Recently I began reading a new hardcover called “Unreasonable Hospitality” by Will Guidara (the former co-owner of acclaimed Eleven Madison Park in New York City) that is in line with how I perceive the value of service. One particular excerpt expresses the importance of ambiance and felt pertinent to my thoughts about it when going out to a restaurant.

“The duck I’d eaten at that dinner with my dad at the Four Seasons had been delicious, but it was part of a much bigger picture – the spectacular room, the artwork, the lighting, the floral arrangements, the tablecloths, the silverware, the staff’s crisp uniforms – and the way the team had made twelve-year-old me feel like the most important person in the room. That combination had created an atmosphere of pure magic. The food was part of that magic, but it wasn’t everything.” – Will Guidara

As I discussed in a YouTube video and touched upon in a recent column, while food quality is the first thing I rate an experience on, I consider ambiance the next attribute that makes an impact on my meal. Those details that Guidara notices in addition to the service collectively contribute to the opinion one forms about dining out.

When I think about ambiance, I’m referring to the non-food factors that influence my mood. Is the room dark and moody or light and soothing? Are the chairs comfortable? How detail-oriented is the design? As for hole-in-the-wall spots, the very fact that they are small spaces already sends a message to customers that they don’t have much square footage to influence you; but when they do it’s a bonus.

Brick-and-mortars I covered are a combination of newer and established places that invest as much time and consideration into their overall appearance as the quality of their food and beverage program.

Owners Robert Adamson and Ying Chang of Strong Water Anaheim. Credit: Photo courtesy of Carla Blumenkrantz Photography

Strong Water Anaheim

The moment I stepped foot into the alcove of Strong Water in November 2019 and my eyes adjusted to the low lighting, I was awestruck by the realness of my surroundings. From the floor to the shiplap ceiling and everything in between, this craft tiki bar with an oceanic edge was more impressive than any movie set could ever hope to replicate. 

Ying Chang, Strong Water’s self-proclaimed Fleet Commander and steadfast co-owner, helms day-to-day operations and can often be seen guiding passengers on their tropical journey. When Chang and her spouse Robert Adamson originally conceptualized the space, they knew it would be truly immersive. “Upon entering, visitors are regaled with the story of the vessel’s fate and are transported to an abandoned island, complete with lava walls and a wrecked ship resting alongside,” Chang said. 

Between booths incorporating reclaimed bed frames, elaborate bathroom doors (trust me) and a multitude of artifacts purposefully displayed in its captain’s quarters, Strong Water’s ornate setting is a sight to behold, demonstrating the bar’s dedication to exceeding expectations beyond consumption of a spirited concoction and an ever-popular burger. Guests rarely stumble upon Chang’s destination by chance. “If you’re familiar with tiki culture, you know that enthusiasts will travel far and wide in search of the best experiences,” she said. Patrons book as far out as three weeks in advance to secure a spot.

In addition to a talented carpenter, Chang and Adamson relied upon themselves, partner Lynette Lim and supportive family plus friends to add finishing touches including staining wood and mixing cement to complete their passion project. She mentions how seeing the look of amazement on patrons’ faces when they first step into Strong Water never gets old. “The space has so many layers that people often take their time to explore every nook and cranny,” Chang said.

The Richland Hotel, Orange Country, California | Boutique Hotel Photography | Los Angeles-based Hotel, Architecture, Lifestyle and Travel Photographer – Tanveer Badal Photography Credit: Photo courtesy of Tanveer Badal Photography

The Living Room Bar + Lounge at The Richland – Orange

Recently I toured a renovated boutique property in Old Towne containing event spaces with a dozen guest rooms named The Richland. While most venues require their guests to have a current reservation to be on site, a modest bar with lounge seating is open to the public on select evenings. 

Raili Clasen of Corona del Mar-based Raili CA Design describes the living room’s ambiance as being rich in history, yet bold in style. Her team procured whimsical, custom-made bar stools by Sean Woolsey and complemented them with buttery leather sofas and plaid-covered chairs to exude a cozy vibe. “We chose a furniture style which we felt honored the roots of the building and the neighborhood,” Clasen said.

Accessorized in antiques all sourced from neighborhood storefronts, the Richland’s downstairs was styled with classic phones, crystal decanters, movie cameras and other finds curated by the designers who paralleled shopping trips to hunting for treasure. Clasen’s favorite design element in the Richland lounge is the juxtaposition of a checker-tiled fireplace set against the vintage furniture. “It tells the story of old meeting new that you see throughout the entire hotel design,” she said.

The most intriguing detail that I noticed was hidden in plain sight: a kitchen door disguised as a bookcase. “It reminded me of something you would see in old movies,” Clasen said. She understood both the need for staff to have direct access to the kitchen and the desire to elevate form over function. The entry blends so seamlessly into the rest of the interior, I would’ve completely overlooked it if it wasn’t pointed out.

Revised interior of Wahoo’s Huntington Beach. Credit: Photo courtesy of VANROOY Design

Wahoo’s Fish Taco – Huntington Beach 

The brothers behind Santa Ana-based Wahoo’s Fish Taco are one of the sincerest and most involved families I’ve come across since I began covering restaurants. Overseeing a multitude of locations throughout OC and beyond, when the Main Street branch was looking a little worn due to its heavy foot traffic, the team reached out to local design specialists Vanrooy for direction on a remodel. According to managing principal Christine van Rooy, “Our intent wasn’t to change the Wahoo’s experience; our goal was to identify their most authentic attributes and lean into what makes them truly iconic.” 

Wahoo’s co-owner Cindy Lee chimed in on the re-imagining of this particular location, explaining how COVID made them evaluate how they were going to survive and ultimately thrive after being around for three decades (Wahoo’s is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year). “The competition in the food space has increased dramatically over the years. We have been so blessed to have such great customers, but we realized in order to stay relevant we needed to do a refresh,” Lee said. The company has also developed a new streamlined logo to coincide with both the anniversary and the Huntington Beach update.

As with most of its eateries, Wahoo’s is known for an interior collage of memorabilia and stickers throughout. Below the eclectic top layer van Rooy discovered an incredible collection which stretched beyond surf plus skate industries into fashion as well as entertainment. The design team used color blocking to organize and display the coolest pieces within the collection. “We designed custom booth frames similar to grind rails and upholstered them in an iconic black-and-white checkered pattern popular in skate fashion,” van Rooy said (think of a classic pair of Vans – another Orange County mainstay). 

Curating what was displayed in the dining room allowed the most special pieces to shine and reduced overall visual clutter. This in turn allows the customer to focus on quality fare. Per Lee: “The beach is in our DNA and we thought Huntington was the perfect place to showcase an updated version of Wahoo’s.” The fish taco brand hopes to take various elements from the updated store and apply them to additional locations.

Music Affects Ambiance, Too 

Another factor in dining ambiance is definitely music, but the more tangible attributes such as seating and decor are far easier for me to elaborate in greater detail than, say, genres and artists. While ambiance might not make or break one’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, it can certainly have an impact.

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