Let There Be Light in Restaurants

When people are intelligent, we call them bright. When they are stupid, we call them dim or dull. People have always associated light with intelligence. We give our children names like Claire and Clara, which both mean "bright." In China, the same thing happens. Children are sometimes named Ming, meaning "bright."

Restaurants are often dimly lit. Darkness is associated with evil; Satan is the Prince of Darkness. Stupidity — dimness — is like evil because it keeps us from seeing clearly. Clarity, needless to say, comes from a Latin word meaning "light" or "bright."

Restaurants are getting better all the time. New York is a particular showplace for this phenomenon. Food is more varied and interesting — and delicious — than ever before. Nevertheless, for the last 15 or 20 years, restaurants have been undoing their excellence by getting darker.

This is especially surprising when we stop to think that food is not merely delicious but also beautiful to look at. Chefs decorate their creations, especially their desserts. Food that looks good automatically tastes better. Designing food to look beautiful and then turning down the lights is the essence of dim-wittedness.

People are beautiful. Some are more beautiful than others, but all are beautiful. We like to go to restaurants with other people. We want to talk to them and see them. If the surroundings are too dark, we can't see them very well. Even talking gets harder, since we can't altogether read the expressions on the faces of our companions.

Darkness is romantic, I have been told. I don't agree. We associate darkness with romance because romantic moments often take place in the dark. Clarity and understanding are even more romantic.

Restaurants weren't always dark. I first became aware of dark restaurants when my family and I took a trip through the Midwest in 1967 and ate in motel dining rooms. The dim lighting was a mistaken attempt at achieving elegance. Eventually, this silly practice spread. It is now almost universal in New York. It hasn't yet taken over Paris, that most delicious of cities, but it probably will. Fads have their own strength. The playwright Eugene Ionesco depicted the power — and the danger — of fads in his comedy Rhinoceros. There is a Yiddish proverb that warns us against fads: Eyn nar makht a sakh naronim, which means "One fool makes many fools," or in my father's brilliant translation, "One stupid makes a lot of stupids."

What are the first words that God ever says? "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3). Light is creation. Light is the Big Bang. "And God saw the light, that it was good" (Gen. 1:4). Restaurants have forgotten that light is good. They have fallen from grace.