Dining Al Fresco

The Island’s warmer months offer plenty of opportunity for leisurely meals outside, and a few practical design considerations can greatly enhance the experience.

Beach Beach

There’s something about dining outdoors on a starry summer’s night that seems magical. Picture a pergola entwined with fragrant vines and festooned with tiny white lights over a table laid out with freshly grilled catch-of-the-day and harvest from the garden. Friends and family gather to feast and enjoy each other’s company, and the open air adds to the relaxed vibe around the table.

Designing a great space for outdoor dining can be a lot of fun as you anticipate birdsong breakfasts, poolside lunches, or festive dinners. There are some important considerations and details you won’t want to overlook to achieve an attractive, functional outdoor dining space.

Choosing a location

Many people consider an outdoor dining area a natural extension of their Vineyard home, perhaps adjacent to an interior dining space or kitchen. This location works well for overflow during the summer months when house guests descend upon us. But other locations may work equally well or offer a more distinctive summer dining experience.


Softly weathered teak furniture atop closely fitted stone pavers make for easy maintenance in a woodsy garden oasis in Vineyard Haven.

Consider the type of entertaining you do on a regular basis. For a small dinner with a simple menu, you may not mind a short walk to an outdoor dining destination. This could be an open-air gazebo nestled in a lush perennial garden. A garden clearing tucked away from the house might provide an intimate setting for a small table and café chairs. However, if transporting dishes and food proves to be a hassle, you may find yourself using the space less frequently than intended. A deck, attached or self-standing and located nearer your kitchen, may simply – and beautifully – be the best location.

If you tend to host larger gatherings and/or prepare elaborate meals, it’s essential to locate your dining space as close to your food preparation area as possible. If budget allows, you can build a separate outdoor kitchen or food prep station. Since a cooking-and-dining space can effectively function on its own, it can easily be located further from the house, such as by a swimming pool. This kind of self-contained entertaining makes large-scale gatherings much easier to host and manage, especially with a level ground surface that helps define the space and overhead protection from the elements.

An inviting space

Comfortable, colorful furnishings complete this pergola-topped bluestone patio in Katama.

The appropriate ground surface for your dining experience will vary, depending on what may already exist, how you’ll use the space, and your budget. Wood decks offer an excellent uniform surface and allow a more seamless transition from interior to exterior. An open, level lawn where you can set up a table and chairs requires little planning or expense. For frequent entertaining, it may be less than ideal, since mowing the grass necessitates lifting furniture out of the way. If the lawn happens to be your best option, though, choose lightweight chairs or benches that can be moved easily.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, your favorite ground material may be an irregular fieldstone or Belgian block pavers, but these are generally not the most stable surfaces to set down outdoor furniture. An irregular surface will cause furniture to rock – an annoyance to any dining experience. A flat natural stone paver (such as bluestone or slate) or a modular concrete paver will provide a more level surface.

A loose, small granular material such as pea stone or rice stone is a less expensive solution and can be installed by an amateur, with edging to help contain the material. Be prepared to do some weeding from time to time. But think twice about laying it on extra thick to combat the weeds, as your furniture will just sink into it.

Some properties are large enough to allow for private dining experiences where late-night conversation will not disturb neighbors. But if you live in town with other houses close by, you may want to consider a dense planting along one or several sides of the dining terrace. A neatly trimmed hedge need not take up much space and can provide both visual and auditory screening. If you have more room, consider a hedgerow that mixes deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs for added visual interest. A bubbling water feature can also provide soothing white noise and help soften the sounds of conversation among you and your guests.

Sitting down

Reserve your prized antique pine table for interior use and select more weather-resistant furniture, such as sustainably harvested hardwood or all-weather resin wicker. Be sure to choose furniture proportional to the space. Use the same rule of thumb as for interior spaces – large, overstuffed furniture might be great for an expansive poolside dining area but could overwhelm a more intimate dining space. Allow ample room around the table and chairs for movement, especially when the chairs are in use and further out from the table.

Lighting is also an important consideration. Moonlight can illuminate our tables only a few nights each month. Most of the time you will need to provide alternative lighting sources. Consider stringing lights overhead, perhaps into the interior frame of an umbrella to provide overall lighting, and supplement with candlelight. Remember that wax candles need to be sheltered from even the slightest breeze in order to prevent them from being extinguished, burning unevenly, or becoming a fire hazard, so protect them with glass globes or use battery-powered candles. Lighting at eye level is ideal; low-level landscape illumination will guide you to your destination but will not be adequate for dining.

If you would rather spend your day at the beach than weeding and watering perennial gardens, but you love the color, texture, and drama that flowers offer, consider adding them to your dining experience with container plantings and smaller potted plants on the table itself.

A fieldstone fireplace makes a cozy gathering spot at this house overlooking Vineyard Haven harbor.

In our New England climate, precipitation and insects can be deterrents to comfortable eating outdoors. A large market-style umbrella provides shelter for a café table but is obviously unsuitable for a large gathering. You might consider a gazebo-type roof or a structure that supports a fabric or transparent canopy to keep your dining experience raindrop-free. Insects may be kept at bay by torches, citronella candles, or electronic bug repellers.

Additional features can enhance the sensory experience of dining outdoors, such as exterior-grade weatherproof speakers to pipe in your favorite music, or wind chimes hung nearby. Remember to remind your guests that dining outdoors in the evening can turn chilly, so they may want to bring a sweater for those dips in temperature. Path lighting, solar or wired, makes it easier (and safer) to navigate back to the house at meal’s end.

A custom-built outdoor fireplace is generally a significant expense, but it also provides a welcoming focus for a post-meal gathering, and can extend the use of the space well into the shoulder seasons. Fire pits, with their smaller space requirements and more modest cost, are great for informal social gatherings, especially when children are part of the picture. Either way, there’s no better way to end a meal than making s’mores under the stars.