Dine and Dazzle: The 10 Golden Rules of Restaurant Lighting Design
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP
If you’re a restaurant owner, you know that ambience matters. Your cuisine could be decadent, your wait staff superb, and your drinks impeccably mixed but if the atmosphere isn’t up to par, the whole experience can fall flat.
While it’s tempting to fill the space with functional overhead lighting, it’s far more impressive to take the time to understand how effective restaurant lighting design works.
Are there certain types of lighting that work better in some spaces than others? Should you use lights that complement or contrast your decor? Which setup will make your customers feel most comfortable and at ease? These are only a few of the many questions you might have, especially if you’re still in the early stages of a construction or remodel.
Today, we’re walking you through the 10 golden rules of restaurant lighting. From the aesthetic, nice-to-have features to the critically important ones, we’ll cover it all.
Why Does Restaurant Lighting Design Matter?
As long as patrons can see their food and each other, your lighting design is adequate, right?
Remember that in the restaurant industry, diner comfort is key. The more welcome, laidback and relaxed your guests feel, the longer they’ll stay and in theory, the more food and drinks they’ll consume. This pumps money back into your restaurant, which you can then re-invest to make sure you’re continually providing the type of dining event your visitors expect.
You can get part of the way with a great dining room layout. You can also amplify the experience with plush materials, sleek finishes and top-of-the-line hardware. Then, there’s the food itself. You could continue to reel them in with fresh, beautifully crafted dishes and an impressive menu that speaks for itself.
Yet, the entire encounter could grow dim if patrons leave with their brows furrowed, wondering why it was so dark or worse, so starkly lit, in your restaurant. While it’s easy to take great lighting design for granted, it’s fairly obvious when the opposite holds true.
If you work in your restaurant every day, you might become used to the inefficient lighting currently in place. Yet, it’s always best to consider your setup from an outsider’s or a first-time diner’s perspective.
Do the different lights work together to illuminate the colors and details of your dishes in a gorgeous and eye-catching way? Do they soften the appearance of anyone seated nearby, casting a flattering glow? Do they help create the look and feel that you were attempting to capture, whether that’s a retro 60’s diner or an upscale French bistro?
Put simply, restaurant light design is far more important than many people make it out to be. Think of it this way: If it matters at home, it matters at work. You wouldn’t be satisfied cooking in a poorly-lit kitchen, or asking your family members to sit under harsh overhead lights without dimmers.
The same goes for your restaurant patrons. Keeping their comfort in mind, let’s take a look at 10 of the top considerations that factor into an excellent restaurant lighting design.
- Integrate Different Types of Lights Into the Overall Design
Lighting design should never be an afterthought. This is as true for any commercial business as it is for a residential living space.
If you’re eyeing new fixtures and considering redoing your lights before a grand opening, the result may not have the full effect that you envisioned. Instead of saving it as the last part of your project, lighting should be considered an integral part of the design from the very beginning. There are a few different types of lights to choose from, and it’s important to understand how each one works.
Pendant lights hang down from the ceiling and provide a concentrated area of illumination. These are usually positioned over bars, islands, and tables. They may also be located near host areas.
Installing a pendant light over a booth or table can help guests read menus and better see their fare.
Like pendant lights, chandeliers also hang from the ceiling. However, they are much more ornate and decorative in nature. You’ll usually find chandeliers hanging in a main entrance or in a dining room.
Though they provide a touch of elegance, these can also be functional and provide a well-lit focal point in your restaurant. This Cellula Chandelier by Anthologie Quartett is a prime example of how show-stopping these fixtures can be!
Wall Lamps and Sconces
Wall lamps are smaller light fixtures that are affixed to your walls. They serve as excellent sources of accent lighting, and look great when installed adjacent to artwork or mirrors. You may also find them used alongside vanities in restaurant bathrooms.
For a touch of elegance and sophistication, check out our White Grace Wall Sconce by Masiero Luxury. Made of silver, brass and white porcelain, it’s a sleek way to stand out.
Recessed Can Lights
Recessed lights might not be the most elaborate on this list, but they’re low-profile and functional. This type of lighting is flush to the ceiling and emits narrow bands of light in a downward direction.
