14 al fresco tablescaping ideas to create the perfect summer dining setup

It's finally the season for outdoor dining – this is how designers achieve the perfect al fresco tablescape

(Image credit: Soir Studio / Addison Ross; Bonadea; H&M Home)

There's loads to love about summer, and outdoor dining ranks high on the list. Whether you prefer to give your favorite restaurant's patio a visit or love to host friends and family right at home, there's nothing quite like a breezy, summer evening surrounded by food, drinks, and people you love.

But outdoor dining furniture isn't always lovely to look at, and taking your at-home setup from picnic-esque to truly impressive takes some time. Choosing a color scheme, thoughtfully selecting accessories, and ensuring your guests are comfortable all at the same time can become quite overwhelming. Creating a serene alfresco dining space isn't as simple as picking out a table and chairs, after all.

To make the alfresco table setting process a bit more approachable, we've turned to tablescaping pros, who shared their top tips for curating a gorgeous yet liveable outdoor dining arrangement that you'll savor all summer. They provided 14 tips for getting the look down – this is what they had to say.

Designers' top 14 tips for al fresco dining

'This summer is all about the effortless cabana look, which is dreamy, fresh, and stylish,' says Evelina Kravaev-Söderberg, head of creative and design at H&M HOME. 'It's important to have plenty of options for summertime alfresco dining, as well as, wherever possible, infusing colors of the sea and nature with clean blues and lush greens.

We've gathered the best tips designers have to offer when it comes to outdoor dining, from creating color stories to incorporating shade. Here's what you need to know.

1. Design as you would indoors

An outdoor dining table with a green and white tablecloth, green and pink salt and pepper shakers, and small green and white table lamps

(Image credit: Soir Studio / Addison Ross)

Although it's tempting to treat outdoor spaces as entities of their own, designers recommend approaching them as you would any interior space. Take inspiration from your own home or channel an interior design trend you love for an outdoor space that looks cohesive and chic. All the normal design rules apply here – treat your tablescape with care and consideration, and you'll be left with a stunning setup guests won't want to leave.

'Our outdoor spaces should echo our interior style, so when you step out into your garden for an alfresco lunch it should feel like a seamless transition. Key components to a beautiful outdoor dining setup include using a mix of aesthetic design and nature. Pairing your place settings with the flowers on the table, but also in the garden, will create color cohesion and bring a sense of calm and serenity to your outdoor setup,' says Sarah Ross, brand director for Addison Ross.

2. Invest in comfortable furniture

An outdoor dining table with a green and white tablecloth

(Image credit: Soir Studio / Addison Ross)

'You’ll want to start with the perfect table to cater to your guests – something that is simple and that can act like a blank canvas on which you can build. That means that every alfresco setting can be slightly different each time,' says Sarah.

The table and chairs you select for your alfresco dining space make all the difference, so select something that'll last the long term. Patio furniture hasn't always had the best reputation, but there's a wide selection of high-end, stylish pieces on the market that prove stiff, metal, or flimsy, plastic chairs aren't the only ways to go. Be sure to balance beauty with function along the way, too – a gorgeous table that doesn't fit the whole family won't do.

'Functional must-haves include sturdy tables and chairs that fit the purpose and aesthetic. Folding six-foot tables can be a modular option to add together as your guest count requires, and outfit them with tablecloths that fit your desired aesthetic,' says Jalene Kanani, founder and creative director of Hawai'i-based NOHO Home.

'Comfort is key, so I suggest investing in good outdoor furniture. I like to add upholstered seats and cushions to my garden furniture – not only do they bring added color and joy to the garden, but they are an extension of your table setting,' adds Gemma Martinez de Ana, founder of Bonadea.

3. Opt for natural materials

A bar setup on an outdoor ottoman, with limes, an ice bucket, and a floral arrangement

(Image credit: Bonadea)

'Incorporate natural materials such as wooden tables, bamboo chairs, and woven placemats. These elements ground the space and connect diners with the outdoors,' says Jalene. Take cues from your surrounding environment, and incorporate bits and pieces of nature throughout your alfresco space. Whether you prefer rattan furniture, floral accessories, or a mix of the two, you'll want your outdoor setup to blend seamlessly into your yard or patio.

'When creating an alfresco setting, the key is to capture a light, fresh, and airy ambiance. This can be easily achieved by incorporating elements inspired by nature. I particularly love using bamboo cutlery and rattan accessories like carafes and trays, which bring the right amount of the outdoors to your table. For a fête galante touch, I recommend champagne bowls, which add a sophisticated flair to any outdoor soiree,' says Gemma.

4. Prioritize ambient lighting

A small outdoor dining table on a rooftop, with small candles on the ground

(Image credit: Grythyttan)

Lighting is easy to overlook when it comes to outdoor dining, but it makes all the difference when the sun starts to set. Keep your friends and family out of the dark by integrating ambient lighting into your tablescape: 'Ambient lighting creates a warm inviting glow. You can string lights, lanterns, and candles,' says Jalene.

'For me, candlelight is a perfect table accessory that instantly adds depth and height to any setting while providing practical illumination. I love using candle lanterns not only on my table, but also in the surrounding areas to create an experience for guests and loved ones,' says Gemma.

