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Outdoor dining areas are a joy. Nothing offers us a way to sit back and enjoy sharing the rays of the summer sun with friends or family quite like our own private decks or patios.
It is no surprise then, that creating these coveted outdoor spaces and decorating them has more and more become a ‘hot topic’. You can see it just about everywhere; magazines and television shows offer up enticing images of stylish dining spaces flawlessly integrated into the landscape and yet still remain a true stylistic reflection of their creators and an inviting place to indulge with friends.
Although not all of us can afford to put together the same sort of elaborate spaces that we see in the mass media, the good news is that with a realistic budget, a little creativity, and a great plan, we can still easily realize some pleasant potential in just about any exterior eating and entertaining area.
All successful outside meal areas, no matter if created for the pleasure of two or twenty, share three common things:
1. They All Have Appropriate Seating – Both in Style, Quantity, and Arrangement
The purpose of an al-fresco dining area is certainly not to rush through the meal. Yet uncomfortable seating, seating where people feel alienated from the group, or seating where someone is unable to speak across the table won’t exactly inspire anyone to stick around for seconds.
Much like a well-designed dining room inside the home, enjoyable eating areas have seating that encourages the occupants to linger. This means knowing how many people to expect on a regular basis and planning accordingly.
Just as an area with too few seats is disastrous, over-abundant seating can make any site feel cluttered and will create empty and unnecessary spaces between diners.
Things to Consider:
- Keep seating stylish and comfortable! Although the specific furniture chosen must take into account needs, taste, and spatial limitations, chairs with higher backs, wider seats, armrests, and softer cushions all make diners want to linger longer.
- Try to use alternative furniture that can act as something other than seating when not in use such as cube tables with storage. Especially handy for a dining area that needs to be flexible with seating quantities, adaptive seating can aid greatly in keeping the location from looking cluttered.
- Take into account where the seating will be before deciding on what it will be. Dark metal chairs will heat up in the hot sun, and uncovered plastic chairs will be sticky and clammy in humid environments. Choose seating that will withstand the weather conditions and still maintain its color, quality, and style.
- Arrange to seat so that everyone can easily hear one another speak.
- In smaller arrangements or untraditional setups, where the eating area may resemble a casual conversation area more than a formal dining zone, avoid placing seats parallel to each other as it will make the seating area feel like a face-off. Instead, opt for perpendicular arrangements which are generally more conducive to conversation.
- New, weather-resistant synthetic materials mimic the look of natural fibers.
- Clean lines and simple modern styles imitate today’s hottest indoor furniture trends.
- Accessorizing outdoor seating with custom slip-covers, throw pillows, and accent cushions in different patterns, sizes, and textures.
- Bohemian-style casual eating zones on decks – complete with deep banquette seating, lots of pillows, and low tables; think cocktails and finger foods with friends while lounging on comfortable, sofa-like seating.
- Mix-and-match dining sets where perfectly matched seating is replaced by the seating of different types and styles. Some common non-traditional seating options include stylish banquettes and contemporary armchairs.
2. They Allow Smooth Traffic Flow
Every dining area needs good traffic flow. This means that there is adequate space to easily pull a chair in and out from the table, excuse ones self to go to the washroom without causing everyone in between to stand, and eat without bumping elbows during the meal.
It also means that there is a clear and easy pathway for all other dining-area-related functions such as getting the food to or from the cooking area, allowing easy access to any serving sites (such as a buffet table, barbeque, or indoor kitchen), and enabling diners to reach the table without getting in the way of whoever is cooking or serving.
Things to Consider:
- Try to leave 36 inches or more of space around a table so that chairs can comfortably be pulled in and out.
- Keep any cooking or preparation areas far enough away from the dining activity to allow two people (minimum) to pass by one another easily.
- If the dining area is on a deck or patio, leave ample room between the door and table so as to avoid congestion and the possibility of getting elbowed in the head while eating!
- Beverage areas away from the main dining location to lead people away from doorways and keep traffic from bunching up.
- Wheeled tray carts or serving trolleys keep table space free and allow easy and elegant transfer of food from the doorway to the dining area.
- Decorations that can be hung to keep floor space free and prevent precious things from being broken.
3. They Offer Ambiance
The ambiance is a critical part of a dining experience. It sets the tone of the meal ahead and helps wrap diners in the ultimate personality of a space. It influences how formal or informal the evening ahead will be and dictates the atmosphere of the festivities in which your guests will be a part.
The ambiance is not privacy, although it is a critical component to creating an intimate environment where no one feels “exposed”.
Things to Consider:
- Decide on a desired mood for a dining area before deciding on the color, decorative elements, furniture, or style.
- For maximum versatility, keep large elements neutral and add personality with easy-to-change accents.
- Don’t forget to incorporate natural elements into your design; they will add texture and interest to the location and prevent an outdoor environment from looking out of place.
- Focus on the focal point. A focal point is the first place your eye is drawn to when you enter an area. Depending on the size and style of your space, the dining setup may be the focal point or the focal point may be another dominant item within the area such as a large outdoor painting, a fire pit built into the backdrop, or a water wall. Decide on the focal point for your dining area and select decorative elements so they work to complement rather than compete.
- Group small decorative elements into groups or vignettes (both on and off the dining table) to make them appear as one larger element. This will help prevent the appearance of an area that is overdone and visually busy.
- Make sure you have at least two types of lighting for evening dining; general lighting for the brightness of the area as a whole, and task lighting or directed lighting for any areas where people are ‘doing’ something, such as the dining table, or for any items that attention should be called to, such as a water wall or garden feature. The first choice adds a general ambiance and ensures enough light to get to and from the dining location. The latter creates dynamism and personality while ensuring enough light to pour a drink and see your food.
- Decorate for the weather by using rain or sun-blocking screens, canopies, and curtains that can be closed or lowered to protect diners from inclement conditions.
- Sunrooms or enclosed structures are built with sliding doors or extra large windows that can be completely opened in warm weather to create an integrated indoor-outdoor space.
- Outdoor reproduction artwork, similar to what you would see in the home, but treated to withstand the weather.
- Mirrors are placed both as garden art and hung on fences to create a feeling of space and openness in outdoor dining zones.
- Integrated outdoor kitchen/dining areas located away from the main house, built right into the landscape.
- Fabrics in bold patterns and bright colors paired with natural hues and earthy tones.
- Built-in outdoor sound systems.
- Customized furniture such as tile-top dining tables and custom-covered chairs.