You can use recessed lights to supply both ambient and task lighting.
Track lights are a great way to add an industrial touch to your restaurant or bar. These feature multiple fixtures attached to a single, continuous track.
You can adjust each individual light to point in a unique direction, illuminating the exact area you need. The tracks can be installed directly onto your ceiling or on a beam.
Once you’ve decided which types of lights you want to install in your location, you can begin laying out the logistics. Not only do you need to know where every electrical outlet will go, but it’s also best to lay out your dining area and lighting scheme at the same time, so everything flows together seamlessly.
For instance, consider the layout of your tables. You want your overhead lighting to be strategically centered over or near each table, so you may consider installing pendant lights above each sitting area. The Bel Occhio Pendant Light by Pablo Designs is a longstanding favorite, beautifully marrying style and function.
It might take a little extra time, but remember your lighting as you prepare your restaurant for opening night and beyond.
- Don’t Forget Exterior Lights
When it comes to illuminating your restaurant, you might focus a majority of your energy on the interior lighting. After all, that’s where you’ll have the opportunity to make a great impression, wowing visitors with your warm environment and creative menu selections.
Yet, in your quest to stand out indoors, don’t forget to consider the exterior of your restaurant, too.
From wall sconces and bracket lights to eye-catching pendant lights, there are many different ways to light up your outdoor signage and encourage passersby to give your restaurant a second look. After all, great exterior lighting makes architecture come alive when the sun goes down, and gives your structure an entirely different vibe than in the daytime.
For the best results, look for exterior fixtures that blend seamlessly with your building’s current features and the theme of your restaurant. For instance, these Exterior Bracket Lights by Original BTC are perfectly rustic and add a universal touch of charm and class to almost any facade.
For a slightly more elevated look, this Windfall Exterior Wall Sconce is ideal. Sleek and sophisticated, it’s available in a black or silver finish and adds a streamlined look to modern exteriors.
Whatever your personal style choice, be sure to place exterior lights above your signs, along walkways, and near any other architectural features you wish to highlight. This is the first step in luring in new diners and encouraging them to give your place a try.
- Ensure Adequate Wattage and Lumens
When it’s time to decide the lighting design for their new restaurant, many owners second-guess just how bright they want their space to be. In response, the conversation usually steers to wattage.
While most experts recommend sticking to around 200 to 400 watts, you’ll need to keep the size of your dining area in mind. What works for a smaller mom-and-pop diner might be inadequate for a large-scale chain restaurant, so the answer is far from one-size-fits-all.
For the best results, take the measurement of your entire square footage. As you do, consider each dining space to be its own separate zone, or unit. Then, multiple the square footage of each dining area by 1.5. This should reveal the general wattage requirements for that individual space.
As you implement this design, try to keep each dining area’s lights separate from any adjacent sections of the restaurant. Focus on accent lighting that won’t bleed over into other spaces and create confusing lines in your layout.
Then, there’s the issue of lumens.
While a watt is considered to be a unit of power, a lumen is the direct measurement of light output. Watts tell you how much energy the bulb is drawing, so the fewer watts you need, the lower your restaurant’s utility bill could be.
Lumens, however, dictate how much light your bulb will emit. The higher this value, the brighter your light.
The accepted rule is to apply around 30 lumens of light per square foot of the dining feature you want to illuminate. For instance, if you are installing lights over a 5×7 foot dining table, you’ll need to ensure that there are a collective 1050 lumens overhead.
- Layer Your Lighting
You know those restaurants that look alluring and inviting from the moment you step inside? Your mood lifts, your tensions relax and your hunger piques as you find your seat.
This isn’t a magic trick. It’s the effect of thoughtful and intricate lighting design that’s perfectly layered for the ultimate appeal.
While you’re choosing fixtures, remember that different types of lights are designed to perform different tasks. Rather than stick to one type, try to use different ones to create a warm and welcoming touch.
The different types of lighting in a restaurant include:
- Ambient lighting
- Task lighting
- Accent lighting
Let’s discuss each of these in greater detail.
Ambient lighting is the primary source of lighting in your restaurant. In other words, these are the fixtures that are generating the most illumination and without them, your patrons would essentially be dining in the dark. Ambient lighting can be provided by either natural light or electric, overhead fixtures.
