Diners are not usually aware of lighting in restaurants but it plays an important role in making them comfortable – or not – and in conveying a sense of what kind of space they are in.
Although psychologists say that humans, like other animals, prefer to eat in a dim, safe space like a cave, darkness has not always been prized. The specific meaning of lightness and darkness in restaurants is encoded in history and has varied through the decades.
Here is the simplified version: In the 19th century darkness in an eating place usually signaled that it was disreputable, that it entertained the sort of guests who would not be welcome in polite society. But this equation changed in the 20th century as it became easier and cheaper to provide light. Places with bright lights, first thought attractive, became viewed by many as garish and cheap. Darkness, or at least a degree of dimness, now became associated with fashionability and “atmosphere.”
Through much of the 19th century darkness was associated with poverty and vice. The average oyster cellar was a below-ground dive possessing the three Ds: darkness, dampness, and dirt. A visitor to one of these places in New York in 1845 described rickety chairs and walls blackened with smoke. Overall, he wrote, it was “so dark and damp that the bivalves might have fancied themselves in their native mud.” By contrast a first-class oyster house was set apart from the rest by its bright gaslights, damask draperies, marble topped tables, crystal decanters, large mirrors, and paintings of scantily clad women.
The notion that dark equals dirty has not vanished even today. Unless a restaurant is in the luxury or upscale class, darkness is suspicious. Starting in the teens, inexpensive chain restaurants specializing in fast food were always bright, not only to prove to customers that they were clean but also because bright lights kept customers from lingering.
A few restaurants installed electric lighting in the 1880s, though it was unreliable. On Feb. 27, 1885, Edmund Hill proudly recorded in his diary that his Trenton NJ restaurant, “Had the electric light running for the first time.”
Many more restaurants had electricity by the early 20th century though it had not yet achieved universal status. Some regions of the country still lacked electrification. Even in areas that were lucky enough to have electricity, a single naked bulb dangling from a wire might provide the only illumination in lowly rural cafes. Brightness continued to be equated with good times, especially if a restaurant hired musicians and catered to a late night crowd.
But as inexpensive “quick lunch” urban restaurants installed electric lighting, the glamour of brightness began to fade. Discerning customers at the forefront of taste trends rejected bright, noisy places, viewing them as vulgar. They preferred quiet intimacy in dining, with low lights, or shaded candles.
A widespread belief held that it was women who especially preferred dim lighting since it was more flattering. True or not, tea rooms, quintessential women’s haunts, often used candles. On the other hand, restaurants that advertised bright lighting, such as the 1960s chain Abner’s Beef House (“lighted brightly to let you see what you’re eating – like hunks of steak in a long fun bun”) pitched to male customers.
By the 1920s lighting had become an art. The best lighted restaurants were carefully designed using various types of illumination. Emphasis shifted from fancy light fixtures such as chandeliers to the quality of light that fixtures gave. The goal espoused by modern lighting experts and designers became to have adequately bright, but not glaring general illumination, with soft, warm lighting focused on the table. Around 1950 Fritzel’s in Chicago was designed using sophisticated lighting which combined ceiling and wall fixtures with recessed lighting from an architectural feature. [pictured]
Designers hated fluorescent lighting. As a lighting designer wrote in 1950: “Aesthetically, the worst development probably in the whole history of lighting is the fluorescent tube, which emits its eerie cold glare in unknown thousands of public rooms all over America.” Many small town cafes, however, continued to use fluorescent lighting since it was more economical. Equally common in 20th-century lunch rooms were plain white globes descending from chains.
Although lighting experts say it’s all about the light, that has not stopped restaurants from using eye-catching novelty fixtures. Nothing stands out like the “light trees” used in luxurious dining rooms such as one in the Congress Hotel ca. 1915 [pictured above]. Wagonwheels also come to mind as one of the most overused examples, but there have been many others, such as Japanese lanterns, glass footballs, and battered brass buckets.
© Jan Whitaker, 2015