“Food is one part of the experience. And it has to be somewhere between 50 to 60 percent of the dining experience. But the rest counts as well: The mood, the atmosphere, the music, the feeling, the design, the harmony between what you have on the plate and what surrounds the plate.” —Alain Ducasse
Warmer temperatures and longer days filled with sun means all the more reason to dine outside. And while enjoying breakfast or lunch is a most definite must, so too is setting the table outside for your next dinner party.
Upon moving to Bend, I have been able, for the first time, dine outside as I finally have a back patio. Pleased to no end, I have been eager to welcome my friends over for my first dinner party at my home, and Midsummer’s Eve offered just the opportunity (as was suggested by one of my guests – thank you Nate!). And while I have shared a few tips and tricks for organizing a successful intimate dinner party in previous posts, I wanted to focus specifically on entertaining al fresco.
While there are many ways to entertain outdoors: potlucks, BBQs and block parties, my style is a near mirror image to dining indoors – intimate, 3-5 course meals, losing all track of time, and a semi-formal affair. Part of the reason I am drawn to this style is that I truly believe people enjoy a reason to dress-up, to converse, to relax with friends and potentially meet new, interesting people. Also, it doesn’t hurt to give the gift to your friends of not having to worry about cooking for an evening.
As someone who sincerely loves to cook and finds cooking to be a way of communicating my appreciation and affection for others, I revel in the opportunity to bring friends over and share a meal with them.
So now to the occasion. The elements and details to consider are shared below based on what I have found to be successful.
1. Bring the indoors out.
If you don’t have a full set of soft, cushy outdoor furniture (as was my predicament), don’t go out and buy anything. Simply take a second glance at your indoor furniture and determine what can temporarily be used for your dinner party. If you look closely at the image below, the table is my wooden antique table that serves as my reading table in my living room. It was the perfect height, offered additional table area and was easy to bring outside for one evening.
I also, as you can see, brought out my armless tufted slipper set of chairs as I only had four metal outdoor chairs (similar style available here). They offered an elegant touch and provided very comfortable seating.
2. Add outdoor globe lighting
The child in me has always wanted to hang outdoor lighting during the summer. I’ve always adored the intimate setting that it creates without being too bright. And the good news is that you can purchase 50″ of lights for $50 (this is the string of lights I purchased and are seen below in the image). You can also purchase customized clay disc string lights from places such as Pigeon Toe Ceramics and chose the color of shade you want. Depending upon how long-term you want your lights to be up (mine will just be up for the summer), I do know people who line their back patio or pergola with them and keep them up year-round. A beautiful aesthetic is created, and it makes the outdoor areas all the more inviting. Click here and here to learn how to string them up successfully for any occasion.
Needless to say, even during the long summer days, by the time the dessert was served, we were savoring the sweets under the globe lights and the soft, warm lighting was exactly as I had hoped.
3. Add a yard sale tablecloth
Adding a tablecloth has an immediate effect of simple luxury, and since you will be dining outside, I pull out my yard sale find tablecloths, just in case something gets spilled, the weather misbehaves, you name it. Both of these tablecloths were less than $5 and have been washed repeatedly, but they still look great.
4. Create a cohesive look with outdoor pillows
Whether or not your chairs match, tie the decor together with the details: the pillows, the tableware, the linens, the flowers, anything that speaks to what you have available and what you love. I happened to already have two of the outdoor pillows you see in the pictures, but I needed four more. After all, sitting in metal chairs tends to get uncomfortable after about 30 minutes. But if you add a pillow, the seating becomes much more enjoyable. So I looked at the tags of my original pillows and was able to find the exact same ones online at Amazon. Thankfully, they still have four left, and I scooped them up to tie the seating all together.
5. Serve your meal in courses
Living simply luxuriously is to savor the food, get lost in the conversation and forget about time. The best way to do this is to not rush. And the best way to not rush is to eat in courses. While this takes some planning ahead of time regarding having enough tableware and when to cook what, it also enables the cook/hostess to enjoy the meal with her guests. With four courses served during last weekend’s dinner party, I did not once look at the clock and was surprised upon looking at the time after the last guest had departed to discover we had savored each other’s company for more than four hours.
The main reason I typically invite four to six people to a dinner party is to keep it intimate, yet lively, but on a basic functionality level, 6-8 table settings is all I have in my cupboards. If you need to find more plates or silverware, stop by your local yard sales or second-hand shops. You will be amazed and delighted at what you will find that will look wonderful and perhaps even be a lovely conversation starter.
