An Open Letter to Restaurants With Track Lighting: Stop It

The secret to turning your restaurant into a foodie destination? Destroy your overhead lighting in some sort of ritual bonfire.

What’s the food equivalent of being well-read? Well-fed? Whatever it is, that’s how I like to consider myself: someone who’s been around the block and collected her fare share of doggie bags in the process.

And yet even as someone who says things like “we have to get the tasting menu, you guys,” my pet peeve about restaurants actually has nothing to do with food or service or the peccadilloes of fine-dining culture. The fact is, if I hate a restaurant, it’s pretty much always because the restaurant is illuminated by track lighting. And it’s time the world—or at least restaurants with track lighting—knew the truth.

I realize what a diva this makes me sound like, but truly, it’s not even about how I look under the harsh glare of an unwavering 60W LED: it’s about how I feel.

And how I feel… is human. Because people are psychologically impacted by light. Studies have found that the more intense the light, the more intense emotions feel. Warm lighting—again, according to science, and not just cabal of designers over in the pages of Western Living—creates coziness and enhances social atmospheres. Ninety-one percent of diners agree that ambiance plays a role in their restaurant choice. So am I being hyper-sensitive and a weird lighting snob, or am I just shining a light (wordplay! Intentional!) on neuroscience?!

restaurant with bad lighting
This restaurant (not in Vancouver, because while I don’t care for bad lighting, I do care about feelings!) has tried to mitigate track-lighting terror with sconces and, IMO, failed miserably. I want to leave the room and I’m just looking at a picture of it.

Here’s another cold hard fact: nothing turns me off a meal faster than a track lighting situation. If there aren’t also pendant lights or sconces to balance them out, I am instantly transformed into some breed of Very Rude Vampire, sneering and sniffling as if the aggressive shadows being cast down upon my tempeh bowl are doing physical harm. Similarly, if I discover potlights are the sole lighting source on the premises, I am taking that pho to go. Overhead florescents? I will personally plant a rat in your tub of chowder and call the health inspector anonymously to make sure you can’t hurt anyone else ever again.

Of course I appreciate that putting together a restaurant is really, really hard work, with a million little details to consider. It’s absolutely not cheap to open a restaurant (in Vancouver or anywhere) and I know how much love and care it takes for restaurants of any size or theme to open and operate. Restauranteurs are super busy trying to delight diners tastebuds and/or seduce the liquor inspector, so I appreciate that maybe they don’t have time to go out and buy like, one string of lights or even a lamp, for the love of god.

I’m not going to name names. If you’re reading this by the blinding glare of your track lights, you already know who you are. But as a member of the food media (in a sort of cousin-once-removed sort of way), I have had too many vaguely uncomfortable dinners under monorail light systems to stay silent any longer. A poorly lit restaurant is a crime against going out! To eat under bad lighting gives me the same feeling as having an itchy tag in your sweater, but in my brain. Should I go to a doctor? Maybe, but I don’t have time because I’m about to drive to Ikea to buy some damn hanging lamps for this aburi sushi place I really want to like.

a restaurant with OK lighting
Proof that it is possible to have track lighting in a restaurant, if pendant lamps are being used responsibly in the process. (Again, a non-Vancouver restaurant to spare any tears.)

I feel like I could start a Kitchen Nightmares-style show where I just travel around the city installing light fixtures and improving struggling restaurants’ profits by 6,000% overnight. (Food Network, my phone lines are open.)

As much as I like to consider myself a foodie, I’m ultimately just a sucker for a nicely lit restaurant. Even the floppiest of pizza slices can be redeemed by a cozy vibe; a too-sweet cocktail can be enjoyed if the candlelight flickers just so. If the lighting is right, I’ll forgive pretentious servers or suspiciously quick entree delivery, or enjoy the opportunity to linger when service runs a little slowww. Think about all of the city’s new Michelin-star restaurants. What do they all have in common? Sure, these rooms each boast inventive, impressive dishes and world-class culinary talent… but I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that not a one of them has track lighting.

I know restaurants are going through a lot right now. But if you can’t fix food costs, if you can’t fix your leases, if you can’t find staff: at least ripping your track lighting out of the ceiling will be a nice way to relieve some tension, no?