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Eat, Pray, Light: The Lighting Doctor Finds Comfort, Food and Light

Randall Whitehead shares a restaurant experience where lighting impacts the ambience. 

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restaurant lighting, the lighting doctor

As a lighting designer I am always looking at how a space is lit. I can’t help myself. It’s just a part of my professional genetic makeup. It’s not just me, a friend who is a kitchen designer says all she sees are countertops and toe kicks wherever she goes.

It’s rare when I come upon a place that is well illuminated. This restaurant, Bellota, in San Francisco, is one of those places. You feel immediately welcomed into the space. The lighting was definitely a part of the ambience. It highlighted architectural details, made the tall space feel more intimate, and created a soft glow of illumination for diners. 

It’s sad to say that this is very unusual. For most restaurants, the lighting feels like an afterthought. Something that got stuck on at the end of the project, using whatever was available off the shelf. Usually, the lighting is the last thing that’s thought about…and the first thing that is cut from the budget. 

Good lighting does not have to be expensive. It just needs to be done effectively. And if there is absolutely no budget, then at least put in the electrical so that as profits increase then lighting can be easily added. It’s also OK to put in temporary lower priced fixtures until the budget allows for an upgrade. It’s much harder to install a new electrical once the restaurant is up and running. Have a little forethought, even if you don’t have the funds at the moment to complete the design.

restaurant entry lighting, the lighting doctor

First off, as you enter, a large, spherical, perforated fixture sets the tone, casting alluring shadows along the walls. Inset step lights make sure that you get safely up the stairs.

restaurant lighting, randall whitehead

Once you come into the restaurant, you see a wood fretwork detail at the top of the walls where they meet the ceiling. They are also used as a valance to create the sense of individual rooms within this large open space. This architectural detail is backlit with a warm glow of illumination coming from an LED strip light in a 2400° kelvin color temperature with a CRI of 90. 

Also take a look at the pendant fixtures. They help give a more human scale to this voluminous space. They create the illusion of a secondary ceiling line, which helps make the restaurant feel more intimate for diners. I like that they are in different shapes and hung at varying heights. It makes them feel a little more sculptural.

bar lighting, the lighting doctor

I always like it when a bar top is lit from below. Usually, this area falls into shadow and makes the idea of dining at the bar less inviting. Yet, when there is a glow below, it feels warm and draws people up to the counter for a cocktail or a meal.

The booths are lit with sconces which project light up and down. This throws a rich warm light across the tabletop and up towards the ceiling as well. This is so much better than a recessed downlight over the table which creates harsh shadows on people’s faces. 

restaurant booth lighting

Here is a close-up of one of the booths. You can see how the lighting casts good illumination across the table without glare of creating unflattering shadows on diners.


*All images courtesy of Randall Whitehead.

Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead is an educator and author on the subject of lighting design. His work has been featured in many magazines, including Architectural Digest, Home & Garden and Esquire. He has appeared as a guest expert on HGTV, Discovery, CNN and Martha Stewart Living Radio.

His Latest book Beautiful Light outlines how to create successful and subtly beautiful LED lighting designs for homes and gardens. Available through Amazon and Rutledge Books.

You can see his entertaining 1-minute instructional videos at furniturelightingdecor.com. And you can follow him on Instagram:  @randall.whitehead


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