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Mood Mavens: How Restaurants Create the Atmosphere Richmond Diners Crave



Wanted: director of vibe for newly-designed restaurant. Responsibilities include all aspects of creating the right atmosphere: staff, soundtrack, lighting, menu, décor and decibel level. Detail-oriented multitasker preferred. Obsessive compulsive tendencies a plus.

If ever there were a time when food was all that mattered at a restaurant, it’s long since passed. Today’s diners want a full experience — and with that desire, there needs to be someone to manage those expectations.

Hiring the right staff is key to creating cool local vibes. The people, their personalities and what they know about the city are the soul of a gathering spot.

“We talk about this in the hiring process. We’re looking for an energy,” says detail-oriented Aline Reitzer, co-owner of Acacia Mid-Town, a place where servers know what bands are performing, which plays are running and what movies are playing. “We go the extra step to impact expectations,” she says.

At L’Opossum, David Shannon has never had to advertise for servers. “A good fit is a start,” he says of such longtime servers as Susan Worsham, who also worked for him at his now-closed restaurant Dogwood Grille & Spirits. “She dropped what she was doing to come here,” Shannon says. “She gets my vibe and food and what we’re trying to do.”

When it comes to music, both genre and volume come into play. General manager Michael Smith takes his musical cues from Laura Lee’s neo-fern bar theme with ’60s and ’70s classic rock interspersed with healthy doses of indie music and classic soul.

“It depends on the night and the guests who come in,” he says of mixes that include both Sondre Lerche and Elton John. “With a sleepier crowd, I play sleepier music. When the noise level gets loud, I up the tempo and volume to be more energetic, moving away from acoustic.”

When the evening begins, Reitzer says she starts with jazz before moving on to European techno to add to the energy of the space and complement it. For the restaurant’s mini wine dinners, she creates a soundtrack based on the wines — usually Italian or French music. “We don’t play Top 40 or classical,” she says. “If it were up to me, it would be nothing but Dutch techno.”

Dim lighting adds to ambiance, but Smith says it also has middle-aged customers reaching for phone flashlights to read menus. Because he tends to keep lighting levels constant, he compensates with low candles. “They’re vibe setters,” he says.

Shannon is a big fan of swag lighting, he says, because the fixtures, rather than the dropped acoustic tile ceiling, are the focus when guests look up. He likes it darker than most Richmond restaurants and lowers the lights several times each evening as daylight fades. “Occasionally a server notices a song’s played three times or a light is out, and I’ll slip out and change the bulb during service,” Shannon says, acknowledging obsessive-compulsive habits.

Curating first impressions is also on Smith’s radar. He and the staff try to welcome diners and convey knowledge, but at the guests’ pace, he says: “If people can have their fears and concerns melt away as soon as we greet them, they can sit back and enjoy the vibe.”

L’Opossum’s high-kitsch atmosphere is unlike any other in Richmond. Shannon says he’s gratified that his restaurant’s quirky concept was so well received and sees it as a tribute to this city’s willingness to try new things. “Restaurants no longer have to fall into a pattern of how things were,” he says.

Back at Acacia Mid-Town, when everything’s firing, Reitzer says she knows it: “The best times are Saturday nights when the doors are wide open, the runners are going back and forth to the patio, the music is bumping, and we’re just go, go, go. It gives me chills.”

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