5 Steps To Proper Restaurant Lighting

ambient restaurant lighting
An example of ambient lighting as shown at Alert Coffee
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Have you ever been to a restaurant so poorly lit that you had to take out your cell phone just to read the menu? Or, have you tried ordering a fresh and brightly colored salad only to be surprised at how saturated the colors look once it arrives to your table?

One of the most important features of restaurant design is the lighting—not only for the customer experience, but also for the appearance of the food and drink. Whether you’re a fast casual or fine dining establishment, lighting is a make-or break-factor. That’s why we’re sharing a five-step guide to proper restaurant lighting.

One: Understand The Different Types Of Lighting Methods

Generally, there are three main kinds of lighting: Ambient, task and accent. They each serve a different purpose. Ambient is the main source of lighting in any given area. It can come from electric fixtures or from natural sunlight seeping through a window. Its main purpose is to help diners see well and move around the space easily.

Task lighting is a concentrated light source that allows you to perform a specific function, like cooking, communicating with guests, or ordering from a menu. And, finally, there’s accent lighting. This source is used to highlight focal points throughout your space, like a piece of artwork or the liquor bottles on display behind the bar.

Sometimes certain light fixtures can actually fulfill more than one category. For example, an interior wall sconce in a space that is well-lit with natural light could be considered accent lighting during the day and convert to ambient lighting at night, when the natural light is no longer available.

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Two: Layer Your Lights

Now that you’re familiar with the different types of light, here’s how to use them all to create depth and interest throughout your space. First, distribute a general level of ambient lighting throughout the restaurant. You can use chandeliers, ceiling or wall-mount fixtures, track lighting and/or recessed lights.

Next comes the task lighting, which is based entirely on the way your floor plan is laid out. Start by identifying the different tasks that take place throughout your floor plan, keeping in mind that you want to enhance visual clarity and prevent eyestrain. Track lighting, pendant and specialty lighting, and floor, table and desk lamps can all contribute to task lighting.

Finally, bring in the accent lighting. Start by reviewing the three-dimensionality of the restaurant’s space and drawing attention to unique features that you want to highlight. Accent lighting can be accomplished by using recessed and track lighting, chandeliers, specialty lighting and wall sconces, just to name a few.

task restaurant lighting
Task lighting is a key element of the design at The White Rabbit

Three: Warm, Neutral or Cool Lighting? Select Your Color Temperature

All lamps are assigned a “temperature” based on the color of the light that’s being emitted. White light tends to fall into three main categories: Warm, neutral or cool, and is measured in Kelvin (K).

“Warm white” is a white light with a hint of yellow candlelight. If you’re going for this color temperature, you’ll want to select bulbs that are 3,000K or below, which dulls shades of blue while enhancing reds and oranges, and adds a yellow tint to whites and greens.

“Neutral white” enhances colors equally and doesn’t emphasize hues of yellow or blue. Aiming for neutral white in your restaurant lighting? Select something that is between 3,000K and 3,500K. For “cool white,” or a white light with a hint of bluish-white, look for fixtures that emit 3,500K and above because this will boost blues, dull reds and impart a blue-ish shade to whites and greens.

In general, warm lights make a space feel smaller, intimate and more comfortable, while cool lighting makes a restaurant look more spacious. Neutral light most closely resembles natural lighting and is known to increase feelings of well-being.

Four: Highlight The Real Color Of Your Food & Drink

Have you ever worn a shirt that looks like one color in your bedroom mirror, but looks entirely different in your office’s bathroom mirror? This happens because different lighting sources reveal the colors of an object in different ways.

This may sound like a frivolous and ultra-focused design detail, but imagine cutting through a medium-rare steak expecting to see red and then being surprised by an orange hue! Probably won’t make for a great customer experience.

Accent Restaurant Lighting
An example of accent lighting as shown at Rott n’ Grapes

The lighting term for how faithfully a light source depicts the color of an object is called a Color Rendering Index (CRI). The index ranges from 0 to 100—0 being the worst match and 100 being the best match to the true color of the object being lit. So, the higher the CRI, the better the color accuracy.

Your entire space doesn’t need to be lit by a lamp with a high CRI value, but where color perception is important, like food and drink, or a colorful wallpaper or mural, a higher CRI will definitely work in your favor.

Five: Control Your Restaurant Lighting For Different Times Of Day

If your restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, you may want to aim for a different level of lighting for each time of the day.

During breakfast, it’s best to mimic daylight because it allows for customers to easily read their papers and magazines, and puts them in a positive mood. At lunch, moderate lighting gives people the feeling that they’ve reached midday, and then lower intensity during dinner hours helps them wind down.

Any easy way to achieve the shift in lighting levels is to select dimmable lights and install a dimming panel on most fixtures throughout your space. This allows for control of the lights so that you can create different ambiances throughout the day. It also helps prioritize energy efficiency, as not all of the lights will be needed all of the time.

Lighting often gets overlooked, but it’s actually an important part of the restaurant design process. From the different types and varying color temperatures, there’s a lot to take into account. Hopefully, this guide helps simplify the process and inspires you to create the right vibe for your establishment.

Dala Al-Fuwaires, Principal of HOUSE OF FORM, a globally recognized boutique interior design studio specializing in commercial interiors, residential interiors, product design, branding and graphics. With over a decade of experience in the interior design field, Dala has worked on hospitality and retail design projects ranging in size from boutique to national rollouts. Dala graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design from Arizona State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Interior Design from Purdue University. Outside of design, Dala can be found traveling to new places, hosting dinner parties for friends and family, remodeling her home, and photographing all of the above.