I go out to dinner once a month with a group of 7-10 people. Last night we went to Teppanyaki in Lexington, a place like Benihana's, where the chef cooks your food at your table with much showmanship. Hokey, but fun, and the kids loved it.
I had a great time because I was able to see and talk to everyone in the group, even the ones across the fairly large table from me. For me, having a good time with my friends is at least as important a part of going out to eat as the food.
Why was this? because there was no background music (even quiet background music leads to people talking a bit louder, and others then have to talk louder to be heard over them, and so forth in a vicious cycle) and the room was brightly lit. Seeing the person across the table well makes it easier to talk to them; you can see the I-want-to-speak-now, I'm-interested-in-what-you're-saying, and I'm-bored facial expressions and body language more easily, and everyone lipreads more than they realize in noisy environments.
So my standards for good atmosphere in a restaurant are good lighting, good acoustics, and lack of background music. By this standard, most hospital cafeterias have great atmosphere, and most fancy restaurants have lousy atmosphere.
Even in a place that feels they want to emphasize cuisine over sociability, many places are so dark that the visual appeal of the food is dramatically reduced for me.
I understand having background music when there are only a few people in the restaurant, to make it easier not to overhear or be overheard from other tables. But once it gets crowded and noisy, the background music makes everyone louder, and makes hearing the conversations from the next table more common for me, not less.
So am I that dramatically different from most people in my restaurant preferences? Or are the people that run most fancy restaurants stupid?