Beyond tables and chairs, every restaurant patio requires a few basic elements to make it more inviting to guests—umbrellas when it’s sunny, heaters when it’s cold and always impeccable service and cleanliness. Once you have the basics down, you’re ready to elevate your game and become the hottest patio in town. Here are 10 tips to get you there.
1. Beef up weather protection. “Umbrellas and mushroom heaters can be okay, but it’s essential that shade and heat be evenly distributed, and customizable, so that every guest is comfortable,” says Phillip Kendall, v.p. of operations for Napa, California’s Farm at The Carneros Inn. “Good, concentrated overhead heating that you can tailor section to section is best. The same goes for shade; umbrellas should cover the table completely if the guests want shade.”
2. Match the menu to the environment. “Adjust your menus seasonally, especially the drink menu; people like lighter selections during the summer,” recommends Tony Bisciglia, managing partner at Chicago’s Bar Toma. “I like a broader selection of white or rose wines, and many people like lighter beers during warmer weather. The cocktail list should follow the same trend, highlighting clear spirits and fun vibrant colors.”
3. Break up the silence. Are you hearing crickets chirping on your patio? Install speakers to play music that matches your environment, or schedule regular entertainment that draws guests out to the patio. “Consider entertainment that makes sense for the space, such as a jazz trio, roaming magician or deejay,” says John-Andre Wielenberg, g.m. of WP24 by Wolfgang Puck at The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles. “This summer, our Rooftop Patio will be showing movies on a large projection screen over the dining area as an added element to the al fresco experience.”
4. Host patio events. “We encourage guests to host their private or semiprivate events on our terrace, and we’ll often host our own events on the terrace,” says Jim Carmody, v.p. and g.m. of Boston’s Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, which houses Tamo Bistro & Bar. “Not only is it a wonderful outdoor venue along the harbor, but when the terrace is busy, it’s appealing to other guests who are walking by.”
5. Make it green. “Investing in plants that are practical but also add to the atmosphere is important,” says Dave Sobelman, founder and c.e.o. of Milwaukee-based Sobelman's Pub-N-Grill. “We use two different colored potato vines that are simple to care for and appealing. They’re displayed throughout the patio in flower pots and hanging baskets, creating a pleasant atmosphere.” Kevin Palmros, assistant g.m. at River Roast in Chicago, says there are a couple of other things to consider when shopping for plants. “When choosing foliage and plants for outside displays, consider varieties that repel flying insects, but also add plenty of color,” he says. “Red, yellow, orange and purple are guest favorites.”
6. Let there be light. “Tea lights, Chinese lanterns or string lights can illuminate tables and build the ambiance—plus help guests read the menu,” says Wielenberg. “We use battery-operated candles as an eco-friendly alternative.”
7. Don’t skimp on the furniture. “Invest in quality patio furniture that’s light enough to move around, but able to withstand the weight of service elements, and overnight stacking and storage,” says Palmros. “You can use your furniture to create separate areas for mingling, eating and drinking on your patio, too, according to Sobelman. “We strategically use outdoor spaces with a variety of different patio furniture. They include wrought iron and wooden picnic tables as well as beer barrels from a nearby microbrewery, which collectively complement the exterior of the historic buildings.”
8. Designate a smoking section. “Ashtrays on the table or bar are not enough,” says Helga Moya, marketing manager for south Florida-based Cabo Flats. “No one wants to be surrounded by cigarette butts, still-lit cigarettes or burning filters. Anything you can do to conceal this and the rest of the smoking byproduct helps.”
9. Add a play area. Chef Jason Dady from Shuck Shack in San Antonio and Americano in Dallas argues that a playground is one of the most overlooked elements of a successful patio. “A playground is the most important aspect when creating an outdoor space where parents can sit back, relax and enjoy a great meal while the kids can play around to their heart’s content, just a few feet away,” says Dady.
10. Remember the small touches. “There are many outside factors that can influence a guest's experience,” reminds Jenae Kama, g.m. at Faith & Flower in Los Angeles. “If the utensils are sitting in the sun long enough to make them warm or hot to the touch, we want to replace them. Tthe same thing goes for a glass of water. Also, the patio is more quiet than inside so our support staff are more quiet when clearing and moving things around so as not to disturb the peaceful vibe.”