Ten tips for proper restaurant lighting

By Diane Chiasson

Many restaurant and foodservice operators often overlook some of the less obvious points that might help to make their operations more successful – like lighting.

Restaurant lighting must enhance the mood of the establishment and is dictated by the type of food you serve, as well as your restaurant’s design. But it must also allow diners to be able to read the menus and see their food (and each other) in the most attractive way possible.

The intensity of your lighting fixtures also depends on the height of your ceiling, the colour of your walls and floors, your tiling and carpeting, and your furniture arrangement. There are several factors to think about when deciding what types of lights to use in your operation.

1. Even lighting in dining room

Your lighting should be evenly spread out over your dining area so that there are no pockets of excessively bright spots or dark spots. The level of your lighting can be high or low depending on the atmosphere and mood of your establishment. For example, a quaint, romantic restaurant might dim the lights more so than a fast food operation. Your reception area should be brighter than the dining room so that guests walking into your operation can see the hosts, read the menu, etc. The most popular types of lights for general illumination include recessed down lights in a ceiling or pendant lights in an exposed structure.

2. Watch the kitchen lighting

The kitchen obviously needs to be brightly lit, but you have to ensure that these bright lights do not distract the dining area of your restaurant. Make sure that your kitchen door is placed in an area that is shielded. Ideally the door opens into the server alley, but if not, consider building wing walls to cut off the light and noise. Swing doors are also recommended to direct light away from the dining room.

3. Vary lighting depending on time of day

If your restaurant operation is open all day, you may need to vary the lighting depending on which meal you are serving. For breakfast, it is preferable to have lots of light so your customers can read the morning newspapers while having their coffee. In order to create faster turnover rates for the lunch rush, a moderate level of lighting is recommended. At dinner, dim the lights to create an intimate and leisurely atmosphere.

4. Highlight focal points

Once the foundation has been laid for the levels of lighting in your dining area, you can accent or highlight focal points in your operation like menu boards, an open kitchen, pieces or art, or advertising on your walls. This can be done with track lighting. However, be careful of the light angles that come off the spotlight. If the track light is too far back from the focal point, the light beams will more likely shine directly into someone’s eyes.

5. Use different light fixtures

Apart from your general illumination lights used to provide the base light level in each area of your operation, you can add a mix of light fixtures for accent and feature lighting. These lights can be used to provide some visual interest or add to the décor, like chandeliers or coloured glass pendants. Small lamps or candles can also be placed on tables to provide a complementary light source. However, don’t overdo the number of different lights you use by utilizing 20 different types of light bulbs. Keep it to three or four bulbs.

6. Track the sun

The sun will provide the biggest light in your restaurant during the day. However, if your windows are positioned on the east or west side, your customers would be affected during sunset and sunrise. You can put adjustable blinds on your windows, but when the blinds are closed, your operation looks closed from the outside, and you lose the natural light. You might consider using window tints, translucent light filtering shades or awnings.

7. Lights for housekeeping

In order to clean and set up your restaurant properly, your operation should have the capability of being brightly lit. There should be dedicated lights or controls for the lights to come all the way up, so that every stain, spot and crumb can be seen and removed.

8. Use a dimming panel

If your establishment requires you to change the levels of lighting several times a day, consider installing a dimming panel. This will allow you to set the correct levels of light for breakfast, lunch, dinner and housekeeping with the push of a button. This will also allow you to have the same, consistent lighting day after day. A dimming panel is also more energy-efficient, and can extend the lives of your light bulbs since they are not burning at full capacity.

9. LED lights

The use of LED lights in restaurants is growing in popularity. While more expensive to purchase, they are 300 per cent more energy-efficient than fluorescent lighting, and 1,000 per cent more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs. They also use up to 90 per cent less energy, and last significantly longer than other lighting solutions. Therefore, you would end up saving thousands of dollars in the long run. Track lights with LED bulbs can be used to create various moods and colours. For example, they can highlight the bar area in red, and the dining room in a more relaxing blue.

10. Don’t forget about the outside

Your exterior lighting is the first impression that your customers will have of your restaurant, and can also help to attract potential customers passing by. Proper lighting will also alert customers that your operation is open for business. Ensure that your signs are well-lit and clean, as well as entrance ways, parking areas and architectural highlights. Use ground lights, landscape lights or goose neck lights to highlight your operation. Most importantly, make sure you have sufficient lighting to keep your customers safe.

About the author:

Diane Chiasson, FCSI, president of Chiasson Consultants Inc., has been helping restaurant, foodservice, hospitality and retail operators increase sales for over 25 years. She is recognized as one of the best restaurant consultants in Toronto. Her company provides innovative and revenue-increasing foodservice and retail merchandising programs, interior design, branding, menu engineering, marketing and promotional campaigns, and much more. Contact her at 416-926-1338, toll-free at 1-888-926-6655, or visit