by Cara Gardner

William Pahlmann, a noted interior designer, says that ambience is an "unstudied grace." While Pahlmann himself and others in his field devote their lives to creating comfortable, aesthetically pleasing environs, most people aren't privy to the subtle reasons they feel so at home in some public spaces and so hurried or awkward in others. A restaurant's ambience frames people's experiences and contributes greatly to whether diners enjoy what they're eating. The mark of a truly good restaurant lies in how well it attends to all five of our senses, not just our taste buds. That's why eateries with inspiring art, place-appropriate music and just the right lighting seem to pull people in again and again. Dining out is about the experience, not just the meal.

"Everything fits like a puzzle," says John Rovtar, president of John Rovtar Design Studios Inc., the company responsible for the notable interiors of Fugazzi, Niko's, Twigs and Rock City Grill. Rovtar says that when restaurant owners come to him for design help, he spends more time listening to the space than the owners themselves: "Location is everything. I get a feel for the menu. I don't ask for concept ideas from [the owners], because I figure that's why they came to me."

Rovtar's reputation is proven in places like Downriver Grill, where co-owner and chef Jonathan Sweatt says customers come in not only for the food, but also because they've heard about the d & eacute;cor.

"People get drawn by the look," Sweatt says. "They are always asking about the colors or the tile."

Rovtar designed Downriver Grill in Tuscan shades of red, yellow and country blue. The bar is decked with a pale yellow onyx, and the tables and chairs are made with a rich cherry wood. Fused with the Northern Italian color schemes are small Asian touches: Japanese-style rafters are situated above the kitchen area and entryway; Kanji and Hiragana calligraphy are framed on the walls. The look is clean, simple and elegant.

"I think color is a vital part of my concept and dynamics," says Rovtar. "I like using color because it will energize people or calm them down."

It's true that major restaurant chains hire consumer psychologists to help them figure out how people react to their environments. Almost all fast-food restaurants use orange, yellow and red, which, used in combination, are proven to induce feelings of hunger. But there's a fine line between marketing manipulation and genuine ambience. Rovtar, to be clear, is in the business of creating atmosphere. He advises that the menu should work together with the setting to have a positive effect on the customer.

"It really relates to the type of food you're serving. If it's simple California fare, you want a simple look. If it's heavy [food], you'll want a more intense look."

In keeping with its environment, Downriver Grill's menu offers uncomplicated and creative fusions. The bar is separated from the seating area with a cherry wood and cubed glass partition, imparting a sense of separation without completely disassociating the two areas. These kind of strategic maneuvers are crucial, according to Rovtar.

"The restaurant should lead you in -- you shouldn't have to be told where to go. That's where most people make their mistakes. [It] has to have a flow of its own."

Above all, Rovtar says ambience is a crucial part of getting customers to return.

"It's like a set on a movie, right down to what the waiters look like; if things don't come together and if they're not consistent, it won't work.

"My goal is to make people excited about coming back. If people come in and they don't know why they like it, but it feels good and they like it, then we've done our job."

Moon Time, on Sherman Avenue in Coeur d'Alene, is one of those insanely popular hangouts for no bigger reason than its ambience. Yes, the food is fabulous, the service is nice, the prices are reasonable -- that all contributes to the restaurant's success -- but it wouldn't be Moon Time without its Northwestern-kitsch pub atmosphere. The setting at Moon Time proves that ambience isn't just crucial for high-end restaurants. It's about how the environment matches the menu, how the food and the space work together to provide an overall experience.

The Moon Time pub is a space for socializing in a way that many have come to associate with traditional Pacific Northwestern culture. All around are framed portraits of other pubs throughout the Pacific Northwest, providing a regional context for Moon Time's setting. The bar and eating areas are combined in a big, noisy, welcoming space reminiscent of large community dining halls. There are private nooks, too, which provide space for more personal dining. The floor plan manages to provide both large and small groups plenty of space at their tables without losing the feel of the open layout. For many, Moon Time is like a cozy Northwest version of Cheers. Regulars at Moon Time are part of the ambience; it's a place that reminds diners they live in a small community, and, luckily, one that exists in a region with plenty of microbrews.

Marrakesh, Spokane's beloved Moroccan restaurant, hasn't been successful for more than 15 years because of its delicious food alone. Part of enjoying the saffron-flavored meats, homemade mint tea and spiced couscous comes from eating it in a traditional Moroccan setting. Mamdouh Zayed, owner of Marrakesh, says the ambience helps customers appreciate the Moroccan flavors.

"You sit in a tent surrounded with fancy lighting in the walls, such romantic light and wonderful color carpet and low seats," Zayed describes. Customers dine while lounging on elegant cushions, surrounded by the rich colors and patterns of the North African country.

Marrakesh is an ancient city in Morocco, located along the easiest trade route from Africa into Europe. The city is known for its diverse mix of cultures, and the food from this region has Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, coastal and even some Spanish influences. During the five-course meal -- in a Moroccan tradition -- servers offer the diners fresh cloths and rosewater to wash their hands. When people walk into Zayed's restaurant, they get the sense they've entered a different realm.

"The food and decoration and the music, the wonderful Arabic music -- everything gives you the feeling you are in Morocco," Zayed explains. "We make them forget about Spokane."

Publication date: 04/15/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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