They might put a hole in your redecorating budget, but Rachel Davis discovers you should never leave the lights till last.
When so much hinges on atmosphere and mood in today’s crowded world of fine dining, shedding the right amount of light on your subject could be one of the most important decisions restaurateurs make.
Dilhan Surin is a senior designer with Response Group, an interior architectural firm specialising in hospitality design, and he knows all too well the importance of lighting.
“Generally, the problem is that people either don’t spend enough money, or spend too much without properly considering what they are trying to achieve. Customers walk into a restaurant these days and immediately know what kind of experience they are going to have, just from the colour scheme and the way it is lit.”
Surin says he’s seen some restaurateurs get too bogged down in the details of a refit and don’t think about the big picture until they’ve run out of money or have almost finished the project. His top tip for restaurateurs considering a refit is to try not to focus on trends until the total effect has been considered, including the kind of business it is and the main clientele.
“For example,” he explains, “chandeliers have made a huge comeback as feature pendants and focal points, but if your restaurant mainly does breakfast and lunch, it is not going to be worth the money. Large feature pendants can cost more than $10,000 for a single fitting, so they need to really add to the atmosphere to be worthwhile. Set a lighting budget that’s appropriate; as a rule, the higher end you are, the more money you should spend on fittings.”
According to Surin, the most important lighting considerations relate to atmosphere and zoning. Lighting needs to be unobtrusive, but walkways and service zones need to be functionally lit, while tables need a relaxing atmosphere.
“Used properly, dimmable lights are a cost-effective way to control and alter the mood of your restaurant,” he says. “They can also delineate between day and night-time dining and create a more dramatic atmosphere for special occasions. The same space can feel bright and cheerful for breakfast, more sedate for lunch and intimate for dinner by just dimming the lights appropriately.”
Even better, the right lighting can do more than just creating atmosphere. It can also boost the bottom line, Surin says.
“The brighter your restaurant, the less likely your customers are going to feel like taking their time over a meal, so you need to ask yourself if that is what you want.”
The ability to properly and easily control your lighting can be almost as important as the actual lighting itself. Industrial designer company Neoz has pioneered cordless lighting in Australian and international restaurants.
Director Peter Ellis says managers should think about the logistics of how they want to control their lighting early on in the design stage.
“Lamps allow tables to be moved around without affecting the quality of the lighting and helps avoid the trap that many people fall into with dimmers; they turn them down too much,” he explains. “It is tricky to get glare-free but interesting lighting in a restaurant, so the more light sources you can control, the better.”
And not all light fittings were created equal, either.
“Often, little thought is given to what kind of light different fittings give off, and it’s not as simple as changing a bulb. Each light fitting has its own colour rendering and colour temperature characteristics and the cooler temperatures often aren’t great for skin tones.
“If the light isn’t good for skin tones, it probably isn’t going to make your food look too appetising either. The trick is making the light bright enough for food and drink, but subdued enough to create a sense of intimacy.”
Creating the right mood doesn’t have to blow your budget. Surin says there are some cost-effective solutions, such as the use of colour.
“Blue light makes people look more alert. You could use LED fittings with changing colours or you could use concealed neon and cathode lighting, which doesn’t cost the earth.”
Creating transition zones with lighting is also a good idea to help patrons adjust from the light outside. If you are creating an intimate ambience, the lighting will probably be darker than the bright sunlight of the day, so a succession of darker-lit areas will help customers adjust and also provide a subtle demarcation between inside and outside.
Above all, Surin says lighting decisions should always be based around the customer’s experience.
“Make sure you create the right ambience, so the type of people you want to attract enjoy it and come back.”
No grey area there.