Theme and Decor: How Important to Restaurants?

By Patricia B. Mitchell, 1991.

There's more to dining than just the food — but how much more? Zagat Survey, a New York publisher of restaurant-rating guidebooks, allows a restaurant up to 30 points each for food, service, and decor. On our own form, my husband and I rate each establishment on a 10-point scale, with up to five points for food, three for service, one for purpose, and only one for atmosphere (which includes decor).

Everyone agrees that food is important, and competent service — but what of atmosphere and decor?

At its most basic, decor is merely "truth in labeling." Without pretense, authentic ethnic restaurants have long boasted decorative touches representative of their particular culture. One almost expects to see sombreros and capes in Mexican restaurants, a painting or poster of the Acropolis in a Greek place. We have been given chopsticks at Chinese restaurants (collecting so many from Danville, Virginia's Long River that my husband built a rack out of them for his photographic darkroom accessories). We have observed Chianti-bottle lamps, Italian flags, and red-and-white checkered tablecloths in Italian restaurants.

Louisiana architect David Spicuzza, with David, Sarah, Jonathan, and Patricia Mitchell at the Napoleon House, New Orleans, July 1991

Louisiana architect David Spicuzza, with David, Sarah, Jonathan, and Patricia Mitchell at the Napoleon House, New Orleans, July 1991.

One of our most beloved eateries is the Napoleon House in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The building was to have served as a refuge for the former French emperor in an unsuccessful plot to rescue him from St. Helena, but the restaurant/bar occupying it now is Italian through and through. There we indulge in huge muffaletta sandwiches while sitting in the Mediterranean-evoking courtyard. Opera music plays as we dine.

At its worst extreme, decor becomes the main show, actually distracting the customer from incidental, if not inedible, food. Even though many restaurant critics lump all "theme" restaurants into this category, with special disdain for franchised clones following corporate formulas for merchandising pre-packaged food, most thoughtful patrons grant that in the same way a painting is enhanced by a proper frame, an artful meal can be enjoyed more in appropriate surroundings.

Good atmosphere does not have to be grand. One of our favorite fish houses is Grandmaw's in Alexandria, Louisiana. There the waiters wear bib overalls and the beverages are served in Mason jars. Complimentary peanuts are provided while one waits for their fabulous peanut-fed catfish. Diners are encouraged to toss their peanut shells onto the floor.

The recycling of abandoned church buildings, train stations, and cabooses offers irresistible theme opportunities for restaurateurs. My family and I recently ate at the Parson's Table in Jonesborough, Tennessee. This Victorian Gothic-style church structure has undergone the transition to a visually very attractive restaurant.

Our children are delighted with two train-theme sandwich places, both with "rolling stock" on miniature tracks: Ham's in High Point, North Carolina, and the Red Caboose in Appomattox, Virginia. At the Depot in Asheville, North Carolina, the trains that roll by are the full-size Norfolk and Southern variety.

Several years ago, a favorite stop for our daughter Sarah was the local (Danville, Virginia) Old 97 Restaurant, with its railroad memorabilia and the recording of train sounds. Confident that her little brother David would be even more appreciative of the joys of the Old 97, we arrived, entered the dimly-lit building, and began to make our way toward the dining area. David froze in terror. Unaware of his fright, we urged him along, but he spent most of the meal whimpering and fussing.

Only later could we determine that his problem was that he had spotted a cigar-store Indian in a corner. This life-sized decoration had "about scared his wits out" — which goes to prove that appreciation for restaurant decor is a matter of personal taste. Now that David is a mature 7, it's about time to try out the Old 97 with his little brother Jonathan . . . .