Restaurant lighting is an often overlooked aspect of the dining experience. The right lighting sets the mood, of your restaurant, enhances the food, and creates an ambiance that will keep customers coming back for more.

It’s not just about choosing the right bulb. You need to create an overall lighting design that accentuates the decor. After all, your goal is to create an inviting atmosphere.

The best restaurant lighting takes into account everything from the ceiling height to the type of cuisine being served. This article explores the latest trends in outdoor restaurant lighting and will show you how to use light to create a memorable dining experience for your customers.

Read on to gain some insights and practical tips for designing a lighting scheme to elevate your restaurant and give your customers an experience they won’t forget.

The Three Types of Outdoor Restaurant Lighting

You can use three types of lighting to illuminate the exterior of your restaurant and create the perfect mood: ambient, task, and accent.

Ambient lighting is the primary source of lighting for an area. Fixtures like overhead fixtures, or path lights, for example, are a primary source of ambient lighting. Ambient lighting also sets the overall mood of a space.

A group of diners at night in front of a well lit white restaurant.

Accent lighting adds a touch of personality and artistry to the space. Accent lighting highlights special features, like art, sculptures, or decorative element. Accent lighting guides the eye, adding visual interest and beauty to any space. You can use fixtures like our CAST Classic Wall Wash for accent lighting.

Finally, task lighting, helps guests perform specific tasks, like reading menus. You'll need task lighting if you're offering an outdoor dining experience to the guests.

General Factors for Picking Your Lights and Fixtures

There are several factors to consider when sorting out your restaurant lighting. These include the atmosphere you want to create, how lighting affects diners and the appearance of the food. We'll cover these three factors in more depth below.

What Mood Do You Want to Create With Your Restaurant Lighting?

Your lighting plan, and how you position your lights, will impact diners and generate a first impression of your restaurant. Before you begin this journey, consider the impression and ambiance you want to create. 

Do you want your restaurant to have a cozy atmosphere? Do you want a busy dining experience?

You need to be clear on what you want to achieve, before talking with a lighting designer. After all, their job is to turn those ideas into reality.

Following this, start collecting examples of outdoor lighting plans you love. You can use a tool like Pinterest to collate your ideas. These visual examples will provide your lighting designer with actionable insights for creating a lighting plan you’ll love.

Outdoor Dining: How Restaurant Lighting Affects Diners

Our senses work together to shape our experiences. The appearance of food impacts a diner's perception of its taste, and lighting plays a crucial role in a restaurant's ambiance. This is something you'll need to consider if you're providing outdoor dining.

A study by Cornell University highlights the relationship between lighting and customers' moods and dining choices. So consider the ambiance you want to create.

Two men and a woman sit under an umbrella at an outdoor dining restaurant patio.

For a more leisurely dining experience, use low ambient lighting (that 2,500k–2,700k range). People tend to eat slower in a dimly lit environment. Low lighting also creates a more intimate setting. If you want to create a more lively dining experience, increase the lighting range a bit (2,700k–3,000k).

Help People Take Great Photos of Your Restaurant

People want to save memories when they go out. They’ll take photos of an anniversary dinner, or a nice night out with friends or work colleagues. Those photos invariably get posted online.

Social media can have a huge impact on the success of your restaurant. A viral photo of your restaurant on a platform like Instagram can drive hundreds or even thousands of people to your business. You should do everything possible to make your restaurant, and the food you serve look visually pleasing.

Warm light, which is high in red, orange, and yellow, enhances the natural and vibrant appearance of your food. On the other hand, cool light, which is high in blue, can make the food look washed out. Getting things like this right is an easy way to improve the overall dining experience.

Technical Factors for Picking Your Lights and Fixtures

Alongside those more general lighting tips, there are technical considerations to get on top of. Here are three more outdoor restaurant lighting factors you should understand before developing your lighting plan.

What is the Best Color Temperature for Outdoor Lighting?

The sweet spot for outdoor restaurant lighting is between 2,500 kelvin to 4,000 kelvin. Use warm, yellow hues between 2,500 kelvin to 2,700 kelvin for the exterior of your restaurant. Use cooler temps between 3000k-4000k for foliage. This balance helps you illuminate the outdoor space while creating an inviting atmosphere that makes people want to enter your restaurant.

If you're providing an outdoor dining experience, use lights that have a white-to-yellow glow to create a comfortable atmosphere. This is perfect for lingering and enjoying a meal.

View through a gate to a restaurant's outdoor dining location at night.

The psychology of lighting is also important. Welcoming guests with warm tones at the entrance of a restaurant creates the illusion of a higher temperature, making them feel instantly comfortable. Conversely, cooler shades give off a more relaxed vibe and trigger a psychological response that makes people feel more at ease.

How Many Lumens Do You Need for Your Outdoor Space?

When you talk to an expert about a lighting plan for your restaurant, they might start discussing lumens. When consulting an expert for your restaurant's lighting plan, be ready for a discussion about lumens. Lumens, represented by lm, indicate the total visible light emitted from a light source. The higher the lumen rating, the brighter the light.

To give you a rough sense of lighting needs; a large outdoor patio needs a lumen range of 1200-1600 to illuminate it properly. Outdoor walls and fences require 50 lumens per light fixture, while paths need 100-200 lumens per every 3-4 feet. Path lights should emit around 100 lumens each. For stairs, consider 600 lumens for step lights and 100 lumens for marker lights.

To be clear, you don’t need to know much about this unless you’re creating the lighting plan independently.

Electricity and Replacement Costs

You should think about energy consumption when choosing your outdoor lights. Efficient lighting saves on electricity costs and sturdy fixtures need to be replaced less frequently. In terms of lighting, consider energy-efficient bulbs. LED lights are a great cost saver.

Low-voltage LED lighting reduces your energy costs. They also last longer on average than traditional lights so need to be replaced less often. Additionally, you can use timers to control your outdoor lighting. Timers ensure that your lights automatically turn on as the light fades.

Finally, consider the quality of your lighting fixtures. After all, lighting fixtures will be one of the major costs of the whole project.

If you have the money, you’ll want quality lighting fixtures that will last for years. It’s a logical cost-saving investment, as durable lighting fixtures won’t need replacing. Do your research and try to find a company that creates fixtures that fit your aesthetic needs.

For example, at CAST, we make solid sand-cast bronze fixtures with timeless designs in our CAST Landscape line. All our bronze lighting fixtures are backed with a lifetime warranty, so if anything goes wrong due to normal wear and tear, we’ll replace the part for free. Meanwhile, brass items in our SOURCE by CAST range come with a comprehensive five-year warranty.