Candles are a classic choice, but Jo Plant – head of design at Pooky – recommends rechargeable lamps. Perfect for outlet-free areas, battery-powered lamps are easily portable, and some are made especially for outdoor spaces.

'Having an alfresco dinner and want to bring some warmth to the table? Use portable lamps over candles to inject some personality. Not only are they functional to illuminate the setting as the sun goes down but they also provide the perfect vehicle to jazz up your tablescape with color,' says Jo.

5. Get creative with color

An outdoor dining table with a red and white striped tablecloth and orange and blue floral arrangements in vases

(Image credit: Bonadea)

'For this time of year, it's fun to play with color, so mixing and matching brightly colored placemats will really make your table come alive,' says Sarah. 'Planning a summer garden party offers the perfect opportunity to play with swathes of colors – from brights to pastels, two tried and tested trends.'

Outdoor dining tables offer plenty of opportunity to play with color. While committing to bright hues inside your home can feel intimidating, these separate spaces call for a bit more experimentation. Sarah says she loves the combination of yellow and white at the moment, but she recommends bringing pops of bright hues of your choosing to outdoor dining arrangements: 'If there is a hint of orange in a napkin, I like to echo this tone through another texture, such as a flower or even through the food.'

'I enjoy all color palettes, and I suppose it really depends on the time of the year. For spring, soft blues and greens are a beautiful combination. ... Moving into summer, I relish the chance to use fiery reds, pinks, and oranges – perhaps that is influenced by my Spanish heritage, but I think they make such a beautiful splash when laid out on a table,' adds Gemma.

If all-out color isn't quite your thing, decorating with earthy colors is a great alternative. Ceramics designer Esma Dereboy recommends choosing one 'feature color' to start out with, then pulling it through a few key elements of the tablescape.

'To create something unforgettable for your guests, you can match your placemats, napkin rings, and glassware to keep your tablescape cohesive. This summer I am loving terracotta hues, and think this color adds depth to any summer dinner party. I also love buttermilk yellow paired with pale blue – I think this is a lovely color pairing that evokes the feeling of being by the seaside. Bliss!' says Esma.

6. Have a backup plan

An outdoor dining table with a blue and white tablecloth, a pink floral arrangement and a glass decorated with a butterfly

(Image credit: Bonadea)

No matter how much planning you've put into your alfresco dining setup, the weather can be unpredictable. Forecasts aren't always perfect, after all. That's why Esma says 'The most important thing to consider for an outdoor dining scheme is a backup plan.'

'The weather can turn quickly, so being able to move your meal inside takes the pressure off. As for tableware, you can’t go wrong by investing in good plates, weatherproof placemats and some fun salt and pepper shakers that elevate your scheme,' she says.

You won't be able to protect against all scenarios, but having a rain-proof plan on the backburner can save a washed-out dinner party in an instant. Pitching a tent isn't always an option, so look into indoor spaces or protected areas in case the rain prevails.

7. Consider your surroundings

An outdoor dining table on the beach with a large floral arrangement and a green and blue tablecloth

(Image credit: H&M Home)

'Alfresco dining is a seasonal opportunity to break bread in nature, so we always suggest employing natural elements that can be found in close proximity or are of a regional flavor. Florals, shrubbery, potted plants, long grasses, palms, and even unique rocks can be used as accents to provide your meal with a sense of place while being wonderful conversation starters,' says Jalene.

If you're lucky enough to be dining on the beach or on the outskirts of a gorgeous forest, take full advantage of your surroundings and accentuate the view. If you'd like to admire the scenery while you eat, don't be afraid to pare back the tablescape and keep things relatively simple. Gemma suggests incorporating small pieces of your surroundings into the final dining table look.

'For summer, consider incorporating fresh herbs and the fragrant smells of the garden. Something as simple as a sprig of rosemary on each place setting can add a personal touch and brings the fresh, inviting ambiance of an outdoor barbecue,' she says.

'During the pandemic, I became acutely aware of the beauty in using what was available. Fresh flowers or a treasured porcelain collection might not always be at hand, but utilizing local resources can be equally enchanting and still fill your table with love. Placing freshly cut flowers or garden plants in a vase, setting out large bowls of fruit, and providing serving cutlery for guests to help themselves creates an inviting atmosphere that celebrates what table settings are about: friendship, communion and hospitality,' she continues.

8. Integrate some shade

Two outdoor dining tables surrounded by greenery with pink chairs and a tan shade hanging above

(Image credit: Oscar Lucien Ono)

Rain can make an outdoor meal uncomfortable in an instant, but so can too much sun. Though we wait all year for the sun to shine, sitting for hours in direct, beaming sunlight is an easy way to kill an appetite. That's why Jalene suggests incorporating some shade into your outdoor dining setup. The whole table doesn't need to be covered, but ensure there's space for those who'd prefer to avoid the rays.

'Large umbrellas, shade sails, or pergolas make the space usable throughout the day. In Hawaii we love to set mats on the ground and scatter them with pillows and low tables,' says Jalene.

