Brett Anderson, Focus Lighting, Lightfair 2018
Brett Anderson of Focus Lighting included a brief history of restaurant lighting in his discussion at Lightfair International.

A Feast of Insight on Restaurant Lighting

New York lighting designer Brett Anderson of Focus Lighting shared his “secret recipe” for restaurant lighting design with an inquisitive audience at Lightfair Tuesday as he shared the results of some independent research his team conducted to try to identify and quantify the factors that make a dining experience enjoyable and memorable.

Anderson brings considerable experience to bear on restaurant lighting design, having works such as Atmosphere Restaurant on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and Tavern on the Green in New York City to his credit.

He broke the dining experience down into three experiences – the first impression, the dining table and the trip to the restroom – and set up a study that covered 50 of the highest rated restaurants on popular review sites Zagat, TripAdvisor and Yelp. “There are many resources that rate the top restaurants in New York, but we wanted restaurants that are favored by real people,” he said.

Over six weeks in January and February this year Anderson and his colleague Erin Ryan visited the 50 restaurants with light meters and survey forms and tabulated data to help them identify the ways lighting can enhance or detract from a memorable restaurant experience.

His recommendations to restaurant lighting designers included starting with the first impression. “We expected most restaurants to focus on that, but that wasn’t the case,” he said. In fact substantial numbers of the top restaurants made a bad first impression and then had to overcome it. To enhance that first impression Anderson recommended finding a balance of coherence and complexity – making the space familiar and understandable but interesting so that guests want to explore.

Providing enough light to the table in the right way is crucial to the dining experience, he said. Although IES standards say people aged 25-65 need 3 foot-candles of light to read and people over that age need 6 fc, Anderson found that in 40-50% of restaurants people have to get out flashlights to read the menu. 75% of his sample measured less than 2 fc at the table and many ranged into the “danger zone” of 0.4 fc or less, where guests can’t see the food.

To solve that problem many restaurants put a downlight over the table but that comes with trade-offs in the way it lights the guests’ faces and the reduced ability to reconfigure the room easily. This can be counteracted somewhat by white tablecloths, white plates, candles and table lamps.

Perimeter and ambient lighting creates the sense of place in the restaurant with decorative fixtures that provide the needed light, accentuate architectural details and provide visual focal points.

For lighting in the restaurant restroom, he said, “the bar is set pretty low.” The goal is that everyone should look great in the mirror, which can be helped by putting the light source between the guest and the mirror.

Recent technologies may offer new options for restaurant lighting, Anderson told the audience in the question-and-answer at the end of his talk, but the cost of, for example, tunable white lighting or digital dimming that goes to 1% or 0.1% or below, makes them difficult for restaurateurs to embrace.

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