“The sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s not a cloud to spoil the view…” Buddy Holly paints a beautiful picture in song of the ideal summer’s day, until he tells us that it’s raining. Raining in his heart… 

Whatever the weather, the summer months present the opportunity to dine and entertain al fresco. Whether you’re snatching a sandwich in the garden for lunch or serving a lavish spread for a crowd on the patio, it’s well worth the effort to make the most of the great (or small) outdoors. 

There’s something special about eating outside – it’s not just the food, it’s the smell of a barbecue in full swing, or the heady scent of flowers in bloom. It’s the sound of the birds, or of trees swaying in a light breeze. It’s the sight of a border packed with colour. Whether your outdoor space is big or small, set aside an area for some fine or fun dining. 

Caroline Palk from Ashton House Design in Ashburton advises blurring the boundaries between inside and out by treating your outside space as you would your interior. “It’s a project worthy of investment, both in terms of the time spent deliberating, and the budget you’re willing to allocate,” she says. “Plan it: measure up, make a drawing, design the lighting, scour Pinterest and then layer up with colour, texture, form and scale. 

“For some, this can be a simple reinvention of existing pieces. New seat, back and scatter cushions will update and ‘comfy-up’ outdoor seating. With so many of the designer fabric houses now realising the worth of practical yet appealing outdoor furnishings, we’re spoilt for choice. Vibrant designs and textures abound in showerproof and colourfast cloth – they really do look like they’ve escaped from a smart interior scheme!” 

Penny Richings, from Hyde Park Interiors in Plymouth, agrees. “The outdoor space is the biggest growth area in design. It’s an extension of your house, especially if you have bi-fold doors linking the two, so pay lots of attention to it. If I do a barbecue, I treat it as if I was entertaining in my dining room. 

“There’s a trend away from plastic sets of cutlery towards spending more money on something much nicer. One of the current trends is repurposing items for use in the garden,” adds Penny. “We’re selling trestle tables and chairs from a German bierkeller, which are proving very popular – just add some nice seat cushions. Zinc, used for planters and containers, is another trend. Many people have finished their homes and are putting more thought into the outdoors.” 

Shelley Lincoln, co-owner of Escapology in Plymouth, says decorating your table with simple place settings is an easy way to set a tone and create a memorable dining experience. Most people tend to shy away from using stoneware or glass outside but, by selecting carefully, your dinnerware can be part of a great al fresco table setting. 

“Look for stoneware fired at high temperatures and glazed to resist chips and breaks,” advises Shelley. “If it’s robust enough to withstand the freezer and oven, it’s probably robust enough to use outside. Recapture that holiday feeling by not resorting to the plastic plate; if using quality dinnerware is good enough for outdoor dining all across Southern Europe, there’s no reason for you not to. 

“When setting your table, start with the centre piece and build up around it. This could be as simple as a favourite plant in a stoneware pot or a table runner strewn with lanterns and foliage. Then it’s time for the place settings. Use a placemat or charger, or both, to define each place, then start layering: settings of three pieces usually look best, such as charger, dinner plate and salad plate, stacked on top of each other. 

“Good stainless-steel cutlery doesn’t tarnish, can last a lifetime, and the silver gleam in fading outdoor light is beautiful,” continues Shelley. “For serving drinks, French pressed glasses have a heavy solidity, are a pleasure to drink from, and are hardwearing and chip-resistant. Napkins finish the look with a splash of colour and texture, and are, of course, practical. Filling lanterns with candles or lights allow you to enjoy the outdoors long after the sun has set.” 

And don’t be put off by a little chill in the air. “Ensure guests stay warm as temperatures plummet,” says Caroline Palk. “Use firebowls and firepits, outdoor heaters and piles of luxurious blankets, throws and skins, just as you would indoors – comfort, as always, is key. Underfoot, soften decks and chilly flagstones with outdoor rugs; just like the fabrics, they’re designed to reside out of doors. Rugs help to ground an arrangement of furniture and bring both warmth and acoustic benefit to an ensemble of table and chairs.” 

Weaver Green in Salcombe makes beautiful, soft outdoor rugs and textiles from yarn spun entirely from recycled plastic bottles. Its environmentally friendly rugs look and feel like wool, but contain between 50 and 750 recycled plastic bottles each. They are ethically produced and practical – you can machine-wash them up to 30°C – but best of all, they’re simply gorgeous.

Bon appetit!

“The outdoor space is the biggest growth area in design”

Top Tips for Outdoor Dining

Plan your outdoor dining space carefully, taking into consideration the distance from the house, shelter, shade and surroundings – scented plants like rosemary and lavender will tantalise the taste buds. Try moving furniture around to find the best spot before embarking on any permanent features.

Think about food and drink. If it takes a long time on the barbecue, part-cook it in the kitchen beforehand. Repurpose a zinc planter as a large ice bucket to keep drinks cool, and don’t forget a bin for the rubbish.

Give plenty of consideration to your lighting, advises Caroline Palk. Layer-up with accent lighting to highlight special features and use recessed fittings to define zones, pathways and steps. Site wall sconces where possible and drape fairy lights in amongst.

Dress your table as you would in your dining room, says Shelley Lincoln. Find a pretty cutlery set, pop it in a wicker basket with some linen napkins and your condiments. Step away from the plastic!

Don’t surrender to the weather. Wrap up and be prepared with firepits, chimineas, or a blanket and some throws. 

Su Carroll

Published 26 June 2017

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