How to best light your restaurant.

“In architectural lighting design, the luminous environment evolves out of the character and the intent of the space … and the needs, desires and expectations of the people for whom the space is created” —Carol Chaffee Associates

Lighting is an important tool for the restaurant architect and designer. Appropriate lighting design completes the thought that starts with the design of the physical space and the furniture and objects within that space. Unfortunately, the value of well-designed lighting is often overlooked. We work with lighting designers on most of the restaurants we do. Carol Chaffee Associates of Minneapolis has been involved in many of these projects and has collaborated on this article with me.

A feast for all senses — taste, aroma, sound and music, form, surface finishes, color, art, light, and people — is our expectation when selecting a restaurant for a dining experience. 

When a restaurant is thoughtfully designed, many impressions unite to invite us to return.

Illumination, the ephemeral partner of architecture, completes and reinforces the restaurant design theme and contributes to the positive impression.

The lighting designer addresses:

  • Visibility: perception of form and space.
  • Image to be conveyed.
  • Uses of the space.
  • Color.
  • Surface finishes.
  • Atmosphere.

There are many ways to approach lighting design for restaurants depending on the type of venue and desired atmosphere. Is the theme dramatic, comfortable and casual or maybe family-friendly? The lighting designer uses varied lighting methods and patterns to evoke impressions of privacy or intimacy, relaxation, spaciousness or pleasantness. The designer’s selection of which room surfaces will receive light, overhead versus peripheral lighting emphasis, uniform versus nonuniform lighting, and bright versus dim choices, creates these impressions.

Once the atmosphere to be created is understood, the lighting designer starts with a lighting layout and fixture selection. The design process will always consider a layered lighting approach, light-level variation and lighting control.


Great lighting is often not immediately describable or recognized. You may not realize why a room looks and feels so great. Is it the architecture, the materials and colors? Is it the lighting that accents the walls?

Lighting done well for restaurants is layered by providing ambient illumination, accent lighting and decorative lighting elements. In restaurant design, it is important to use a mix of light fixtures designed to produce specific effects.

Ambient illumination provides the uniform base level of light throughout the space. 

Ambient or general illumination can be achieved in various ways: recessed lighting; track lighting; indirect illumination of ceiling and wall surfaces, where the light fixture is hidden and the surface becomes the light source; or a combination of these methods.

Adding focused accent lighting or highlighting of architectural features, sculptural elements and art creates interesting dynamics. Accent lighting is generally brighter than the ambient level, depending on the overall reflectance value of the surfaces to be illuminated.

Decorative or feature lighting elements such as chandeliers and wall sconces reinforce the spatial and visual hierarchies. When using a mix of fixtures, try to minimize the number of lamp (bulb) types used for ambient and accent lighting for ease in maintenance.

Light levels should vary from space to space, depending on each area’s use. Entry spaces, dining rooms, bars and display kitchens all demand their own requirements for light. Light levels should be appropriate to use of the space, whether perusing a menu at the table or enjoying a late-night cocktail in the bar. Varying the light levels can subtly change the mood and energy levels as one moves through the public spaces.

Lighting control is key.

Lighting control through dimming is key to modulating the intended atmosphere. An automated control system allows for changes for the time of day and the time of the year with programmable lighting “scenes,” astronomical clocks, gentle fade timing between scenes (i.e., lunch to dinner to late night), light-level control for the restaurant’s various zones and energy conservation.

Energy conservation standards must be met

Working with and meeting current stricter state codes for energy conservation is necessary during design development. Awareness and technical knowledge of current light sources are critical in this phase. The designer has many types of light sources available to consider. Line- and low-voltage options include halogen, LED, and the various types of fluorescents. However, the designer’s choices need to consider color compatibility between lamps, color rendering capability and dimming capability in order to create a cohesive and understandable visual environment. It is important to see and compare actual lamp samples when combining sources on projects. Decisions on where and how to manipulate and “spend” the allowable watts-per-square foot in each restaurant space can be a challenging task but a critical step in the design process.

The goal of any well-designed casual or fine-dining restaurant is to provide a welcoming, relaxed environment in which guests can enjoy the food and leave with all senses satisfied. Lighting is an important component of the restaurant’s overall design aesthetic and an important tool in reaching that goal.

Light is a form of communication evoking a perceptual response. The manner in which spaces and objects are illuminated will form the way we sense and respond to them.

Feature, Restaurant Design