A well-designed lighting system that helps to convey a sense of the experience you’re selling to your customers—of warmth and occasion, or, alternatively, drama and quirkiness—is one of the most important investments you can make.
In hospitality, atmosphere is almost as important as what comes out of the kitchen. When your customers arrive, they expect a level of comfort to be found in the food, the service or the environment. Lighting is central to a good atmosphere, and visual comfort is the goal. “It can be as simple as glare control—for example, not having obvious brightness in the ceiling,” says Nathan Wilson-Rynell, regional manager Oceania for Erco Lighting, which specialises in architectural lighting design. “Think about the white light of a 24-hour convenience store and compare it with a five-star hotel lobby to get an idea of how important subtlety and atmosphere are to hospitality.
“There are two things we’re trying to achieve—efficiency and visual comfort,” says Wilson-Rynell. “We use the term ‘efficient visual comfort’, because it’s a matter of balancing those two things. To do that you need good technology, of course, but you also need to think about where you place light in the room.”
Before you even turn the lights on, it’s important to consider how the natural, passive light in your restaurant can be put to best use—all good lighting solutions start with daylight. “We always take into account where the windows are, what the aspect is, what is the function of the space, because these things all affect the colour of the light,” Wilson-Rynell says.
“Colour is very important—human beings are taught about light from nature, and if we do things that are natural, people are naturally comfortable. A bright accent light in a cool tone feels a bit strange. The sun doesn’t do that—it gives you a bright accent in a warm tone. Light from the ground is also unnatural—for this reason it can be used to create drama. Up-lighting is a striking feature because it’s unnatural.”
Choose your fittings carefully for the best effect. “Generally light fittings manufactured specifically for restaurants are larger as they need to look right in larger rooms which generally have higher ceilings,” says Jerry Hodkinson, from Andy Thornton Ltd, a UK company specialising in reclaimed and antique restaurant furnishings. “Domestic lighting can look dwarfed in large areas.
“A popular theme in the UK at the moment is the industrial/factory look, reusing original workshop lighting such as spun enameled steel dishes, oxidised copper light and old spotlights from theatres,” Hodkinson says. “These usually retain their existing finishes with more chips and dents the better. We source a lot from redundant churches and old factory lights from eastern block countries such as Czech Republic, Poland, etc. One attraction is that we are re-using recycled fittings.”
Some trendy restaurants go for very dim lighting but there are times when functionality requires more or less light in various parts of the restaurant space. For this reason flexible controls are essential. “You have to take into account the operation of the restaurant—and I think this is one area that is often overlooked—in terms of table layout and different settings,” says Wilson-Rynell. “There may be a different layout for lunch than for dinner, or maybe for a general à la carte setting as opposed to a function. The lighting should be able to respond to that.”
Dimming is particularly important, but also the ability to move lighting objects around the room, or to be able to have a combination of ambient, accent or scenic lighting elements on at any given time. “Lighting tends to have three elements to it—an ambient element, and accent element and a scenic element,” says Wilson-Rynell. “Every well-lit architectural space can be defined in those three terms.
Ambient lighting can be achieved by washing a feature wall—having the vertical lighting bounce back into the space. Accent lighting might be the light on the tables—a downlight or a spotlight—and the scenic element could be something like a decorative chandelier or even an open fire place—something that draws the eye. Finding those three elements is what makes good lighting work.”
These principles of lighting also apply in the more functional areas of the restaurant—passageways, kitchens, bathrooms, for example. It’s just a matter of how you blend them. “In the kitchen, ambient lighting needs to be strong because it’s a task-oriented area and people have to be safe,” says Wilson-Rynell. “There wouldn’t be much call for a scenic element in the kitchen, but you might have an accent area where food is placed ready for the wait staff, so that customers can see the food and admire it. Similarly, good lighting in bathrooms can influence our perceptions of cleanliness.
“These considerations don’t necessarily relate to cost,” says Wilson-Rynell. “You can have a certain amount of money allocated to lighting a place, and you decide how that is distributed. You can put lots of cheap lights in, or put fewer lights in and use a higher quality product.”
These days, because of energy savings and low maintenance, LED is very popular. “LED has challenged a lot of the principles and the original thinking of lighting design, because LED is very difficult to dim—it tends to flicker, and there is ‘noise’ that you didn’t have with traditional lamps,” Wilson-Rynell says. “Avoiding this comes down to the quality of the control gear and the type of dimming system.
“There’s an argument to use halogen in certain spaces but only minimally. We probably would argue for halogen in a very intimate dining setting where you’re wanting to have warmth. Also, candles still have a strong place in restaurants,” explains Wilson-Rynell.