By Jennifer Ebert published
Outdoor dining ideas help set the scene for many of the most memorable meals you and your loved one will ever have.
There’s nothing quite like light lunches bathing in the summer sun, or being bundled up in blankets with a glass of wine and a hearty meal under the stars – so make sure your garden ideas are ready for hosting.
Taking dinner from the dining room to the decking doesn’t mean you should lower your aesthetic standards, so be sure to put as much care and attention into your dining table and surroundings as you would for any other meal.
There are also one or two extra considerations you’ll need to make with an outdoor set up – from working with the elements all year round, to tying in your decor with the surrounding nature – so we’ve asked the experts to share their top tips, and found some inspiring examples to boost your al fresco experience.
Outdoor dining ideas
With these smart outdoor dining ideas you can transition from Thanksgiving and Christmas through to Easter and high summer effortlessly.
1. Glow up with romantic candlelight
Lighting isn’t always the easiest thing to get right when setting up outdoor dining – requiring an electrical connection can limit the positioning of your table. Dining by candlelight, however, doesn’t require any power and adds a romantic quality to your meal’s atmosphere.
Use candles in conjunction with electrical festoon lights, wall sconces or a dangled chandelier as in this festive example from Neptune – you’ll need some reliable lighting for your outdoor kitchen ideas, after all – or go solo for a rustic feeling.
2. Get into the holiday spirit with cozy winter parties
Don’t limit your al fresco dining pursuits to summer – fall and winter are the holiday seasons, and that means party time. Get your garden bar ideas in shape and procure yourself a patio heater, and host an outdoor cocktail party to celebrate Halloween, the harvest, a pre-Thanksgiving soiree or even a British-style Bonfire Night like this one.
If the weather looks changeable in these cooler months, keep the set up relaxed – like a barbecue on one of the best grills you can get, or a pot luck – to make it easy to dash indoors if absolutely necessary.
3. Get culinary with your table decor
For dining table decor ideas that encompass both the surrounding nature and the main reason you’re all gathered around the table, put fruit and veg front and centre. Food can easily double up as decor, especially if you pair beautiful natural produce with florals, like in this example where cored apples become place name card holders, filled with seasonal flowers.
This idea works beautifully in the fall for a harvest feast, or fill bowls with fragrant citrus fruits during summer. And, of course, we’d advise you try to make sure the food can still be eaten after its turn as decor, to minimize wastage.
4. Head out into the woods
Feeling a little wild? Then take your outdoor dining beyond the deck and get a little closer to nature. If you are lucky enough to have a wooded area to your garden – big or small – then consider setting up your dining table below the canopies for an immersive meal.
Go all out and bring the table, dining chairs, tablecloth and more outside to create a surreal and very special set up. Of course, you’ll need to be extremely careful with any outdoor fireplace ideas, but a well-managed firepit like the one joining this forest meal can create an elevated campfire fee
5. Style an outdoor dining room with a parasol
Enhance a sun-trap terrace area of your garden with a parasol for a pretty bohemian feel.
Choose a palette based around natural colours found in your garden for a subtle appearance, or highlight the summer sunshine with bright yellows and oranges to add a splash of vibrancy to an otherwise green planting scheme.
Coordinate with seat cushions and tablecloths to turn a simple bistro set into an indulgent spot for dining and relaxation. Make sure to take care of your parasol to ensure its longevity.
Lucy Ferguson, founder of the East London Parasol Company who designed this set up recommends to store your parasol in their bag as upright as possible to avoid irritation, away from radiators.
Avoid putting them away damp, even if you have a parasol made from a water-resistant material, and always remember to take down any type of parasol, sail or umbrella if any wind picks up.
6. Dress your outdoor dining table
Make an effort to style your outdoor kitchen or dining table as you would for any indoor event. Take inspiration from cult tableware brand Summerill & Bishop by creating a scheme in harmony with the natural world.
