Experts offer outdoor dining and entertainment design tips to set the stage for unforgettable memories with family and friends.
By Tanya A. Yacina
Summer months and the weather that comes with them tend to encompass outdoor dining and entertaining—groups of friends and family gathering around an outdoor grill or well-placed fire pit to enjoy the daytime breezes and nighttime skies.
Molly Wood, principal designer and owner of Molly Wood Garden Design, says the trends she’s seeing come into play for this season’s at-home outdoor setups include the addition of pizza ovens, lots of heaters and completely covered outdoor areas. However, she also notes a trend in the other, simpler direction, including smokers and standalone barbecues, and explains that some of her clients are pairing it down and going back to basics.
“When designing an outdoor entertainment and kitchen space, I think warmth is very important. There are some great outdoor heaters available right now. Also, I am a huge fan of the fire pit—it’s a great way to sit, relax and visit with your friends or loved ones,” Wood explains. “A lot of times, I include a television. I was very resistant to this trend when it started, but at the end of the day, if it gets people outside in the fresh air and loving nature, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Jodi Fleming, founder and lead designer at Jodi Fleming Design, says that since each home and space has a unique layout, she and her team concentrate on outdoor areas that can create special moments, and where people would want to sit and enjoy the view. Generally speaking, she usually suggests a fire feature in an outdoor entertainment space, and tries to make it the focus of the area so that people have a central place to socialize. For functionality and accessibility, she also suggests including storage options for cushions, kitchenware and other dining necessities.
“More recently, people’s lifestyles have changed and the exterior has become part of [the] day-to-day living space, especially in Southern California,” Fleming says. “We are now including fully-stocked outdoor kitchens with extensive living spaces more often.”
Wood notes that, in her opinion, a grilling space with a counter at which people can sit or use as a buffet is essential. “It makes the act of grilling a social experience rather than being shoved in a corner to grill,” Wood says. “The other thing that is pretty basic that I add to every barbecue space is a pull-out trash drawer, and more than often, a sink is really handy. Of course, if you have the space and the budget, I think the beverage fridge and warming drawer is helpful as well.”
Wood also says, for seating, she loves a round table for the same reason she loves fire pits—you can look around and see everyone’s smiling faces while they enjoy each other’s company. For outdoor chair selections, she suggests utilizing options that are lightweight and easy to move around.
“Everyone loves a sectional, so if we have room, we will suggest this to maximize seating,” Fleming explains. “Swivel chairs are a great addition to areas where people may need to sit between two spaces.”
Aside from seating, Wood is a big fan of the console table as an accessory for outdoor entertaining. “It allows the host or hostess to set up beverages and glasses, and maybe even some appetizers, for guests to help themselves,” Wood says. “I also love a couple throw blankets on the backs of chairs. It’s a very kind and cozy gesture.”
Wood agrees that comfortable furniture is a must-have to make an outdoor entertainment area into an inviting space where people will want to sit and relax while socializing. These alfresco areas, she adds, should also include side tables, coffee tables and a few areas to mingle in the garden, if possible. If a home has the space to do so, Wood recommends planting citrus trees near an outdoor entertainment space, as well as big pots of herbs for easy cooking access.
The Right Stuff
Both designers recommend using durable materials for anything outdoors, including those needed for countertops, appliances and fabrics. Choosing the right materials for outdoor use is important to prolong the life of each item, whether it be functional or decorative.
For lighting choices, Wood suggests utilizing something that is low-voltage like a subtle up-light on a tree or a hanging bell that illuminates the ground below. Candlelight is also an elegant and simple way to light an outdoor space, and Fleming suggests incorporating hurricane lamps for ambiance.
“My top two tips to homeowners that are considering this type of outdoor entertainment or kitchen in their homes is to do their research,” Wood says. “Really focus on what it is they want to accomplish and how they want to use the space. How many people do they entertain on a regular basis? When you go to other people’s homes, what do you enjoy about the space and what seems over done? My other piece of advice is to consult with a designer. Most of the time, a good design can save money and headaches.”
Once you’ve set up your outdoor entertainment and kitchen area, you’ll want to find just the right ideas for outdoor meals and cocktails. Chef Rich Mead of Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens prefers to serve some small plates and platter appetizers like finger foods—either at room temperature or chilled—and a buffet-type meal.
“For a small plate meal, I think lots of tastes and flavors—maybe mezze, dips, grilled bread, lots of vegetables with a couple of proteins,” Mead says. “I usually think outdoors and grilling. I want to keep it simple in the sense that you want to be able to enjoy the party and your guests as well as have some really flavorful and fun food. I also like to have lots of veggies, condiments and sides, then a couple of main dishes that will come off of the grill and [be] served hot.”
As Mead says, steaks and burgers are always a big hit at any barbecue. “I enjoy coming up with other fun things to give choices to all of my guests,” he adds. “We often spatchcock chicken—take out the backbone—and lay it flat so it cooks evenly. We like to brine the chicken before seasoning and grilling it and, of course, slice it into pieces so everyone can try a little of everything.
“For seafood, there is always shrimp [and] fish like swordfish, which is dense and firm, but not too delicate. Pair it with vegetables and cook it with herbs, seasoning, citrus and a little butter or oil. You can place it over the fire or around the edge of the grill depending on how quickly you would like it to cook. This process takes less grilling skills and usually gets you a consistent result.”
As for pizzas, one shortcut he suggests is to roll out the dough and start it in the oven on a pizza stone to firm it up a little, then lightly oil it and throw it on the grill to mark it. Then, turn it over and top it with grilled veggies, tomatoes, basil and burrata cheese sprinkled on at the end with a drizzle of some extra-virgin olive oil and some fresh herbs.
“If you feel a little more confident, start from the beginning: Oil your grill, stretch your dough and lay it down, cook on one side until the dough is bubbling and turn it, sauce it or add your veggies, meats and cheese and cook your pizza on the grill,” he says. “You can cover it to melt your cheese, or cook it and be ready to move it as the pizza evolves.”
For a dessert, stone fruits like peaches are also great to grill; they can also be added to a warm salad or a bruschetta with some burrata, he notes.
Mead recommends organizing and trying to plan a menu that allows you to spend time with your guests, or if possible, create a menu that’s exciting enough that you will be able to get your guests to volunteer to help.
The presentation and decoration of your table can also create ambiance and goes a long way in creating the feel you’re trying to achieve with your food, he says. Mead also likes to have a nice selection of beverages available.
“Keep in mind that not everyone drinks alcohol, and if they aren’t drinking, it’s still fun for them to have some exciting options to celebrate,” he says. “Batched cocktails are great and can be poured with or without alcohol. Also, when grilling, try to make sure you take into account which direction the wind will blow the smoke so you and your guests can enjoy the meal without smoke in your eyes.”