'Tis the season of sunshine, and with the warmth comes more opportunities to entertain outdoors. Before you send out those invites, read on for event designers' essential do's and don'ts for throwing the perfect outdoor dinner party.
Beachside? Poolside? Al fresco garden party? Help your guests plan their evenings and outfits with an invitation that sets the tone for your fête. If your setting comes with clothing challenges—like high heel-stumbling grass or shoe-gritting sand—the invitation is the perfect opportunity to give everyone the heads up, too.
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"From your backyard flora to your china cabinet, there are design elements for your al fresco table all around your home," says Ron Wendt of in New York City. Try checking your backyard for natural blooming flowers or greenery to adorn the tables.
If you do decide to bring that fancy china out, tone down your tabletop with some thick cotton dinner napkins or a laid-back base setting, like rattan chargers, for a more informal fête.
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Unless you have a side table to keep all the food, you're going to want to save some room for all that deliciousness. "Most al fresco dining is passed family style, and those platters need a place to sit for when all your guests want seconds," says Bri Crowley, creative director of in Philadelphia.
The whole point of an al fresco affair is to keep things light and fun, so no need to go overboard with strict seating plans or floral arrangements. "Let your table reflect the bright colors of the season by mixing up different shades of seasonal flowers for decorative arrangements, and allow your guests to naturally gravitate to the seat of their choice," Wendt says.
Whether you opt for a waft of blooming flowers, the pop of fresh-cut citrus, or the botnaical richness of herbs, smell can play a big role in creating a welcoming (and appetite-inducing) atmosphere. Drinks expertfrom suggests stimulating your guests senses by garnishing drinks with barely smoldering cinnamon sticks, anise pods, or rosemary sprigs (light them in a fire for 5-10 seconds and then extinguish to bring out their natural aromas.) Or toss a few fresh herbs on the grill to create a scentscape that will subtley perfume the air.
Your dinner party regulars have probably already memorized your go-to playlist, so try mixing things up with something out of the box. "One of my favorite music discovery apps is ," says , DJ and co-owner of in Charlestown, South Carolina. "It's a music jukebox time machine that allows you to select songs based on countries and decades as opposed to genres and titles."
Outdoor dining often comes with less-than-h seating options. Compensate by draping cozy-making fabrics like chic Turkish towels, over chairs and benches.
Rather than mixing up individual cocktails behind the bar, free your hands up by embracing the old-school cool of a classic punch or and let guests help themselves.
Before you go crazy with those arrangements, take a moment to consider how much space you're actually working with. "If your floral garlands are too wide, your guests might get more than what they bargained for in their salads!" Crowley says. On the other hand, if you’re using smaller bistro tables, a large floral arrangement could take away from the food.
Setting up DIY food bars not only takes the pressure off serving, it also creates a fun way for guests to create their own meals. Here are a few of New York City-based event designer 's favorites:
Taco Bar: "I’d offer grilled shrimp, chicken and meat, salsa, guacamole, lettuce, shredded cheese, cilantro, hot sauce, and blue corn nachos."
Burger Bar: "I’d serve turkey, tuna, and beef—small buns, bibb lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced onions, pickles, at least two types of cheese, condiments, and chips on the side."
Grilled Pizza Bar: "Prepare a slew of toppings—sausage, herbs, fresh tomato, peppers, mushrooms, hot chili flakes and truffle oil."
Or if you’re pressed for time, outsource the whole thing and order dumplings and different dipping sauces, for a make-shift dumpling bar, Jung adds
If you prefer a plated dinner, be selective in allocating your time so you don't spend the whole party laboring away in the kitchen. Choose one course to dedicate your efforts to - say, a dramatic main, like whole roasted fish or rack of lamb - then opt for family-style starters and sides that can be prepared in advance and served at room temperature.
Between the heat and the insects, you might want to rethink bringing out those bigger dishes too soon. "It’s perfectly fine to set out cold hors d'oeuvres outdoors, but as your first course may be more complex, it’s best to store it inside until the sun sets or the temperature goes down so that it doesn’t spoil," Wendt says.
A tip for your serving area: Lay it out so that it’s no more than 12 feet away from your dining table. "That way, your guests can get up and serve themselves without having to leave the conversation at the table," Wendt adds.
While you shouldn't go crazy with lighting options, you also don't want your guests to be left in the dark when that beautiful sun starts to set. "You need lighting from above and below to insure the perfect ambience," Wendt says. Soft lighting is usually best, in the form of string lights or a lantern over the table. If you have an open umbrella, even better for hanging bistro lights! Lastly, just add hurricane lamps and flood the table with votives, Wendt says, and your table is set.
No need to worry about pulling a Mary Berry (or rushing out to your local bake shop before your guests arrive.) Keep things breezy by laying out some farmers' market fruit, assorted cheeses, or imperfectly-perfect hunks of dark chocolate for everyone to nibble, Italian-style. Trust us, you'll get no complaints.