A simple white linen tablecloth laid with glassware and flatware in shades of white and green becomes the perfect setting for a fresh summer luncheon. Flowers are key to achieving this look, so include either a generous bouquet or a selection of bud vases overflowing with seasonal blooms.
7. Showcase natural materials
When looking at bar ideas for your garden, create a relaxed vibe by showcasing natural materials. Linen and cotton tablecloths, napkins and seat covers will add a tactile note from nature, and help ground the zone in the garden.
Heighten this by putting away the melamine and instead setting the table with recycled glassware and satisfyingly organic Wonki Ware. Limiting yourself to plain colours rather the integrating pattern also helps encourage this natural feel.
8. Utilize lighting for atmosphere
‘Whatever the size or state of your outdoor space, you can still create the perfect atmosphere for relaxing outside,’ says Chrissie Rucker OBE. ‘The key is to conjure up an intimate, self-contained area – whether it’s on a terrace or in the corner of a garden.’
As in this look from The White Company above, dress this area with pretty outdoor lighting ideas for the perfect ambience. Include festoon or fairy lights, lanterns and candles at different heights and brightness for added interest and romance.
9. Remember the added extras
Give your guests an all-round experience by recreating this set up from Neptune. ‘When designing your outdoor space it’s important to consider a number of things, primarily comfortable seating, and texture,’ says George Miller, Home Designer at Neptune Fulham.
‘Add a simple sheepskin or throw to ward off the cool evening chill, and our scatter cushions to add a drop of color. Dressing your space will create character, personality and an inviting atmosphere for you and your guests.’
10. Use your dining table outside
Taking a great last-minute option, especially if you have no space to store outdoor furniture in wet weather and don't have a garden dining table large enough to cope with guests.
You can still enjoy good times al fresco. Simply move your indoor dining table and chairs outside temporarily. Dress your table with linen runners and napkins, and bring out your china and glassware. It will look lovely twinkling in the light of a hurricane lamp or candelabra.
And do as Tasha Green, director of outdoor soft furnishing specialist Weaver Green, does and lay an outdoor rug under your table.
'It makes the space feel considered and comfortable, and keeps evening chills off your feet,' she says. When choosing a spot for your table, make sure it's near enough to the house to make transporting everything a little less onerous.
11. Make an outdoor dining area festive
Whether you opt for a drinks' area in summer, colorful bunting and garden lighting or baubles suspended from tree branches in winter, there are plenty of garden party ideas to make an outdoor dining space feel festive.
12. Dine under a shelter – or a shade
Outdoor living room ideas, such as a garden pod with a shaded roof, are a fantastic investment for relaxed outdoor dining all year round. Good ones come with a roof that can slide back at the touch of a button, detachable sides and even heaters.
On sunny days, choose a natural muted color scheme for your table setting to keep the atmosphere light and cool. Save on storage space by selecting weatherproof chairs, such as these, which can be left outside all year.
A pergola is another useful way of demarcating seating or eating areas, plus it brings an attractive architectural element to an outdoor space.
'They add height and interest to a garden,' says RHS Chelsea Gold medal-winning garden designer Kate Gould. 'And are useful for creating shady, secluded seating areas.' For a comfortable spot such as this in which to kick back and relax, choose low-level seating with plenty of cushions.
13. Keep it simple with a less is more approach
There is no simpler way of creating a welcoming spot for al fresco meals than with a generous table and some comfy chairs on a paved area near the house, like this one at interior designer Fiona Crole's home.
'Round tables make for an informal, relaxed setting, plus everyone can see and hear each other,' says Amy Conn, product development season leader at Neptune. A classic parasol ensures you can linger on the hottest summer days, and adds shelter on cooler days.
14. Choose a room with a view
Beat unpredictable weather with a garden room. Michael Barnes, MD of Apropos, which specializes in indoor/outdoor rooms, says, 'Verandas – with or without bi-folding doors – and aluminum pergolas to shelter you from sudden rainstorms both offer great options for a stylish hybrid garden space.'
