience?  Both good and bad.

E v e r y b o d y  has a story here..!



Once the location, budget and menu are considered, the search narrows down to the details.  These are the obvious, practical and conscious decisions we make based on fact – ie. the menu appeal, how we’ll get there and how much it will cost us.


Then there’s the unconscious things that we don’t necessarily see at first or decide on exclusively.  But overall, these things contribute to that feeling which influences your decision.  These things create the ambience.


Lighting  We’ve all been to the local chinese diner with the fluorescent lighting across the entire room with the pastel pink walls and large round tables covered in the same colour table cloths.  Compare this to a late night bar lit with candles, halogen down lights or table / floor lamps.  Even visualising each scenario makes me feel different.


Smell  That smell of panfried garlic in butter – you know the one.  Such a powerful yet beautiful aroma.  Enough to stop you mid conversation to find its source.  Or the smell of roast lamb in the oven.  Right now, I’m certain you’re recalling a memory where you’ve experienced this.


Sound Ahh yes.  The blaring sounds of ‘doof doof’ playing in background causing you to give up on conversation because you either can’t hear or you’re tired of yelling.  This is a great strategy for (selling more alcohol!) and/or turning over tables quickly.  The vibe in this type of place feels energised and fast paced, which is fine if that’s what you’re after.  Compared to smooth sounds of jazz playing in a underground dimly lit speak-easy bar with table wait staff personally tending to your order.  The enjoyment of a conversation across your booth with the humm of other conversations resonating around you.  (I’ve spent hours in these places because I feel like I can wind down.  Consequently, I’ve spent more money here too!  But the memories remain and I would certainly return.)


Comfort  Think of the those metal framed chairs that hurt to lean back into, or that awkward table position that makes your knees hit against the table legs or sitting at an incorrect height to the table.  Have we all been there?  Then there’s the comfortable chairs or lounges you sink into where you don’t notice 4 hours fly by until you start yawning..    yup.  Sooo cosy.


Service  Oh to be blown away by service.  It’s such a rare experience.  But when it does happen I remember it, I talk about it and I bring my friends and family back here.  This is a huge contributor to a customers experience however works in close parallel with the rest.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Food  That’s right! That’s how we ended up here – hunger!  Yes you had a choice in the menu but the cooking and serving of food is completely different.  Also consider menu design, specials boards, wait staff who remember (and don’t stuff up!) your order and finally the meal itself cooked by the chef.  Ideally a consistent quality should be seen but it’s not always the case.


Like it or not, each of these factors contribute to how you feel when you dine out.  Each one equally as important in creating a memorable experience for you.

Granted, our unique values and priorities mean these factors would rank differently among us.  Personal memories, bias and experiences also play a part in our decision making.

So it’s true what they say ‘it’s the little things that count’.

From the food critic who has experienced the best and worst, to the restaurant owner who ensures consistent high performance standards, I pay homage to the hospitality industry.

As a foodie and designer, I could spend hours researching before choosing a venue – all with no guarantee of a great experience.  At the end of the day, nothing measures up to reality BUT, when you find that awesome place that does everything the way you like and makes you feel amazing, it’s all worth it.


Feature image: Photographed by Mood Design @ Comuna Cantina, Brisbane


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *