How restaurant lighting helps set the mood – and makes you look more attractive
Candlelight creates a more flattering ambient glow, which is why so many restaurants serve meals in warm, dim lighting. Corey Mintz explores this and other dining design tricks that make us feel better when eating out
Under normal lighting, I have what clinical scientists refer to as mashed-potato face. In my bathroom mirror, flanked by 60-watt bulbs, all I can see is the bald head I inherited from one grandfather and the big nose I got from the other. But in certain restaurants, suddenly I have cheekbones, a chin even. With proper illumination, I can pass for a young John Turturro, present-day Jean Reno or more Semitic Voldemort.
"Restaurants make us feel like the most charming, attractive version of ourselves," says Craig Stanghetta, whose Ste. Marie design firm has created some of Vancouver's most beautiful restaurants – Mosquito, Pidgin, Savio Volpe (which he also owns), Kissa Tanto.
Key elements of the illusion are the dispersal of light sources, the different bounce they get off of metallic, wood, granite or glass surfaces and the balance of illumination between different areas (entrance, bar, booths, restrooms, stairs), so you don't feel like a vampire transitioning into the harsh glare of a bathroom mirror. Some designers enjoy a pinprick of light over the table, just enough to ensure we can see our food. Others prefer candles.
"A lot of people want to have an open kitchen but the light bleeds into the dining room," Stanghetta says. "We get into this with clients regularly."
All of these decisions are conceived to keep us under a spell. Like a magician's stagecraft, restaurant lighting works best when you don't see it working at all. But the two biggest things restaurants do to make us feel more attractive are lighting from below and diffusing the sources.
"We like to have as much lighting as close to the ground as possible," Zébulon Perron, founder of Atelier Zébulon Perron, a Montreal design firm specializing in hospitality says.
"You try to conceal lighting so people don't really understand where the source is. They just kind of feel the glow. People look a lot better when they're lit from underneath. If you're going on a date and there's candlelight from underneath, human features are enhanced by that. It's the campfire phenomenon."
Lighting from above, he says, produces shadows under our eyes, making us look tired.
At Kissa Tanto in Vancouver, for example, the 1960s Japanese jazz-café-inspired room of curved shapes, bronze mirrors, pink booths and tables with pull-chain banker's lamps, has only one chandelier.
"There's only one overhead light," Stanghetta says. "The rest is underlighting. That's a restaurant designer trick."
Most of us don't notice restaurant lighting until it's done badly – too bright, too dark, off-trend Edison bulbs, track lighting, unflattering overhead fluorescents, or the inelegant interruption of a server dimming the lights during service with the brutal immediacy of shifting gears on a pickup truck.
This may sound like nitpicking. But you notice it when you're in the middle of an intimate conversation and it feels like someone just flicked off the lights.
Big restaurants with corporate budgets pay for automated lighting from companies such as Lutron, which provides systems with daylight and occupancy sensors that can raise and lower window shades, or calibrate light bulbs with the sunset in real time, all without human involvement.
A lot of independent restaurants draw a little line on the dimmer switch for where it's supposed to be during dinner, trusting staff to turn it down gradually with a steady hand.
"So it's not sudden and unpleasant," Stanghetta says, "and takes people out of the dreamscape we're trying to insert them into."
But that method still leaves too much to chance for Jen Agg, owner of multiple restaurants in Toronto and Montreal, including Agrikol.
"No, you dim with the setting sun. And you just need to learn it," she says. "An indicator would lead to one-dim-and-done laziness, where it should take at least six or eight dims if you're doing it right. And it should be so minutely incremental that diners don't even notice perfection is being orchestrated for them."
Lighting is the first impression a restaurant makes. When we walk in the door, or even while scrolling for dinner options online (perhaps planning a romantic dinner). Before the host says hello, or we taste the food or even hear the music, the level of illumination already sends us a signal if this is a place for us. In general, older crowds prefer more light and darker is for romance. But within that simplistic dichotomy are 1,000 little decisions.
"Restaurant lighting is so often an afterthought," Agg says, "or done by designers or lighting designers who are thinking more about how the lights look instead of how the lights light. Hashtag not all lighting designers, obviously. I have always bought lighting fixtures before almost everything else and it wouldn't be a stretch to say I've designed all my restaurants around the fixtures."
Agg is an outlier, an owner who designs her own restaurants. It's more common to hire a design firm, where lighting becomes just one of the concerns. Stanghetta says there's a world of difference between the two ways of creating a space, that it's far more preferable to work closely with an owner, making decisions on a day-by-day basis.
Submitting complete plans to big clients can be a recipe for disaster, when design choices run up against arbitrary building-code rules or the preferences of large property-management companies.
"It gets tricky because landlords want to review all the drawings and you can spend another million dollars in 10 seconds," Stanghetta says.
With a smaller client, such as Tannis Ling, owner of Kissa Tanto and Bao Bei (one of Stanghetta's first projects), there's more rhythm to the creative process.
"A bigger budget means you have too many choices," says Ling, who had an image of Bao Bei, a French brasserie serving Chinese food, in her head for a decade, but was forced to make quick decisions during construction in late 2009.
"Because we were on a tight budget, we just winged it. Candles really saved the whole space. Kissa Tanto was difficult because of energy guidelines. So we had to replace a lot of the lighting with LEDs."
By 2016, when the pair were working on Kissa Tanto, Vancouver had passed stricter guidelines for energy consumption, requiring the use of LED bulbs over incandescent. Restaurateurs complained about the lack of warmth (both in tone and actual heat) from LEDs. But Stanghetta believes the technology has sufficiently improved.
"LED is getting better," Perron agrees. "But, it still doesn't have that warmth and amber glow you get with dimmed incandescent light. That's your sexy lighting right there. It's inviting, warm, convivial. To obtain that with LEDs is not as easy but it's not impossible. You've got to be 2,700 K or lower."
Perron is referring to the Kelvin temperature of a bulb. The higher the number, the colder the light. Another trick is to reflect LED light off of wood, which bounces back a warmer effect than metal or glass.
Agg isn't sold on the technological improvements.
"As good as the new LEDs have gotten, I'm still partial to incandescent. Although we use LEDs a bit. Fluorescent doesn't cut it. Ever."
And no matter what, she still wants candles.
"A restaurant without candles always feels incomplete to me, lacking sparkle, flat. And I'll never understand it, other than as a way to save many thousands a year."
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