15. Inject style with colorful dining chairs
Against the backdrop of stripped wood flooring, these brightly upholstered chairs inject energy into this room designed Tor Interiors.
Go one step further and have the backs covered in a contrasting design, then take them outside for one day only. Want to brighten plain chairs to create a cheerful color scheme to suit the occasion? Bright blankets and cushions will do the trick and add to your guests' comfort.
16. Add a pretty tablecloth
Pale grays and taupes form the starting point for a beautiful al fresco table. Add accents of blush on candles and vintage greens on glassware. Muted metals, coarse linens and mottled marble add cool and serene country details.
17. Set a pastoral scene
Let the heady beauty of garden-grown delights inspire your late summer decor. Lay a table ready for a harvest-time gathering with linens influenced by the cutting garden alongside homely and honest serveware and furniture.
18. Unwind with a relaxed country look
One for warmer weather, a table and chairs set by the river makes for an exceptional experience, especially when accompanied by birdsong and bluebells, and the fragrant scent of lavender.
19. Seek a view
When creating your outdoor entertaining scheme, why not take the colors of the surroundings as your starting point?
In the case of this Provençal terrace overlooking a glorious vista, we needed to do little more than echo the soft olive greens of the fields and hills beyond.
For relaxed summer dining, the best thing is to keep place settings simple. It helps guest feel like it's time to relax.
20. Set up a pretty picnic area
Give al fresco dining a refined twist and banish brash melamine in favor of beautiful glassware, rattan and brass.
Get all the senses going with a sensational spread of mixed materials and colors to evoke the vitality of the garden on the tabletop.
Layer a relaxed linen base cloth with striking glazed stoneware, colored glassware and a ‘living runner’ of abundant foliage and staggered fresh flowers. A simple canopy shade adds an exotic finishing touch, complemented with a peppering of luxurious cushions.
21. Focus on the details
Enjoy a healthy eating plan with dinnerware favouring the five-a-day mantra – don’t skip the leafy greens. Adopt an allotment-style mix and match approach with artisanal designs in ‘perfectly imperfect’ organic shapes.
When it comes to floral arrangements, say au revoir to formal installations and give fresh, seasonal stems the space and freedom to cascade, tumble and spread wildly – embracing a variety of heights and shapes for effortless volume and untamed beauty.
How do you build an outdoor room?
Think about how you are going to use your outside space before diving in with a re-design or splashing out on expensive furniture.
Is eating al fresco for a single occasion or all year-round your main objective? Or is it to create a sunny seating area that doubles up as a spot for sundowners in summer?
For garden ideas that function as cozy dining spaces, you can demarcate the chosen space in various ways: 'Planters can form a screen to separate an area, or lighting can mark out spaces,' says RHS Gold medal-winning garden designer Rosemary Coldstream.
For a longer term solution, Rosemary suggests looking into different paving or deck ideas to enhance your design: 'use paving or decking, which can be laid in opposing directions to zone different areas.'
How can I make my patio look nice?
If you're stuck for patio ideas, the key is to view a garden as an extension of the kitchen or living room and are style your patio accordingly.
'Be bold by integrating interior and exterior colors and style,' says RHS Chelsea Gold medal-winning garden designer Tony Woods of Garden Club London. 'If you have a feature wall color inside, run it outside and along the boundary. Or if you have a very light interior, continue it outside: then choose furnishings to fit the space.
'The key with styling an outdoor area is to look at the hard landscaping and work around it, building your theme from that starting point,' advises Tasha Green of outdoor soft furnishing specialist Weaver Green.
Jennifer is the Digital Editor at Homes & Gardens. Having worked in the interiors industry for a number of years, spanning many publications, she now hones her digital prowess on the 'best interiors website' in the world. Multi-skilled, Jennifer has worked in PR and marketing, and the occasional dabble in the social media, commercial and e-commerce space.
Over the years, she has written about every area of the home, from compiling design houses from some of the best interior designers in the world to sourcing celebrity homes, reviewing appliances and even the odd news story or two.
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