9. Bring the throw blankets and pillows

An outdoor tablescape with a tropical theme

(Image credit: NOHO Home)

'A shady parasol is a must for warm summers, but equally don't forget to incorporate some blankets too for when the evening gets a chill,' says Gemma.

When the sun sets, a warm summer day can become quite chilly, quite quickly. Cozy, cocooning throw blankets and plush throw pillows can save the day. Bring a small basket for easy access, or scatter these comfortable accessories around the dining setup. Your guests won't have to ask if the breeze starts to kick in, and the party will last even longer.

'Be mindful of the weather. Baskets of blankets and throws not only provide function for cooler evenings but also add warmth and thoughtfulness,' says Jalene.

10. Layer textures

An outdoor dining table with blue patterned tablecloth with swan-shaped vases and a beige umbrella

(Image credit: Bonadea)

'Layer textures by combining different textures such as napkins, wooden chargers, and ceramic plates to add depth without overcrowding. Mixing and matching pieces add a causal touch and lots of interest while creating an opportunity for storytelling,' says Jalene.

As with indoor spaces, layering textures is a quick and easy way to add character and charm to a design scheme. Natural materials offer lots of opportunity for visual interest, so you won't have to look far. Don't be afraid to combine unconventional combinations – you can always edit and refine later down the line.

11. Remember that less is more

A closeup of a blue and green outdoor dining table with a wine glass and small fish-shaped bowl

(Image credit: H&M Home)

'I always stick to the rule that less is more when it comes to creating a functional tablescape. Don’t over-clutter your table with too many platters and decor that ends up getting in the way. Pick some key pieces that make your table pop and ensure there is still some open space on your table for people to reach and pass items without knocking things over,' says Esma.

Although having a gorgeous tablescape is well and good, it won't matter much if you can't enjoy your meal with ease. Stick with the essentials first, then see what else you'll have room for. Too many items can make it hard to see one another, and even harder to serve up a delicious dish.

'Keep in mind that during this time of year, we tend to make a lot of sharing platters so you’ll want to keep space on the table to fit these beautiful dishes on. Instead of cluttering the center of the table too much with candle sticks or too many vases, let your cooking speak for itself – with the colors of your dishes adding an extra element to your space,' says Sarah.

12. Find a balance between beautiful and functional

An outdoor dining table with blue and white salt and pepper shakers and small floral arrangements

(Image credit: Soir Studio / Addison Ross)

A simple way to avoid over-cluttering your tablescape is investing in functional items that also add to the overall look. Salt and pepper shakers, cake stands, and spice containers don't have to be boring white or glass – mix up the look by integrating colorful, whimsical decor.

'Using large colorful or patterned trays to bring food or drinks out on can really elevate your set up and make an alfresco engagement that much more chic, and organized,' says Sarah.

'One staple that I find is a must for outdoor dining is a rattan ice bucket. Especially as we head into the warm summer days, having an ice bucket at hand will ensure you and your guests are cool and refreshed,' adds Gemma.

13. Don't forget the flowers

An al fresco table set with floral arrangements and colorful dishes

(Image credit: Esma Dereboy)

'Another key component of any alfresco dining table is flowers. They add vibrancy to any tablescape, as well as adding height, and are the perfect way to celebrate some of your favorite seasonal blooms,' says Esma.

Whether within a centerpiece or on their own in small vases, flowers level up any alfresco setup. Appearing alongside their natural environment, they're the perfect addition to an already colorful arrangement.

14. Tell a story with your tablescape

An outdoor dining table with a green and blue tablecloth, a blue and green pitcher and wine glasses

(Image credit: H&M Home)

'I recommend using themes and colors of the season in your region to add a connection to time and place however level up the intensity to make a strong statement. Tell little-known stories about your town through theme and decor,' says Jalene.

Get creative and tell a story with your tablescape, whether it's about you, your family, your neighborhood, or your party's theme. Because outdoor tablescapes can be changed and remade so easily, it's the perfect chance to express yourself through design.

'I currently love very large oversized dried palms batched and placed organically for added drama. Always share with your guests your design story, inspiration, and purpose for gathering, it will make the evening much more memorable for your guests as they go home from not just a dinner, but a connective experience!' Jalene continues.

'Ultimately, embrace the art of improvisation in your table settings. Mixing patterns and colors can be enjoyable, and there's no need for everything to match perfectly. Sometimes, you might not have access to every ideal item, but that's part of the charm,' Gemma concludes.

'A simple tablecloth, a few cushions, and warm lighting are all you need for a memorable alfresco dinner party. And of course, everything looks magical after a bottle of champagne. At the end of the day, adding personal touches ensures your table is crafted with care, intention, and, most importantly, love.'

Abby Wilson
Interior Design News Editor

I am an Interior Design News Editor at Homes & Gardens. Most recently, I worked with Better Homes & Gardens, where I wrote and edited content about home decor, gardening tips, food news, and more. Before that, I studied Journalism and English Literature at New York University. I’ve moved around quite a bit in the last several years, most recently making the trip to London, and love transforming each new space into a comfortable retreat that feels like home. When it comes to decor, I’m most drawn to unique vintage finds and calming colors.