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Restaurants are so dark these days it’s impossible to even read the menu.

Restaurants are so dark these days it’s impossible to even read the menu.

By Tom Sietsema

Reprint from Washington Post

Get a group of frequent restaurant-goers together, and soon enough their note-sharing will reveal the small things that can diminish an otherwise nice experience. Are we talking #FirstWorldproblems here? Absolutely. Does that stop us from venting? Absolutely not.

The upside to being canceled on at lunch? The chance to catch up on my reading. So off I went to Mastro’s — yet another new D.C. steakhouse in a city stocked with them — carrying several pounds of newspapers that I hoped to shed by the time I asked for the check.

I never made it past a headline.

While Mastro’s has much to recommend it — prime beef, top-shelf drinks, live music seven nights a week — proper illumination is not on the menu. A dark room with darker draperies blocking all but a sliver of natural light, the posh steakhouse is by turns Las Vegas, where the casinos are lighted to make you forget what time it is, and Luray Caverns, hold the electricity.

When I expressed concern to my waiter, a relative beacon thanks to his white jacket, he brought me a table lamp, typically an evening amenity. The supposed fix glowed with the force of a single birthday candle.

Let there be light! (Please?) No matter where my reservations take me of late, I’m reminded that dim lighting is the new noisy dining room: the kvetch du jour as far as ambiance goes. The first thing I did when I sat down at the modern Japanese Momotaro in Chicago this past spring was to pull out my iPhone to read the menu.

Descending the stairs of the bunkerlike Pepe le Moko, one of my favorite bars in Portland, Ore., I was tempted to ask for a flashlight.

Don’t get me wrong. Soft lighting shaves years off faces and adds a dash of romance and even mystery to a setting. Subdued illumination might even be better for our health: A 2012 study by Cornell University found that people took in 18 percent fewer calories with the lights down low.

But zero-level lighting is a disservice to the artists whose food and drink diners can’t fully absorb. As more than a few good cooks have told me over the years, “people eat first with their eyes.” Yet this diner has left the table of too many restaurants and bars with only a faint picture of what they deliver.

The fine print used on some menus only exacerbates the problem. Waiters can’t be expected to run through the entire list by memory, and diners don’t want a word-for-word recitation.

Proper radiance can help restaurantgoers eat within theirmeans. At Mastro’s, only with the aid of my glasses, some squinting and a tilted lamp was I able to verify that a single glass of the 2012 Frank Family cabernet sauvignon cost $35.

I settled for something . . . lighter.