The Ultimate Guide to Dining Al Fresco
One of the many joys of summer is the opportunity to eat outdoors. For those of us who live in climates that do not allow for this year-long, there's something particularly wonderful about dining en plein air, whether it means grabbing an outdoor table at your favorite local restaurant or setting your own outside your home.
Whether your home is lake-front or ocean-front, whether you have a yard, terrace, porch or balcony, no matter how large or small your space is, there's nothing as magical as dining under the stars or setting sun. Below are some images and ideas to inspire.
One day I'll have a pool in my backyard. In all honesty I want one less for swimming and sunning, and more for entertaining. I will have poolside dinner and cocktail parties all summer long. Some will be formal, others casual. Whether you invite your guests to jump in or not, is entirely up to you. Keep it as simple or make it formal - organize a sit-down dinner, or have a casual barbeque-style affair. It's less about what's being served and more about the gathering of friends.
Ideas for a poolside (or any outdoor) dinner party
- Pot luck: assign everyone a dish to bring, from salads to entrees and desserts
- Set up a salad and sandwich bar
- Set up a burger and hot dog bar
- Host a barbeque
- Hire a caterer, whether formal or informal, and let someone else do the work
- Have pizzas delivered - Order unique pies that people might not usually order
- Have a taco party
- Have a clambake or lobster boil
- Hire a food truck
While I do love the beach I tend not to frequent it as much during the daytime as I used to. In fact, my favorite time there is at the end of the day, whether I'm setting up something casual for two with a bottle of wine and some bread and cheese or gathering the masses together. When dining at the beach casual is best. Sand does tend to get into food, bugs do happen. Our local beaches have a no alcohol policy, but no one questions what's in plastic cups. We keep our bottles of wine chilled and hidden from view. Barbecuing on one of the provided grills sounds lovely but ends up being an unnecessary production - involves a lot more organization, more to pack and more to clean. Save the BBQ for home. We happen to live in an area where UberEATS is available and popular. They deliver to most beaches and you can order from anywhere. This is best for smaller parties. Pizza delivery is also fun, but I still think an informal picnic is the way to go. Above images: Lauren Nelson
Ideas for an informal beach or lakeside picnic
- Charcuterie, cheese and fruit platter
- Sliced baguette (or other good crusty bread)
- (pre) Grilled chicken, steak or shrimp, sliced as necessary
- (pre assembled) Sandwiches
- Roasted or grilled vegetables
Salads of all types including:
- Tomato and corn
- Greek salad
- Salad Nicoise (pre-tossed)
- Chicken salad
- Watermelon and Feta salad
- Potato salad
- Cucumber Salad
- Pasta salad (macaroni salad)
- Freshly cut up fruit
- Cup cakes
- Anything that's easily transportable and served
An afternoon garden (or terrace) party with the girls can be simple and uncomplicated. Plan a light menu, salad, finger sandwiches, fresh fruit. Serve lemonade or a sparkling sangria. I love to make finger sandwiches using a thin sandwich bread. Two slices of bread, when cut into triangles, makes 2-4 depending on the size. I prefer them smaller so that I can have a variety. Image below Dear Pearl Flowers
Finger sandwich ideas
- Egg salad
- Chicken salad (thinly cut)
- Smoked ham (thinly sliced) with brie
- Apple or pear (thinly sliced) with brie
- Smoked salmon and Boursin
Or maybe you live in the city and hosting an outdoor party isn't really an option. (Though I always thought it would be fun to gather a group of friends together in Central Park and set up a long table somewhere in the park!) Most apartments don't have balconies or terraces, if you do, you're lucky! Perhaps there's a roof you're allowed to use. Rooftop dining is becoming quite popular these days. This does require a certain amount of thought and planning so that unnecessary trips aren't made. While breaking out the China is a lovely thought, you may want to stick with a lighter weight melamine or even disposable plates. Keep your meals on the simple side. Take out, in this instance is perfect. A table cloth, fresh flowers, music, mood lighting and good wine will perfect your evening. Below image, Ciao Newport Beach
Terraces and patios are always a good idea! And since they tend to be located within close proximity to the kitchen or dining area transporting items such as plates, stemware, bottles and food is relatively simple. A simple bar cart is a great option for extra storage, and for placing dirty items when you're done with them. What to serve? Check out the options listed above.
How to dress your outside table
Tablecloths are optional and may not be suitable for a windy day. That said there are clips that can be purchased to keep tablecloths anchored for such a situation. I prefer my outdoor dining areas to be slightly more casual. Top sheets make great covers - from florals to stripes in a multitude of patterns. They're easily washed and dried and you likely already have an assortment. For something a bit heavier woven blankets (machine washable only) will also work. I'm a HUGE HomeGoods fan and these can all be purchased there affordably.
Mix and match different place settings, vases, pitchers and glassware, if you don't have enough of one set or pattern. Another place to look for extras are second hand shops and stores like Goodwill. Or invest in a nice set of melamine plates and plastic goblets, from retailers like Williams-Sonoma or Crate & Barrel that will stand the test of time.
Decorating your outside table
- I always like to work with elements from nature.
- Large branches in vases or glass pitchers, painted if you wish. These can be used over and over
- Large scallop and quahog shells can be washed and used to hold candles or even used as dishes to serve salt and pepper, or used as place cards
- Freshly-cut plantings, plants or store-bought flowers are always a good idea - Stick to a color theme if you wish or just mix it up
- A small terra cotta pot makes a lovely place setting
- A small herb container makes a lovely place setting
- An assortment of white candles can look positively magical
- A large bowl of fresh fruit or vegetables such as in-season tomatoes and peppers make a lovely centerpiece
- Let your meal be your centerpiece
And lastly, and I love this idea.... gather the neighbors together and have a long, communal table. See if it's possible to close off your street - you're likely to need your town's permission - Invite everyone participate and contribute. It might be easier to assign dishes, or else create a master list of items needed and have people sign up. Who knows, you might even start a neighborhood dining tradition. And I can't think of a better way to meet the neighbors you don't know or know well! (Above Image Grit Magazine)
Summer is too short a season to eat indoors!