With good weather comes endless opportunities for outdoor gatherings and that's something we like to take advantage of! Here in Southern California, we're blessed with beautiful weather most of the year, so our home designs give special attention to making exterior living and dining spaces useful for entertaining through all the seasons.
The Italian term "al fresco" simply translates to "in the fresh air" and instantly elevates your outdoor dining description ("al fresco dining" and "dining alfresco" are both correct ways to use the phrase). The party-planning tips we've gathered below prove just how simple it is to host your next dinner party outside. Whether you're getting the gang together to celebrate a holiday or simply to enjoy the fresh air with good food and friends, we've collected the tips to boost your hosting confidence in the great outdoors!
1. THE BASICS: WHO / WHAT / WHEN / WHERE / WHY
First, let's nail down the basics. The who, what, when, where and why will help you establish the general plan for your party and determine the logistics to keep in mind.
WHO: How many people will you be hosting? Make your guest list and send out those invites!
WHAT: What are you hosting? A backyard barbecue, summer soiree, friendsgiving festivities? What you want the gathering to be can help you narrow down the decisions you'll be making along the way.
WHEN: Pick a date and a time with the weather in mind! Daytime vs. evening and warm weather vs. cold can determine some of the practical things you'll need for a comfortable time together.
WHERE: Choose a location and note what it has and what it doesn't have, yet. Are you hosting at your home where you have many necessities on hand or at a public place where you'll need to bring everything? Will seating be at a traditional table and chairs, or is it a BYOB towel situation on the beach?
WHY: Are you celebrating a special occasion or finding any reason to get the gals together? Either way, keep the purpose in mind to create the experience you desire through all the little details.
2. WHICH COMES FIRST: MENU OR THEME?
Fixing a delicious (and doable) menu is an important element to your dinner party's success! The food isn't just about the taste, but it's about creating the whole experience. Your choice in food may influence a theme for the gathering (pasta dish = whimsical Italian dinner under the moonlight) or your theme may determine the natural dishes to serve (Cinco de Mayo = taco party). A "theme" can be as obvious or as subtle as you desire, but thinking through these connections can amplify your guests' experience.
Preparing food and serving it at the appropriate temperature is not an easy feat, especially while hosting a party! Plan ahead and recruit more hands to help to eliminate the stress and maximize your own enjoyment. Remember, catering is also an option!
3. MAKE IT PRETTY: CENTERPIECES + DECOR
With all your guests gathered around the table, the centerpiece is the work of art between you all. You can go big and elaborate for a fancy soiree, or keep it simple for a smaller crowd. No matter how grand you're going, layering is always key!
As we say in our interior design tips, layering textures, shapes, sizes, and colors adds so much dimension to your space (or in this case, your table). Start with height in the center, then work your way down as you move outward. Some common objects to use in your centerpieces are bottles, vases, florals and greenery (many of which can be collected from around your house or clipped in your yard). Even family-style dishes can be included in your arrangement to complement the decor and bring your guests together.
Beyond the table's focal point, it's great to add touches of decor throughout the general area to keep the ambiance alive from every angle. Sprucing up your serving space and beverage station with hints from your centerpiece style can add cohesiveness to the entire setting. These details can create perfect photo ops for your guests to have fun and capture the memories!
4. NO LONGER A CHORE: SETTING THE TABLE
Unique table settings can also add formality and fun to your event. Switching up the flatware, dishes, drinkware and napkins from your everyday use makes your guests feel extra special and can contribute to the decor.
A semi-formal place setting will take your table a step up from your daily dinners. A standard semi-formal place setting includes: a dinner plate and smaller salad plate in the center, a dinner fork and smaller salad fork on the left, a knife and spoon on the right, and a water glass and wine glass above your flatware on the right. Napkins and name cards can be displayed in a variety of ways on or around the plates -- let your creativity lead the way!
Even if you're working with what you've got, setting the table can be just enough to make your guests feel special!
NICE + SIMPLE
A LITTLE SOMETHING SPECIAL
5. FAKE IT IF YOU DIDN'T MAKE IT: SERVING AESTHETICS
Whether you've been slaving over the stove for hours or picked up goods from the store just in the nick of time, how you present your food can make a huge difference in your dinner party appearance! Ditch the packaging of any store-bought foods and display the treats in bowls or on platters. This simple hack immediately elevates your offerings to feel specially prepared for your guests.
This trick can be used for beverages, too. Fill pitchers with the drinks you're serving so guests can help themselves to what they assume is your creation, even though it might have been poured out of a bottle! When it comes to red wine, a decanter adds sophistication while allowing the wine to breathe. Lastly, water carafes are a simple upgrade for the table that offer easy refills without having to visit the refrigerator inside.
BONUS TIP: Save and up-cycle pretty glass bottles to use as water carafes. Gerard Bertrand's Cote de Roses rosé comes in a beautiful 1.5L glass bottle with a rose detail on the bottle. Enjoy the rosé, soak off the labels and you've got yourself a pretty carafe for your next party.
