Update: A version of this story was published in St. Louis CNR! Read that story here, and our original blog post below.
Cities everywhere are closing roadways to traffic and allowing restaurants to add outdoor dining tables because of coronavirus. Other restaurants are taking over parts of their parking lots to add a few tables. This outdoor dining option will be a lifesaver for many restaurants, allowing them to serve more guests while social distancing. Small overlooked nooks and crannies can create a perfect socially distanced table and with the right lighting, it can be stunning.
Outdoor dining creates daytime and nighttime lighting challenges. Umbrellas or a trellis may be needed to mitigate hot sunshine, while those “ceilings” become perfect opportunities for lighting at night. Uplighting an umbrella turns the whole thing into a glowing light source. LED lights are small sources which don’t take much power. Some can even be solar powered.
The Envision Lighting Design team has studied the options, and we would like to offer a few guidelines for spicing up your ad hoc alfresco dining spaces with a little lighting magic.
Be sure to highlight steps, ramps, and curbs. This can be done with post-top lights, wall sconces, or ropelight tucked underneath the steps. Light can also mark pathways and help with wayfinding.
To screen diners from roadways, parking lots, or even other tables, add plants and put lights in them for increased visibility. If you don’t plan to bring your lighting system inside during inclement weather, make sure you are using lights that are rated for outdoor use.
Warm Color Creates Fireside Ambiance
LED light comes in all different colors. Be sure to pick a warm color light (not “daylight”) to help people – and their food – look the most appealing. Be careful with saturated color! Pops of red or blue color can be fun, but use it sparingly to avoid discoloring food or creating a chaotic atmosphere.
Another thing that creates a warm fireside ambiance is…fire. Firepits can be used to help socially distance patrons while also providing light. Firepits or heat lamps can provide warmth and ambient light to extend the outdoor dining season in cool climates. Candles on tables provide light, too. You can also use candles or other lighting to track which tables are ready for new guests.
Umbrellas can provide daytime shade from hot sun, while tiki torches provide light at night; either replace umbrellas with tiki torches nightly, or if you have enough room, create a checkerboard of umbrella tables for daytime and tiki tables for night.
Create a Focal Point
Light the vertical surfaces between tables, whether they are curtains, walls, or plants. Whatever you use as a partition between people, illuminate it. Accent your accent walls! Try hiding the light source behind a bench or plant to create a softer glow. Glare is the enemy of a pleasant ambiance.
Firepits, fireplaces, and landscape planters are natural focal points. You can also uplight trees or hang lights from their branches to downlight the spaces below them. Why not draw attention to these bits of nature if you are lucky enough to have them in your urban landscape?
String Light Love
We all love string lights, and they are easy to install. But try using them differently. Here are some suggestions:
Let Your Personality Shine!
Lights – even string lights – come in different shapes and sizes. There are standard globes, but there are also some that look like jelly jars or paper lanterns. Pick a shape that matches the personality of your eatery.
Another fun idea is to bring floor lamps outdoors. Some are even rated for outdoor use.
Speaking of lamps, anything can be a lampshade! Hang buckets, baskets, or wire birdcages over a simple shop light for a dressed-up look. Cluster a group of cord-hung lamps together to create your own chandelier.
Lighting can be expensive and complicated, but it doesn’t have to be, and using your creativity can keep costs low. Whatever you decide to do, remember that the magic of light can enhance the outdoor dining experience just like it does indoors.
Lisa J. Reed, lighting designer and Principal at Envision Lighting Design, LLC