The Ultimate Guide to Restaurant Lighting

restaurant lighting

One of the main goals for any well-designed restaurant is to provide a welcoming environment that allows patrons to enjoy their meals and leave with a desire to return.

While the quality of your establishment’s food and the friendliness of its service will be the primary factors that motivate people to come back with friends and family, lighting has a lot more to do with it than you might think. Eating is as much a visual experience as it is a savory one and providing the right kind of illumination can greatly impact the presentation of the food and the overall experience of your customers.

When it comes to lighting, the best restaurants take a tiered approach by layering lights wherever patrons are likely to go.

Types of Light Layering in Restaurants

There are three main types of light layering found in restaurants.

  • Ambient lighting is the main source of light throughout a restaurant. It will provide a general level of lighting and can be a mix of natural light and fixtures. If used as a light diffuser, ambient lighting can make the ceilings seem higher and the walls seem wider, ultimately allowing patrons to see better and move around the space more easily and comfortably.
  • Task lighting is used when more light is needed in a concentrated area to perform specific duties. This can be in the kitchen for cooking, at a cash register for counting money, or at a table so guests can easily read the menu. Task lighting can take the form of an overhead spotlight, fluorescent lighting, or a table lamp.
  • Accent lighting is using lighting to draw a patron’s attention to a particular area. This could be to amplify certain architectural features in the restaurant or to highlight areas of interest, like a menu board. Some restaurant operators like to introduce colorful lighting behind the bar area or along the walls. Accent lighting is about creating an individual style for the restaurant.

How Restaurant Lighting Impacts Mood

Lighting—and particularly the brightness of that lighting—has a major impact on the mood or mindset of a restaurant. Getting the mood right is important for two reasons: first, it identifies the kind of customer you’re hoping to attract; and second, it helps to establish the kind of experience you want that customer to have.

A fine dining establishment, for example, is looking to provide a much different experience than a café. Consequently, the upscale restaurant, in its pursuit of a more sophisticated customer, would employ a much different lighting strategy than the café—one that conveys a sense of elegance, rather than a sense of utility.

Lighting affects mood in the following ways:

  • Bright lighting provides the most stimulation and is most beneficial when owners want their customers to be alert. This type of lighting is great for spaces like ice cream shops, cafés, or family-friendly restaurants. It can be achieved through the use of large windows for natural lighting or brilliant overhead fixtures.If a restaurant operates in the morning, owners should consider incorporating bright lighting into the space. As customers are enjoying their breakfast and morning coffee, they’ll need a good amount of light to help wake them up. While this can be achieved through bright, artificial lighting elements, natural light is the best light source in the morning.
  • Low lighting can be warm and cozy, creating a comfortable, intimate atmosphere that invites customers to stay longer. Imagine dinner at a restaurant where the table is lit by candlelight – it’s romantic and sets the perfect mood for a formal dinner date. Keep in mind that while the restaurant may employ low lighting as its primary focus, there should be enough ambient and task lighting elsewhere for customers to easily navigate through the dining room and for employees to safely perform their duties. As mentioned, most patrons like a relaxed atmosphere as they’re enjoying their dinner. If a restaurant does most of their sales during the evening, it may be best for them to incorporate low lighting into the design of the restaurant. If the restaurant provides customers with an environment where they can sit and relax after a long day, they may be more inclined to stay longer and order more drinks, food, and dessert.

There are many restaurants that operate all day, though. If this is the case, installing a dimmer provides an element of flexibility, allowing the brightness of the restaurant to be adjusted throughout the day to create different moods. There’s also the option of installing an automated control system, which can be programmed through different settings to automatically adjust the lighting to reflect the season or time of day.

Different Types of Light Sources

  • Natural Lighting
    One of the easiest ways to brighten up a restaurant is through natural lighting. Take advantage of glass panel doors, skylights (if the establishment will allow for them), and tall windows. If seating is focused around the perimeter of the building and along the windows, customers will get the full impact of natural lighting. To get the most use out of natural light, work with someone who can guide you through how your restaurant responds to the movement of the sun throughout the day. Depending on the time of the day, customers who are facing either east or west will be dealing with the sun directly. It’s best to install curtains or blinds to minimize the amount of sunlight shining through the windows. Seasons and weather will also play a role in how much light shines into a restaurant. Plan your seasons accordingly and switch out window treatments as you see fit.
  • Recessed Lighting
    Recessed lighting can provide rooms with a significant amount of lighting, and they are great at diffusing light throughout a space. The openings are flush to the ceiling and send the light downwards and out. Avoid placing them directly in the middle of a room, though, as it could create an atmosphere that feels more like a showroom than a restaurant. For best results, evenly space out the lights and keep them at least a foot from the wall. Recessed lighting is a perfect solution if you’re looking to increase your ambient or task lighting.
  • Utility Lighting

