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Correct Lighting Brightens Up Dining

Knight Ridder Newspapers

There's something all savvy restaurateurs know about creating a great place to dine. Service, cuisine and furnishings are critical, certainly. But just as key is the lighting. Lighting not only highlights architecture and spotlights food, it's what brings romance and glamour to a room.

"When you walk into a restaurant and it has that great orangey glow, it makes you feel good and it makes you look good," says Michael Palermo, development director for the Starr Restaurant Organization.

"Glow is the word most often used to describe the effect sought by restaurants. And if you're the sort who likes to entertain at home, it can be just as important to achieve a glow in your dining room.

Fortunately, the strategies used by lighting and restaurant designers are easy to apply at home, the experts say.

A space that's too dim or too harshly lit is not only a lousy showcase for good food, it can put a damper on conviviality. Stylish, intimate lighting can help make a gathering special, even if the food is not.

So the first thing to know is that every dining room should include multiple layers of light.

Stephen Starr's sultry Tangerine in Philadelphia, for example, features light from seven sources. There are spotlights focused on architectural columns and tented fabric on the soaring ceiling, punched copper pendant fixtures casting lacy shadows upward, and candles with frosted glass shades on the tables.

Built into a row of banquettes are fluorescent lights, warmed with colored gels, that throw a flattering backlight on diners and illuminate a black sheer curtain hanging from the ceiling.

For a home dining room, three layers of light will do the trick, the experts say. Upper-level lighting comes from ceiling fixtures. Mid-level lighting is the ambient light that typically comes from fixtures such as wall sconces. Then there is low-level lighting such as candles on the table.

"Low-level lighting is sexy. It's highlight and accent. It adds drama," says Palermo, whose boss owns a roster of dramatically lit restaurants.

Tom Vari, owner of Brandywine Lighting Design in Wilmington, Del., says the most common mistake people make is thinking a chandelier is all they need.

"They don't realize that 90 percent of the light ... goes up on the ceiling," says Vari. "They get a pretty chandelier and then they turn the lights all the way up to try to see, and the glare is terrible."

One easy solution, he says, is to put two tiny recessed lights into the ceiling to cast a pool of light on the table.

Scale also can trip people up, says Marguerite Rodgers, whose eponymous firm designs home interiors and restaurants.

"You don't want a tiny chandelier over a big table, or one that's hung too high or too low," says Rodgers.

A good rule of thumb, she says, is to hang a fixture so that the bottom is 30 to 36 inches from the top of a table: "At that height, you are not looking through it, but you are still perceiving it."

Restaurant designers come up with all sorts of creative ways to bring mid-level or ambient light into a dining room. At Starr's Morimoto, the walls have lighting hidden at the top and bottom, which makes them appear translucent.

But simpler solutions, such as wall sconces, can serve a home dining room well.

"Table lamps on a sideboard or a buffet are equally effective if used well," says interior designer Thomas Jayne. "And a dining room with four floor lamps in the corners can be very beautiful."

Among designers' other tips for creating multilayered effects: using uplights on plants in a room, and putting picture lights on paintings. For real drama, you can light up sheer or semi-sheer draperies from behind, using an uplight on the floor or a fluorescent strip.

Once your layers are in place, the surefire way to get a glow is to put dimmers on everything.

"No matter the light source, if you put a dimmer on it you can change it a thousand ways and make a room more intimate and social," says lighting designer Sean O'Connor.

Restaurants rely on dimming systems that allow them to press one button to dim all the lights in a room to a pre-set "scene." Similar systems have become increasingly affordable for the home.

"People are getting tired of having individual switches all over the place," says Brandywine Lighting's Vari. A typical room-dimming system, he says, runs $800 plus installation.

But there's a far more low-tech element no dining room can do without, the experts agree: candles.

Rodgers installed a row of six-foot-tall wrought-iron holders topped with massive pillar candles for the entry to Lacroix, at Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Hotel.

At Alma de Cuba, one of Starr's restaurants, the place glows with a sexy red light cast by a sea of votive candles in ruby glass holders.

And at Tangerine, there's a spectacular wall of flickering votives tucked into specially constructed niches.

"Everyone looks better in candlelight," says Palermo, "and there is no light that can imitate the beautiful flame of a candle."


With warm weather, some of us are starting to dust off the patio furniture and think about outdoor entertaining.

It's a good time to think about outdoor lighting, as well. In fact, many of the same principles behind great lighting for dining rooms can be applied to porches, decks, patios and verandas.

Multiple layers of light are just as crucial outside, says Linda Moran, owner of Hill Co., a patio-furniture shop in Philadelphia.

"You don't want it to be too dark, so that people can't see each other or the food, but you also don't want anything shining in their eyes," says Moran, who teaches workshops on designing outdoor rooms.

For spaces with good access to electrical outlets, a variety of table and floor lamps are available that can light up a gathering "and be left outside to stand up to the weather.

If you have an umbrella table, the options include tiny lights that attach to the spokes of the umbrella and larger lights (some of them solar) that attach to the pole and can shine up or down.

Another possibility for lighting up an umbrella: Pottery Barn's beautifully patterned, battery-operated paper lanterns ($14 in red or blue).

Strings of outdoor lights are an easy way to create glow. The options these days go far beyond the typical Christmas-light or Chinese-lantern look and include lights shaped like dragonflies and even tiny crystal balls, Moran says.

Have a structure you can hang something a bit heavier from? Think about a chandelier-like wrought-iron fixture meant to hold candles.

Or, to cast warm candlelight on a table, there are votive holders designed to shield flame from the wind.

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