With the end of winter, many of us can hardly wait to spend time in our yards — especially for al fresco dining. In fact, it’s not our imagination that food tastes better outside as studies support our
observations. In addition, being outdoors provides vitamin D, lowers our blood pressure and heart rate, reduces stress, and has numerous other beneficial impacts on our bodies and psyches. I wanted an outdoor dining area, so it became a focal point in the garden. I designed and built an arbor spanning a walkway through a rose hedge. Blooming roses and jasmine on each side of the arbor filled the air with perfume.
The design included benches with sloped backs and wide armrests on each side. The benches were wide enough to seat two on each side or allow a person to lean back and stretch out a bit to read or relax. The walkway was wide enough to insert a folding table between the benches with room for sitting. The arbor was wrapped in lattice to provide privacy and shade. With shade cover over the top and lined with outdoor lights, it was a haven in the garden at any time of year.
An outdoor dining room sets the scene for memorable meals — so make sure your garden is ready for hosting. Transforming a spot in your backyard or on the patio into a dining area involves very little effort. The goal is to create an outdoor eating area that’s both comfortable and stylish.
Choose Your Outdoor Dining Space
Designing an outdoor dining area is most successful if you take time to determine your personal and entertaining needs. Design the space around your lifestyle, rather than designing your lifestyle around the space. Is the dining area for the entire family for a weekend grill-athon? Or perhaps you want a more intimate space for entertaining a few couples. If you like big parties, that will impact the size of the required space and necessary furniture. Take measurements and sketch your ideal floor plan.
Then choose an appropriate area with shade, shelter, and room to spread out. After that, creating the outdoor dining room is similar to designing and decorating any indoor room with a few extra considerations, such as weather, insects, winds and breezes, and sun exposure. Ideally, the outdoor dining area should be convenient to the kitchen.
Choose a Style
Decorating outdoors allows creative freedom in selecting a style. Styles can range from contemporary to rustic, exotic to casual, or retro to eclectic. Decide on a few principal colors for furniture, cushions, rugs, and accents. Outdoor dining rooms, like their indoor counterparts, are enhanced with varied colors, textures, and accessories.
Remember that outdoor dining is inherently informal, and there’s no rule that says the table and chairs must all match. Sometimes an eclectic look ends up being more inviting and comfortable than a uniform dining set. Prioritize Comfort and Functionality Even more than style, my choices in the garden reflect my preference for comfort, function, and utility. When shopping for furniture, I always test any chair I’m considering for the garden for comfort and check that the table height works, too. I want to linger over conversations in my dining area outside. To linger requires comfort — and cushions.
A ceiling fan in this area serves several purposes: cooling guests, providing overhead lighting, and discouraging insects. Plan for electrical outlets, additional fans, decorative lighting, and outdoor appliances. I place a high priority on other details to provide comfort, including shelter from the elements. Adding an overhead shade, sail, canopy, gazebo, or pergola achieves several goals.
They provide shade for sunny days and depending on the density and waterproofing, shelter from the rain. Maximize the Setting Avoid choosing an outdoor dining area in the part of a backyard that receives sun at midday, or it may become unbearably hot. West-facing is ideal, allowing you to maximize light and warmth in the evening, and perhaps even affording a glimpse of the sunset. In much of New Mexico, views of our mountains and valleys form the garden backdrop.
Define the Space
Whether a rustic gravel base, a patio of pavers, or an outdoor carpet over the porch, a stable base can define the dining area creating a boundary, while providing stability for furniture and comfort for diners. Other ways to define the space include planters, flower beds, pergolas, arbors, screens/curtains, and shades.
For many seasons of use, select furniture that is intended to be used outdoors and that is in proportion to your space. It’s hard to stuff large furniture on a tiny patio and a small bistro set disappears on a porch that spreads across the back of the house. Measure the space of your dining area before you go furniture shopping or use your design sketch.
Consider the furniture’s durability for outdoor use. Materials for outdoor furniture include wood, rattan, wicker, steel, wrought iron, and aluminum. For flexibility, storage, and ease of cleaning, you might consider plastic. Adding a buffet table or bar is an efficient way to allow guests to serve themselves and frees up space on the table. Make sure there’s enough room to accommodate a buffet without crowding. Keep at least 4 feet between the buffet and the dining table for easy access.
Employ a variety of accents to add comfort, thrill the senses, and unify your style and accessories. When we are dining outside at dusk and beyond, we need to see our plates. So, include lights in your design. Add overhead lights for visibility or create an inviting ambiance with decorative light strands, candles, or lanterns.
Soften edges and fill corners with pots of scented herbs and flowers, such as rosemary, thyme, and citronella. Create drama with sculptural plants like snake plants, agaves, and aloes. Or add structural elements with bamboo or decorative stems, fountains, sculptures, and artwork.
Don’t forget soothing sounds. Highlight natural sounds such as breezes through leaves, birds at the feeders, and wind chimes. Some occasions could call for music with outdoor or portable speakers. Do not be intimidated by all the design rules. This is your space to relax and share with friends and family. Make it your own — even if you simply set up a card table and a few chairs.
Your purpose is to enjoy dining outdoors, to linger over a delightful repast with friends and family.
Check out more ways to make your backyard an outdoor dining oasis here.
Story by Jackye Meinecke | Adobe Stock Images
Originally published in Neighbors magazine