Task lights help your employees and customers see around the different areas of your restaurant. For instance, you may install task lighting in your kitchen, or near your cash register by the door. These lights are mostly industrial in nature, though their size and appearance should be considered against the look of your restaurant as a whole. Examples include overhead lamps, bright fluorescent lights, or small table lamps.
Accent lights are meant to draw the visitor’s attention to a special feature in your interior or exterior architecture while adding drama and pizazz. For instance, you may use accent lights to illuminate the back of your bar, or you could install them on an outside stone column for a rustic touch. You can also use accent lights to highlight artwork around your space or illuminate menu boards.
In some cases, a light fixture can fit into more than one restaurant lighting category. For instance, your outdoor patio lights could work as accent lighting during the day, but transform into ambient lights for evening patrons.
If you have an extra-tall ceiling, a grandiose option like our Perchgrand Chandelier is a beautiful choice. Of course, there are tons of other pendant lights, table lamps, and chandeliers that can also add the perfect touch.
- Set the Right Mood
The lights you select can have a direct impact on the ambience and mood of your establishment. They can either draw people to your restaurant or bar, or send them in a different direction. Most of the time, the brightness you choose has a direct impact on the message you send.
How do you want patrons to feel when they enter your dining area? If you’re going for a more formal, upscale vibe, then low lighting can help add a dramatic and intimate touch to any space. It can also give off a romantic, intimate vibe and encourage patrons to stay longer.
Look for lights that give off an amber hue, which is naturally flattering and mimics the illusion of candlelight. You can also install dimmers on your overhead light fixtures and incorporate plenty of accent lights. As you design your layout, keep in mind that you’ll still need an adequate number of ambient lights to make sure everyone can move around safely.
On the other hand, if you’re marketing your establishment as an upbeat, family-friendly casual dining experience, then brighter lighting is usually preferable. These lights are stimulating and high-energy and work best in more laidback establishments, including smoothie shops and cafes.
In this case, you can stick to regular wattages, and look for lights that have a slightly blue hue. Research shows that blue-enriched light exposure can actually trigger an increase in hunger! You can also install larger windows to let in more natural light, or stick to overhead light fixtures.
- Use Lighting as a Navigational Tool
Restaurant lights do more than simply light up dining spaces. Rather, when they’re designed effectively, they can actually guide your patrons around your space.
For instance, you can install strategically placed lights that help diners easily maneuver from the front door to their table. You can also use lights to help guide them to key places inside the venue, such as the bar, bathroom, or checkout area.
This approach works because it uses focal points to naturally show visitors where to go. You can achieve this effect by installing different forms of accent lighting and ambient lighting. This creates areas of contrasting brightness, which help make important areas more visible than others.
While exact dimensions can vary based on your space and size requirements, consider sticking to a 5:1 ration of accent lights to ambient lights to help objects stand out and create a noticeable visual effect. In addition to restaurateurs, retailers can also use this same setup to highlight the merchandise on their shelves!
- Keep Diner Comfort Top of Mind
Sure, you might be out to set a new, funky statement with your restaurant. This could mean experimenting with different forms of lighting design and eschewing traditional rules of size, scale and function.
While you’re certainly free to exercise your creative freedoms, keep in mind that your restaurant has to cater to your target audience. If the diner experience isn’t pleasing, you could be hard-pressed to turn a profit, even if the food is phenomenal.
When you’re laying out your lights, keep this consideration top of mind. No matter how offbeat the lights and fixtures might be, there are several core elements that all good designs will ensure. Among others, these include:
- Guests should be able to see their food
- Guests should be able to read their menu
- Guests should be able to see each other
- There shouldn’t be a glare in any dining space
- Shiny surfaces shouldn’t reflect light in guests’ direction
Depending on other elements of your design, some of these cornerstones might not work out of the gate.
For instance, you might have mirrors that could inadvertently cast a glare toward a guest. Rather than overhauling your entire interior design, look for other ways you can soften the light and redirect it. In this case, you could install frosted glass panes or fabric panels to diffuse the glare.
