Your Night Out: How to Light a Restaurant

how to light a restaurant

When I speak with clients about how to light a restaurant, I say: “Think of your night out on the town. Perhaps you make a reservation at a certain spot for dinner. Why this particular place?”

My guess — it’s inviting. Of course, the food is important. Yet ambiance also is a part of the decision. And lighting plays a definite role in ambiance.

I’ve designed sports bars, sushi bars and high-end restaurants. All of them use lighting to accentuate the product and the people within the space.

With so many different ways to use light, I love to take a fairly mundane space and change it dramatically.

Lights set the mood and highlights important things like a painting or an architectural feature. A beautiful fixture becomes a center point.

Lighting built into the architecture, does wonders. When I consider how to light a restaurant, the first step is to look at its proportions. I design the spaces first, to get the right ceiling height and distances. You shouldn’t be squeezing into corners to get to your table!

Then, my team goes back and figures out how to light the space. Sometimes we want to put an interesting fixture, but that’s secondary.

For example, a year and a half ago, when we designed J Peters Grill & Bar, on Lake Wylie near Charlotte NC, LED technology was fairly new, and the owner wasn’t sure what he wanted.

So we had a discussion on what would be best for the architecture and the feelings he wanted to evoke.

It’s a pretty nice sports bar.

Here is what we did: At each table, a pendant light comes down within about 4 ft. of the surface, and then shines directly down on the table. The warm light is reflected and up-lights people’s faces, while casting warm light down on the food.

So the food looks better and the person across from you looks their best, too. You don’t want a harsh bright light on a date or really with any dining experience!

No thank you, I’d rather not cast shadows on every flaw! Directional lighting and warm lighting are key pieces for how to light a restaurant.

When you look up in J Peters Grill and Bar, you’ll see the building is a rustic, open structure.  Track lighting is mounted to a beam; but you can’t see the light fixture, because the light shines upward and highlights the truss.  On the corrugated tin wall, the light washes across and creates a shadow.  (That’s where you want the shadows!)  The restaurant is on the water with a couple of large garage doors that open up to outdoor decks.  Safety lighting prevents customers from wandering into the lake. (There are a few good reasons to appreciate that!)

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About the author

Dan Sherer

Rock climber, hiker and award winning Architect with over 28 years’ experience on new builds and renovation projects. Expert in Commercial Renovations and winner of multiple awards for Adaptive Reuse/Renovation and Historic Preservation. Residential work has been featured on the cover of two prominent South Carolina magazines.

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