Shining the Light on Outdoor Dining


Many restaurants and bars that have been on life-support due to Covid-19 restrictions are embracing a different way of doing busines to enhance their bottom lines. Now offering Barbecues, Grill-fests, Picnic Dinners or Intimate Al-fresco Suppers, outdoor dining is clearly a hot industry trend that is here to stay.

The concept seems easy enough, set a few tables on the sidewalk and invite your customers to come by and enjoy a meal. But it is not quite that simple.

While many cities are supporting their local eateries by closing-off key roadways to traffic so restaurants can spread out into the streets to accommodate coronavirus safety precautions, there are unanticipated obstacles restauranteurs and tavern owners face when attempting to bring the indoors outside. One of the hurdles they must jump over is crafting just the right lighting for these new spaces.

“Creating comfortable eating areas that can both mitigate the hot rays of the sun by day and illuminate spaces well into the night is something that can feel overwhelming at first, but it  doesn’t have to be,” says Lisa Reed, founding principal at Envision Lighting Design.

“Be it a portion of a parking lot or an overlooked nook socially distant from the traditional dining room seating, the right lighting can make any table area really comfortable,” she says.

To help local business owners overcome some of the lighting challenges of creating outdoor dining areas, Reed and the Envision Lighting design team offer up the following advice: 

Safety First

“Be sure all walkways are clearly illuminated to highlight steps, ramps, and curbs. Post-top lights, wall sconces and/or rope lights tucked underneath the steps are a great way to do this. Bollards or lanterns can also mark pathways to and from the dining areas to help guests with wayfinding when it comes to entrances and exits.”

“It’s also important to make sure the lighting you select is appropriate for the space in which you are planning to use it. Not all lights are meant to be outdoors. Avoid fire hazards and having to bring lighting systems inside each night or during inclement weather by installing lights that are rated for outdoor use.” 

Utilize Nature and Props
“To screen diners from roadways, parking lots or even other tables, we suggest adding tall plants and/or trees to the area and then stringing lights in them. It increases visibility and helps highlight the beauty of the plants themselves. Hiding a light source behind a planter is also a good way create a softer glow for the space vs. shining light directly into the area.”

“We find umbrellas and trellises are not only useful for mitigating the glare and heat of sunshine during the day but are also a great way to create an ‘outdoor ceiling’ that can be lit up at night. Up-lighting an umbrella, for instance, turns it into a softly glowing canopy. LED lights are perfect for this application because they do not require much power and/or can be solar powered. They serve as a great option for brightening up dim areas and can be utilized in numerous ways to radiate warmth.”

Allow Color to Create Ambiance

“LED lights come in a variety of colors. Some are warm and some are cool. When selecting lights, be sure to pick a warm light, such as 2700K, to help people and their food look best. Do not use anything marked ‘daylight’.  And while there are so many wonderful colors one can choose from for lighting, one pitfall to avoid is using too much saturated color! Pops of red or blue light strategically placed can be fun. However, we suggest you use concentrated colors sparingly to avoid discoloring food or creating a chaotic, uncomfortable atmosphere.”

“For those looking to create a relaxing fireside ambiance, nothing does that better than, well fire. Tiki torches, a wonderful source of ambient light, are a very inexpensive investment that can transform an ordinary space into one that helps diners feel like they have escaped on a vacation get-away. Firepits can help with socially distancing patrons while also providing that warm glow that makes the overall outdoor dining experience more enjoyable. Furthermore, firepits and heat lamps are a great investment because they also provide warmth on cooler nights. In addition to providing ambient light, they can help extend the outdoor dining season well into the cooler months of the year.”

“While not new to many restaurants, out of the box thinkers are utilizing candles on tables to not only provide light and a touch of elegance, but to help staff track which tables still need to be sanitized vs. those ready for new guests. When the candle is out, nobody is seated at the table. When it is again lit, then it is a clear signal to the hostess that the table is ready for diners.”

Stringing it All Together

These days, string lights are everywhere primarily because they are attractive, reasonably priced, and easy to install. However, we suggest using them in the following less-conventional ways to make your eatery really pop:

  • Instead of hanging the string lights as a swag, connect them to the architecture itself and hang them in straight lines.
  • Shape your lighting by picking something other than strands of standard globes. You can use paper lanterns, elongated bulbs, jelly jars, lights shaped like cactus, etc. – be creative to set your string lights apart from others.
  • When stringing lights across your space, use interesting posts that represent your restaurant’s personality. Broomsticks in a bucket can work, but so can:
    • Painted or stained 4×4 posts set in concrete bases; fill buckets with concrete and remove the bucket after concrete has set.
    • Sand-filled buckets housing PVC pipe. Skirt the unattractive buckets with fabric and, perhaps more lights for a whole new look.
    • Wooden ladders and pallets or interesting architectural objects like shutters can be weighted with plants and used to anchor string lights for a rustic look.
    • And then again – who needs posts? Try stringing lights from a building to a perimeter wall or a point on a fence surrounding the eating area – no posts necessary.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.