The Secrets of Dining with Light

January 3, 2017

British lighting expert Andrew Orange has seen the world in lights, developing an enthusiasm for illuminating interiors. darc discovers what he thinks the secrets are to creating that perfect dining ambience.

There are many styles of dining that broadly fit into two categories – those where the restaurateur wants you to linger, presumably to buy that extra bottle of wine, and the type that wants you to refuel quickly and leave satisfied. In other words, the interior feel ranges from the ambient through to functional, the convivial through to the routine.

Lighting is the key factor in creating these settings across all restaurant interior design. Next to the menu, the lighting defines the customer experience and frames the concept of the establishment, with a hundred subtle differences to decipher, from silver service to a relaxed bistro or champagne bar to corner café.


A candle-lit glow is the very epitome of the fine dining setting. Have you ever wondered why a warm glow is so desirable and seems to create an atmosphere somewhere between convivial and romantic? A low, warm light tends to be favourable lighting for a lot of people in terms of enriching skin colour, and according to neuro-psychologists, there is a scientific link to why skin colour increases perceived attractiveness. It seems people with well-oxygenated blood appear to be more physically fit and represent a good match. A pallid skin has the opposite effect and indicates a weak immune system and hence a bad potential mate. These traits are so powerful that they override other customary signals.

A warm white light is about 1800K and when a room is bathed in this colour temperature, the romanticising effect is self-evident. Maybe the colour of a flame is hard wired into our primitive minds. Certainly, the welcome of a roaring fire is a natural reaction on a chilly day – it is the origin of the word ‘foyer’ in theatre receptions for instance. Whatever the reason for the connection between light and romanticism, it is evident that a warm convivial ambience is highly desirable for fine dining restaurants. Of course, candles on each table offer a simple effect but they are becoming less practical in these health and safety conscious times. LED lamps have benefitted us all with a choice of light temperatures to suit every atmosphere. Recent developments in filament lights have also provided solid-state light sources that look identical to the globes and candle lamps we know well and are best suited to decorative fixtures. So a tone of light can be specified to match the exact concept of the interior. A clever choice of shade material is an alternative way of creating a candle-lit glow.

I have seen an excellent use of porcelain and textile shade to create a reddish hue on tables, wall lights and chandeliers. Amid the ambience, it is important to remember to draw the eye through the flattening effect of a single tone of colour. Choose a focal point for a dining space. Often this is delivered by a physical feature within the room, or a statement light – such as a chandelier as a centre-piece.


Increasingly restaurants are becoming one space in a growing trend to make the kitchen and ‘the-pass’ visible to the diner. In new builds, this is the default with refurbishments increasingly featuring a view through to the chef. This underlines the real challenge of lighting a restaurant – the conflict between functional and the ambient. In these multi-functional spaces, lighting needs to be flexible to cater for various activities. It is here that in many ways the designer faces their greatest challenge.

Essentially, each lit area or ‘scene’ needs to be planned out meticulously. Smart controls offer a flexible dimension allowing controllability at the touch of a button from different locations, with all budgets including a recommended, if not essential, simple dimming system. Given the variety of scenes, different types of lighting are needed within each space of the restaurant. Full brightness is needed for task activities such as food preparation, while daylight is more inline with the restaurant necessity of relaxation combined with decent downward lumen level to view food. The main purpose of this layered lighting scheme is to create a sociable ambient experience that illuminates the interior and its features. As the mood and natural light changes throughout the day, the evening service needs to intensify the ambience by decreasing the lumen outputs and relying upon chosen pockets of light to create an environment diners want to linger in.

Building layers is the key here, so elements of the lighting scheme can be adapted to suit the scene. Position a decorative lamp as a strong focal point over the table to delineate the space. Support the pendant light with downlights over the table surface to provide task lighting. Glass pendants or chandeliers often do not provide much light; supplementary lighting will give them sparkle and bring them to life.

Further to this, illuminating perimeter walls and surfaces provides a background ambient light to support the tabletop lighting and creates interest. Wash walls with light, use picture lights and wall lights, and light shelving in cabinets. From the outset in the planning stage, ensure the provision of separate lighting circuits to modulate scenes. Another key tip is to illuminate curtains – they look sorry for themselves at night when unlit! On a dimmable circuit, a colour washed curtain can appear like a tapestry, reflecting colour back into the space and providing another aspect of interest. Lighting the outside also creates a scene through a window at night to provide interest and to extend the space into the garden, while breaking up the black coldness of a darkened windowpane.

The conflict between the eye line of the diners and the functional lights required by the catering staff is a key consideration. Be careful to specify downlights with good anti-glare characteristics – many feature a light source that is positioned far back into the body of the light. Similarly use ‘snoots’ and louvred shutters on spotlights to direct the light in a single direction and avoid spilling the light into diner’s eyes. To avoid human level lighting altogether, add some up lighters, either on the wall or from the floor to freshen the ceiling and bounce diffused light, which acts as a good background illumination.

Don’t forget, table and counter top lights are a great addition and an easy way to provide a middle layer of light especially flexible when wired into their own 5amp circuit. I love designing restaurant lighting schemes – matching the interior designer’s vision is a real challenge, but the growing number of options in this LED era provides endless possibilities. The simple trick whether you are designing a functional or ambient experience is to avoid conflict and build flexibility into the space.
Pic courtesy of Chris Orange Photography