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Lighting for Bars and Restaurants

Caffe Concerto

Lighting for Bars and Restaurants

What lighting systems and fixtures are best for restaurant, bar and café interiors?

With so many choices and options available, this is not an easy question to answer. Moreover, as hospitality venues are all different from one another in terms of their interior décor schemes, target customers, locations, budgets and layouts, it’s impossible to single out one type of lighting as the best.

Restauranteurs and their interior design consultants must consider this wide range of factors simultaneously if they are to ensure that the lighting schemes they choose add value aesthetically, atmospherically, practically and commercially.

Let’s take a closer look at these factors and explore how they can be applied in practice to restaurant interiors to create dining environments that are optimised to perform according to the preferences and needs of their customers.

Lighting Type

Lighting features are generally split into three main groups – ambient, task and accent. Lights within these categories have very different functions, and often need to be used in conjunction with one another in order to achieve the desired ambience.

But what are the differences between ambient, task and accent lights? And, from a practical perspective, how should they be installed?

Ambient Lighting

Ambient lighting, also referred to as general lighting, is the primary source (or sources) of light within a room. Its purpose is to provide a comfortable, practical level of illumination that allows us to use a space for its intended function and also to build a certain type of ambience.

The goal when installing an ambient lighting system is to achieve a solid baseline – a homogenous distribution of light that can then be enhanced with additional fixtures and fittings such as floor lamps, pendants and desk lamps.

Common forms of ambient lighting are downlights, track lights and, more recently, LED ceiling lightboxes as they can all be installed easily and discretely into the ceiling or a room whilst still supplying light with a wide beam angle.

Window-effect LED lightboxes in Caffe Concerto’s Piccadilly restaurant

Task Lighting

As the name suggests, task lighting makes it possible for people to carry out certain tasks within a space. Whether it’s reading, cooking, sewing or shaving, task lights are an essential feature of any room if it is to be user-friendly.

Installing task lighting is an effective way of providing localised illumination for individuals in key areas without impacting on the overall light levels experienced by others in the room. It ensures that an interior’s lighting is both adequate and safe without demanding that the ambient light levels are compromised.

Common task lights are desk lamps, mirror lights, guidance lights and under-shelf lights.

Task lighting in Fortnum & Mason’s Royal Exchange store

Accent Lighting

Accent lights bring extra drama and depth into a room by drawing attention to specific areas, objects or features. They are an excellent way of highlighting the most impressive aspects of a space by encouraging our gaze in that direction.

They are used in both commercial and residential environments for a wide variety of reasons such as supporting product promotions, celebrating works of art or recognising the importance of cherished family heirlooms.

Accent lights can take many forms, from singular spotlights through to long strips of flexible LED tape. The important thing to remember is that accent lights need to be directional so that they can illuminate a very specific area or object. Ultimately, the goal of accent lighting is to showcase something in particular, not to meet the general lighting requirements of an entire space.

Accent lighting in Tom Dixon Studio’s London showroom


The light level within a restaurant is one of the most important things to take into consideration. This is because the brightness of a space is unavoidably linked (albeit in our subconscious) to our perception of its relative level of luxury.

Imagine this. You’re in an expensive, high-end restaurant that offers food, drinks and service…the calibre of which is unbeatable. You’re dining with your partner, celebrating your anniversary, and the you are both hoping to have experience which is full of romance and intimacy. Now, imagine that the lighting in this restaurant is incredibly bright…so bright, in fact, that it makes you feel as if you’re sitting under a spotlight and being watched by everyone else in the room. The atmosphere is all but ruined.

In this type of restaurant or bar, a system with lower light levels would be much more suitable as it will create a more intimate, private ambience. Technically speaking, the lights used would have a lower lumen outputWhat are lumens? Lumens are the measure of the amount of visible light that it emitted from a light source – the higher the lumen output, the brighter a lamp will appear!

Research shows that dimmer, less bright lights (those with a lower lumen output) encourage us to feel that a space is cosier and that the products or services being offered are of a high quality. Furthermore, surveys conducted by npower revealed that the appropriateness of a restaurant’s lighting is a factor used by 71% of British diners to help them decide on a venue for a date.

Cosy lighting at Albert’s Schloss in Manchester // Image source

Conversely, bright lighting (those with a higher lumen output) makes a space feel more energized. It is (generally) associated with fast food outlets and other ‘grab and go’ eateries in which people want quick, straightforward service and an affordable menu.

Bright interior lighting at the Finsbury Business Centre, London

Other things to consider when specifying brightness levels:

  1. What meal is being served? For breakfast, customers require energising environments with higher light levels that are aligned with their circadian rhythms whereas at dinner they want a more leisurely atmosphere with lower light levels.
  2. How much natural light does the restaurant receive? Any artificial lighting system should enhance the natural light that is already present within a space.
  3. What will the interior’s décor be like? Brightly coloured or glossy walls can reflect the light emitted by a lamp resulting in unwanted glare.

Integrated safety

In commercial environments, safety is paramount. Measures have to be put in place to ensure that customers are protected from fire risks, slip hazards, broken glass and more. What’s sometimes overlooked, though, is that interior lighting forms an integral part of these responsibilities. Why? Well, beyond making it difficult for people to read the menu, lighting that isn’t bright enough increases the danger of guests tripping or slipping when moving around the restaurant.

To achieve the right balance between safety and atmosphere, ambient lighting can be cleverly optimised by the installation of specialist diffusers that are designed to soften the appearance of a light and make it more subdued. Additionally, accent lights and track lights can be used strategically throughout a restaurant’s interior to draw attention to specific areas such as staircases and busy thoroughfares.

Emergency lighting is another crucial consideration for restauranteurs if they are to respect all of their legal obligations as proprietors of a commercial space. Emergency lights are those which come on automatically in the event of a power outage so that guests are able to make a safe, swift exit. Interior Designers often express grievances towards emergency lighting, as it can require the installation of an additional system which compromises the overall aesthetic they have envisaged.

Recognising this, lighting designers have developed methods of integrating emergency lighting discretely into the primary lighting system. This enables interior designers and their clients to realise their creative vision and achieve the desired atmosphere for the interior of their restaurant, bar or café!


Whilst there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to the question of what lighting is best for bars, restaurants and cafes, there are certain criteria that interior designers must consider in order to ensure that they select the most effective type for their space.

If you would like to learn more about Unibox’s commercial lighting capabilities, design expertise and industry experience, contact a member of our team today. Speak with an expert by calling 0161 655 2100 or by using our contact form here.