6. Add matching, simple bouquets to the tabletop
Inspired by Barefoot Contessa, a tabletop certainly needs a floral touch, but it need only be simple and short so that guests can see each other, but also to add a touch of symmetry to bring everything together.
For the two arrangements above, I stopped into the local Safeway, saw what they had available and was tickled with the yellow Gerber daisy options. After trimming the stems, finding two matching vases that I had on hand, I was set. So simple and a nice finishing touch.
7. Add some music
While I don’t have a picture, what I ended up doing was bringing my record-player outside and placing it on a rolling side table that I had originally purchased for my pied a terre in Portland a couple of years ago. After plugging my cell phone into it, I had my MP3 files of choice at my fingertips, and the mood was set.
8. End with a memorable final course
Whether you bake it yourself or buy it, the last thing that will be remembered is the dessert, so end on a high-note. I have taken both routes (baking and buying), but having more time on my hands last week, I was excited to make Julia Child’s scrumptious and fail-safe Reine de Saba chocolate cake. It truly is a delicious cake. Paired with Talenti vanilla bean gelato, even as the host, I was lost in a sweet moment of pleasure as well as joy when I took the first bite. The trick is to undercook the cake ever so slightly, as you do want it a bit gooey in the middle (it will taste like fudge); however, I have cooked it until done as well, and it still remains moist and delicious. (Click here for more TSLL Dessert recipes.)
9. Serve dishes you trust
At the end of the post you will find the links to all of the recipes I served, as well as the one new recipe I tried (I made a mini batch the day before to do a test run on the flavor which I highly recommend). I suggest serving dishes you know and trust will be delicious. If you throw in one new one, you should be fine, but as I mentioned, why not do a test run a few days prior? If nothing else, you’ll have a delicious meal or treat, and if not, you will spare yourself the angst of waiting to see if your guests like it when they take the first bite.
10. Do as much prep for each dish ahead of time.
While a warm risotto would have paired magnificently with the salmon as the evening had a slight chill to it, it would have kept me in the kitchen for far too long. I instead chose the warm corn, feta and tomato salad as it was done in eight minutes and I was back at the table enjoying my guests. The good news with the menu below is that everything can be done ahead of time, even prepping the salmon and chopping the ingredients for the salad. The only course I had to prepare during the evening was the entrée.
11. Write out a schedule the morning of the dinner party.
Before the day begins, and after all of the necessary decor items have been located and purchased (the linen napkins in this case as well as the lights), sit down and plan the day. When will you go grocery shopping, set the table, clean the house, make the dessert, prep each course, take a shower, etc. ?Having a schedule lined out by the hour will help eliminate forgetting the important details that make a big difference, and most importantly, allow you to enjoy the evening as much as your guests.
I cannot properly express how lovely the dinner party al fresco was last weekend. I encourage you to set the table outside, invite old, new, family and friends over for an intimate gathering and enjoy the lovely weather that is all too fleeting. No matter how outstanding the food, as the quote at the top of the post reminds, it truly serves as only 50-60% of the overall experience. The atmosphere, the music, the conversation, and therefore, the people you spend the evening with, determine the remainder, and with this simple list you will be more than ready to have a very memorable, and delicious evening, checking off all of the boxes and experiencing 100% success. Enjoy!
TSLL Midsummer Menu
- Appetizers: Caprese Bruschetta & Tangy Cucumber Bites
- Salad: Mushroom Salad with Caper Vinaigrette
- Entrée: Panko Salmon with Warm Corn, Feta & Tomato Salad (see recipe below)
- Dessert: Julia Child’s Reine de Saba chocolate cake
Warm Corn, Feta & Tomato Salad
Yield: 6-8 people
- 3 tablespoons top quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon juice from 1 lemon
- 4 ears sweet corn, husks removed for grilling (or cut off kernels in a bowl for indoor cooking)
- 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut into bite-size chunks
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil leaves
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves
- 8 ounces feta cheese, cut into 1/2-inch chunks (choose top quality – I used Belfiore)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- For grilling corn (which I have not done), grill the corn until nearly charred and blackened. If you are cooking on the stovetop, place into a large skillet, cover it and cook approximately 8 minutes until nearly blackened or well-browned. You will need to stir from time to time.
- While the corn is cooking, mix the lemon and olive oil for the dressing. Set aside.
- Chop up the tomatoes, feta and herbs in a large salad or mixing bowl.
- When the corn is done, place into the bowl with the other ingredients (tomatoes, feta, herbs). Gently toss with the vinaigrette and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve immediately.
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~Alpine Meadows Food & Wine Pairing Event (catered by TSLL)
Images: All from TSLL, except Corn, Feta & Tomato Salad pic – from SeriousEats~