Rènào (lit. hot and noisy): crowded, warm, brightly lit, loud with happy voices. This is the everyday restaurant atmosphere beloved in China, the feeling people hope to find when they go out to eat. A good restaurant should attract many people, and be filled with the clamor of their conversation, the clatter of dishes, and the officious cries of waiters hurrying back and forth. The place should seem exciting, full of avid expectation, and so sought-after that one feels lucky to have gotten in. In the West, high-end restaurants favor softly lit, intimate settings, but these have historically had little appeal in China. While most higher-end restaurants have private rooms, these rooms are almost always set up with a table suitable for a group, not a tête-à-tête.

Lighting is a particular issue. Given the attention to detail and nuance in Chinese cuisine, and especially its playful use of artifice and presentation, Chinese diners want to see what they are eating. There is a widespread feeling that the diner’s visual appreciation of a dish should not be compromised to create a soft, suggestive atmosphere that is of little interest anyway.

Restaurants with the “romantic” atmosphere of the West can be found in China now, but only in the big cities, in restaurants experimenting with Western dining styles. Fine dining in China is usually not loud—but it is well lit.