    While utility lighting shouldn’t be used in the main area of a restaurant, it can have an impact if it’s used in a space where high visibility is necessary, like the kitchen, dish room, or storage area. Most commonly, utility lighting will be found overhead, and with the use of LED lighting, it can provide bright enough light for employees to safely perform duties in any of these areas.
  • Wall Lamps
    Even though walls lamps could provide enough ambient lighting to illuminate a dining room, walkway or entrance, they are most commonly used to accent another feature around them. Different from sconces, which line up flush with the wall, wall lamps easily attach to the wall and jut out just far enough to highlight artwork, menu boards, or restaurant branding. Wall lamps can also be implemented into restrooms as a vanity light, located above the mirror.
  • Chandeliers
    Not every restaurant will make use of chandeliers, but they do provide beautiful and elegant focal points for customers as they enter a restaurant or enjoy a meal. They are hung high and out of the way, while still creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere to an entryway or dining area. Over time, the versatility and diversity of chandeliers has increased, along with their usage. Chandeliers now include many types of decorative elements, including blown glass and metalwork, and manufacturers have introduced new shapes and designs to accommodate a wide variety of modern restaurant types. Thanks to these innovations, chandeliers aren’t just for fine dining anymore and can fit in almost anywhere.
  • Track Lighting
    When searching for an adaptable option for accent lighting, consider track lighting. This type of fixture is flexible and can provide restaurants with a variety of different lighting options for just about any area of the establishment. Track lighting features multiple fixtures on a continuous track, with individual lights positioned into different directions, allowing you to have different focal points all emanating from the same source. The track can be placed on either ceilings or beams around a restaurant, and each lighting fixture can also move along the track. If you want to accent two items that are close together, simply move two of the fixtures along the track, position them side by side, and highlight the elements you want to feature.

restaurant lighting

  • Pendant Lights
    Like chandeliers, pendant lights are hanging lights that drop down directly from the ceiling. Unlike chandeliers, however, they are typically hung low to create a single focal point, which is usually straight down. A great option for task lighting is incorporating pendant lights throughout the restaurant over dining room tables, countertops, host areas, and bars. This type of lighting gives customers plenty of illumination without adversely affecting the mood of the restaurant. Pendant lighting comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, designs, and colors, so it’s important to research the styles that best fit each area of your restaurant.
  • Smart Lighting
    As smart technology continues to evolve, it’s becoming easier than ever to incorporate it into your restaurant, whether it be through a security system or a lighting management system. Some smart lighting systems have features like automatic shut-off, dimming control, and motion sensors. Smart lighting systems can also allow owners to customize much more than just their lighting. If a restaurant uses natural light as a main source of ambient lighting, for example, smart technology can control the window treatments and regulate how much light shines through the windows. Motion sensors are another smart technology feature to include in your restaurant. Deploy these your restrooms, and they’ll conserve energy by only using light when it’s absolutely necessary. Many smart light systems come with the option of controlling everything from a single application on your tablet or smart phone. Say, for example, that it’s almost closing time at your restaurant, but there’s still a large crowd around the bar. You can program the app to automatically cause the bar lights to slowly get brighter at a certain time, indicating to patrons that the restaurant is closing and that it’s time for close out tabs and leave. Using a mobile app to control your lights could also be convenient if one of your employees forgets to turn off the lights when locking up. Instead of having to go back to the restaurant to physically turn off the lights, you can open up the system’s app and turn them off from the comfort of home.
    Be sure to research the different types of smart light systems to ensure you’re picking the best one for your restaurant.



Outdoor Lighting

As you’re designing the lighting of your building, do not forget the exterior. Making sure parking areas, walkways, ramps, and entrances are well lit is critical to not only ensuring the safety of your guests, but also to making a good first impression.

Since this is where your patrons will experience their first interaction with your brand, you’ll want to make sure signs are illuminated appropriately and that there is plenty of accent lighting to set the mood. If your restaurant is a sports bar or a pub, hanging neon signs in the window may make sense. If it’s a fine dining establishment, sconces and wall lighting may be more suitable.

If you anticipate long wait times for tables, spotlighting outdoor menu boards or lighting up seating areas can make customers more comfortable while they wait to be called. Likewise, if your restaurant features an outdoor area for seated patrons, you’ll want to make sure you’re providing enough ambient light for customers to find their chairs and enjoy each other’s company, but not so much that it interferes with a sunset or spoils the outdoor setting. Depending on the type of aesthetic you’re going for, you can incorporate trendy ideas into your exterior lighting like string lights, fire pits, and torches.

What Should You Do?

Whether you’re new to the restaurant business or you’re an established restaurateur, lighting should be a primary consideration when establishing or renovating your location. Lighting impacts the entire dining experience; from the moment your customers enter your parking lot to the moment they leave.

If you’re planning a new restaurant or remodeling an existing one, reach out to us today to discuss your business’s lighting. RCA Contractors is staffed by an experienced construction professional who specializes in building and renovating restaurants and other commercial structures.

Your General Contractor

(954) 931 – 6688



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