- Consider Color Rendering Index
Color rendering does not mean investing in colored light bulbs, though these can be a fun touch when used sparingly. For instance, consider illuminating your bar in your restaurant brand’s colors!
Rather, color rendering actually means paying close attention to how well your light bulbs mimic natural light. In other words, are they able to showcase an object’s true colors or do they skew them?
Also known as CRI, the Color Rendering Index quantifies a bulb’s ability to reveal the actual colors of objects that it illuminates. There are many applications in which a high CRI is mission-critical, such as in the field of art restoration.
In the restaurant niche, it’s also a top priority. If your lamps have a low CRI, they could cast your plates in an unflattering light, or fail to highlight the bold, beautiful colors of a fresh garden dish. While the highest score on the index is 100, you do not have to solely seek out bulbs this high.
In most restaurants and commercial kitchens, you’re required to use lights that have a minimum score of 80 on the CRI, though 90 or above is always best. Remember: Diners view your food before they taste it, and you want them to like what they see. A great presentation is key, and your lights play a major role in how well your food looks.
- Embrace Energy-Efficient Solutions
When it comes to your restaurant’s budget, every line item counts. You want to make sure you’re maximizing your investments to the greatest extent possible, and this includes your lights.
In recent years, LED lightbulbs have taken center stage as some of the brightest and most energy-efficient solutions on the market. In addition, they’re also among the most flexible.
In essence, LED bulbs act as small semi-conductors. This means that as electric currents pass through them, they generate energy and light. In general, semi-conductors are fairly simple to control and manipulate and are responsive to a variety of changes.
Especially if you plan to install dimmers on your lights or you want to try an intricate color scheme, you need bulbs that can keep up. While conventional bulbs might be able to perform the same functions, adjusting them to peak capacity can be laborious. The process is quicker and more comfortable when you’re using LED varieties.
The best part? An LED bulb will last much longer than an incandescent bulb or CFL. In fact, most of these bulbs have a rated life of around 50,000 hours, a lifespan that’s around 50 times longer than a standard incandescent and 8 to 10 times longer than a CFL. It’s also 20 to 25 times longer than a halogen bulb!
According to the same research, when you install LED bulbs in your restaurant, you can reduce your energy consumption by up to 90%! Not only is this better for the environment, but it’s easier on your pockets, too.
- Adjust Lighting Based on the Time of Day
Think about it: Does the lighting in your home change as the day goes on? For instance, you might use your overhead kitchen lights in the early, dim morning and then leave them off all day until the sun goes down and the kitchen gets dark again.
In the same vein, your restaurant’s lighting needs will fluctuate according to the hour of the day, so it’s smart to plan accordingly. Let the meals you serve be your guide.
If you serve breakfast fare in the early hours, stick to bright lighting that mimics the daytime light. Not only does this help brighten the mood indoors, but it gives guests plenty of light to read the paper over their morning coffee!
It’s also a gentle way to help everyone get accustomed to the day. If possible, stick to natural light to avoid jarring your customers awake.
For lunch, keep the lighting moderate. If you’re at the helm of a fast-casual restaurant, stick to higher lights that will encourage quick guest turnover so you can serve as many people as possible.
Regardless of whether your restaurant is fast or formal, dinner is likely where you do a bulk of your daily sales. As such, it’s important to establish a relaxing environment that will allow customers to unwind and relax.
At dinner, you can really set the mood, as long as it makes sense for your venue. Use softer, dimmer lighting to create an elegant atmosphere and help your guests ease into the last part of their day. As they linger, they’ll also be more likely to spend more money on food, drinks and even dessert!
Shop Our Selection of Restaurant Lights Today
Whether you’re building a new venue from the ground up or you’re undergoing a remodel of your existing space, the importance of strategic restaurant lighting design cannot be overlooked.
The way you illuminate your exterior, dining areas, and key focal points of your building can set the stage for an incredible guest experience. Keeping these 10 tips in mind, are you ready to start envisioning the layout of your dreams?
If so, we’d love to help. Our online store is filled with high-quality lighting solutions for any area at home or work, including your restaurant lounge, dining area or bar. Feel free to shop our full collection today and contact our team with any questions.