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Restaurant lighting: If only I could see what you do

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In the restaurant business success depends on being able to do a million different things right. That’s a terrible burden, but that’s exactly what you’re faced with, whether you knew it up front or not. I am not envious. It’s a daunting task.

Here’s the hitch, though: So many of the obvious things—the things your customers see the moment they enter your restaurant—should be the things that you take care of first and get right. The other things behind the scenes maybe can wait.

I bring this up because of a glaring problem I experienced recently at a hot, of-the-moment restaurant that was winning all kinds of praise from the press. The menu was smart and the food was great, but I couldn’t read the menu or see the food because the restaurant was lit like a sexy bar. As it turns out, the owner of this restaurant also owns a bar. He likes the lights down low—real low. Lighting is so important to how a restaurant is perceived. But you simply can’t light a restaurant like you light a bar unless you’re clever enough to put strategic pin lights over each table to highlight the star of the show, your food. That was not the case here and it wasn’t just my perception. The other two people who joined me all pulled out their cell phone flashlights to first see the menu and then later to see the food.

At one point, after returning from the restroom, I saw a new table of customers all with their cell phone flashlights looking at the menu. How silly and how obvious what needs to be done. Later, I talked to the restaurant manager and he explained that he’s discussed the issue with the owner, but he’s insistent on keeping the lights very, very, low. By the way, I’ve been to plenty of sexy, moody restaurants where one could still see the food.

Ironically, the owner of this place hired a top gun chef to product food for the place and this chef is terrific. His food is outstanding and many of the plates are so well-composed they look like art (when it’s illuminated with a flashlight).  

Years ago, I attended a seminar on how to light tables within a restaurant. There was a discussion about why fixtures should be strategically place so light hits the table and comes up under the chins of guests. People looked so much more attractive when light hits them from that angle as opposed to lights casting shadows from above, said the speaker.

There is a science to lighting that goes far beyond just hanging lights. And maybe that’s all a bit too much for many of you, but at least common sense should prevail.

I’ve written columns before about how you, the owner, should sit in your own restaurants every once in a while to see what your customers see. It makes me wonder if this particular owner has ever dined in his own restaurant.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on lighting. Please email me at [email protected].

Michael Sanson, Editor-in-Chief
e-mail: [email protected]
Twitter: @MikeSansonRH

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