The Fix is In: You don’t need to re-invent your patio to get the most out of dining outdoors

By Chris Hannah

In Canada, patio season is very much a moving target. We are all anxious to embrace it and always want to be ready to take advantage when the good weather hits. Being ready means thinking about ever part of the patio and how to maximize the impact of each element without breaking the bank.

A patio can be thought of as having a number of zones with varying degrees of comfort, privacy and activity. Therefore, unless you are dealing with a very small space, you can create zones with different furniture heights, spatial separations and added activities to provide more reasons to want to be there. Some typical design considerations are doubly important when comparing a patio to an interior, but not every problem demands a complete overhaul. There are simple, quick fixes that restaurant operators can make to their outdoor spaces to make sure they’re getting the most out of their patios this summer.

Layout and Design

It’s no longer enough to put up a fence and throw out a sea of tables and chairs. Think about the patio just as you would an interior. Create distinct spaces by varying furniture styles to include benches and booths just as you would inside. Be wary of the elements, too, and use vertical screens made of glass or wood to protect from wind and provide privacy. Functional elements like bars and service stations can divide spaces as well.

Well-Weathering Furniture

The bar has risen for what is acceptable in patio furniture, and the days of the $15 white plastic chair are long past. But by mixing styles and qualities of furniture, operators can still control their budgets while providing a varied experience. For example, picnic tables can be combined with traditional table-and-chair seating, and less expensive plastic furniture can be paired with metal and wood.

But again, the elements will take their toll. Operators should avoid placing highly reflective surfaces like table tops directly in the sun. They should look for alternatives to wood to ease maintenance — synthetics have come a long way and are worth exploring. But if wood is necessary, some simple benches and booths can be made from cedar or other well-weathering wood without the need for an expensive carpenter.

Lit Up

We often think that more light is always better, but too much is never a good thing. Map out the sun’s path and look for annoyance lighting from the street and vehicles. Strategically placed plants and screens can mitigate the effects, while overhead trellises and sunshades add detail and spatial grounding to a patio (large umbrellas will do on a tighter budget).

Sometimes power is limited, so look for ways to give good coverage from a few sources — LED string lights or lighting within trees and foliage add great ambience to any outdoor space. Adding lights onto exterior walls and other surfaces can provide reflected illumination which is much easier on the eyes than direct, while tea light candles can provide immediate intimacy at individual tables.

Functional Flora

Despite the bad-weather warnings, if you have a patio, you have to embrace nature! Planting can be expensive, butif more of it can be permanent, it will be less costly in the long term. To that end, look for opportunities to plant small trees and climbing plants that keep their foliage in winter — a patio can and should look good 12 months of the year. If vertical structures are not available for hanging plants, use large planters to create height and spatial divisions. They have the extra advantage of providing much needed shade and a place for lighting as well. Since gardening isn’t everyone’s forte, don’t shy from hiring a professional to install new plants and deal with ongoing maintenance.

All in the Details

Don’t sweat the small stuff, but don’t ignore it either. If you have outstanding views from the patio, then less is more, but if not, make sure you keep the focus within the space. While water features can be a complicated maintenance nightmare, finding simple ways to bring in any natural element to the patio can be a big draw. A simple reflecting pool with an internal pump can provide much needed ambient sound if you are competing with traffic and other unwanted noise, and reflected light off a water surface can give a simple and magical effect. TVs are somewhat less magical, and certainly more contentious. But like a lot of other elements, they may or may not have a place on your patio. If you are able to zone the space, then perhaps you can have the best of both worlds.

More Than Dining

The great-outdoors is synonymous with fun activities. If it fits with your operational model, a patio can be a huge draw for patrons. Adding outdoor chess tables, bocce, table tennis or an outdoor shuffle board will bring further animation to the patio (horseshoes may be a step too far). Consider the size and surfaces you have to work with, and assess potential danger.

There are many things you can do to improve your patio. Start with the basics, make in comfortable and then build layers of detail.

Chris Hannah is the principal of Cricket Design Company Inc. in Toronto. The firm was founded in 1988 and specializes in hospitality projects, from kiosks to casinos and everything in between. Hannah also teaches at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design. For more information visit cricketdesign.ca, and check out recent news at www.facebook.com/CricketDesignCompany/posts. For more information email Chris at channah@cricketdesign.ca.

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