EXTRA BONUS TIP: You can never have enough ice! Since you'll be serving more guests than your household usually accommodates, start stashing ice from your ice machine a few days in advance or stock up on bags from the store. Keep it all in the freezer until your party is just about ready, then toss the packaging and add the ice to the tub or bucket at your beverage station to make a one-stop-shop for your guests to refill their drinks.
6. DAY TO NIGHT: SHADE + LIGHTING
The weather and natural light may not be in your control, but you can definitely plan ahead to prepare your space for enjoyable conditions. Luckily rain isn't a concern for most hosting an outdoor get together (at least not in Southern California) since the al fresco entertaining typically follows a warm weather trend, but you may still want some overhead cover to protect guests (and food) from harsh sunshine. Umbrellas can be a practical addition to your decor that create the shade you need while keeping an open air environment.
For an evening party that continues after sundown, you'll want to make sure you have adequate lighting to keep your guests around a little longer. Lanterns and candles double as decor and are a great temporary option if your yard isn't wired for spotlights. Bistro lights can be strung over your table if there are trees, fences or rooflines around to support the strands. All of these lighting options offer enough light to see while boosting the intimate ambiance of your setting.
BONUS TIP: Choose your candle scent (or lack there of) carefully. You don't want the fragrance to clash with your guests' tastebuds.
7. SET THE TONE: PICKING YOUR PARTY PLAYLIST
Is it even a party without a playlist?! Turn on the tunes to set the tone for your gathering and guests will feed off of what they hear. Mellow music fills your conversations with serene background melodies, while familiar soundtracks can rowdy up your guests to let loose a little. We compiled our favorite dinner music picks in a playlist on Spotify so the work is already done for you!
Playing the music that matches the cuisine you're having is also a great (+ easy way) to transport your guests to a destination and create the full experience. It's amazing how much a culture's style of music can make you believe you're there!
PRESS PLAY: BLACKBAND'S BACKYARD DINNER PARTY PLAYLIST
8. SHOO FLY: BUG-REPELLENT SOLUTIONS
Outdoor dinner parties are great for gathering good friends, but there are a few "friends" that are not invited... sorry bugs! Keep the mosquitoes away with scents that they can't stand. Herb and citronella aromas are two that fight off the bugs without wiping out the humans -- most guests will even enjoy these scented touches! Incorporate small potted herbs in your centerpiece or use sprigs to garnish your table setting and dishes for just enough fragrance to do the job. Burning citronella candles is a common hack for disguising bug repellent in decorative vessels that can be a part of your decor scheme. For a more natural solution, citronella essential oil can be used on your skin, diffused into the air or diluted in a spray.
BONUS TIP: Peppermint oil can fend off spiders! Spray it around the perimeter of your party to keep the creepy crawlies away.
9. PERSONALIZE IT: STATIONARY + SIGNAGE
Making your guests truly feel welcomed and celebrated is all in the details. Before friends even show up to your party, an invitation can set the tone for the festivities' theme and formality. While printed stationary and snail mail tug at our heart strings, they aren't always necessary for a backyard shindig. Sending out an e-vite or texting a graphic to your guest list can be just the ticket to build excitement for the coming event.
When your guests do arrive, a welcome sign can offer a warm first impression and direct them to the party. Name cards, printed menus, drink menu signs and other festive signage throughout your party can emphasize your theme and answer your guests' common questions. Signs revealing where the bathrooms are located allow guests to slip away without any embarrassment of asking and directs them to the specific bathroom you want them to use (aka not your personal space, if you have the option).
10. PARTY TIME: RELAX + ENJOY
You've put in the work, now it's time for you to sit back and enjoy! Pour yourself a drink, indulge in the spread you prepared and soak in that precious time with friends. As the night goes on, take advantage of your guests offering a hand to handle any last minute prep or problem-solving so all can get back to the party without missing a beat. Hosts and hostesses with the mostest can still have help!
BONUS TIP: Having a batch of drinks ready for the first guests before they arrive can buy you some time for final prep. Guests can help themselves as soon as they're ready and you won't feel like you're holding up the bar.
BLACKBAND PARTY PICKS
EXPLORE MORE AL FRESCO DINING INSPIRATION ON OUR PINTEREST BOARD
Have other party-planning tips to add? We're all ears! Share your go-to hosting hacks in the comments below and we'll give them a try at our next party!!
CREDITS: BLACKBAND DESIGN // BRANDON ARCHITECTS // PATTERSON CUSTOM HOMES // RYAN GARVIN PHOTOGRAPHY // SINCLAIR ASSOCIATES ARCHITECTS // GRAYSTONE CUSTOM BUILDERS // TEALE ARCHITECTURE // MIKEN CONSTRUCTION // WOLF DESIGN STUDIO // CORR CONTEMPORARY HOMES // TESSA NEUSTADT PHOTOGRAPHY // LIDO HOUSE HOTEL // RDO DEVELOPMENT // MATT WHITE CUSTOM HOMES