May 2007 Edition
Setting The Scene For Summer

Setting the Scene for Summer



For many restaurants, summer is patio season: iced drinks and cold appetizers on sunny days, and al fresco dining on warm evenings are especially treasured, perhaps because the season is only a few precious months.


By Patricia Nicholson


In the tourist destinations on the coasts, mountains and waterways that are home to the breathtaking scenery of Canadian summers, it's often the view that draws diners outdoors. In urban hotspots such as Ottawa's ByWard Market and Sparks Street Mall, Vancouver's Granville Island and Toronto's Distillery District, much of the action-food, drinks, entertainment-moves outside in the warm weather.


Patio style can be traditional and low-key, or can mimic a restaurant's indoor ambience. Some establishments pride themselves on maintaining a sleek urban style even when their furnishings spill outdoors, while others lighten up in the sunshine, taking a more casual view of things on the patio with traditional umbrella tables and patio chairs. One big advantage of moving outside is that you can use plants, flowers and shrubs to help define and enhance your space and atmosphere.


"Creating your outdoor room is what you're doing," says Leslie Garbutt of A Sound Garden Landscape and Design in Whistler, B.C. The installation costs for container plantings and gardening services can be easily offset by the summer traffic that a nice patio attracts, she says. Many of her repeat customers have developed a reputation for great summer patios,

and every year they are ever more determined to live up to that reputation. Advertising, brochure and website photos of your restaurant may also benefit from a great-looking patio.


What to plant can be a question of style: high energy with lots of colour, or something more serene. Garbutt says some restaurant settings can benefit from herbs and scented plantings, such as scented geraniums that give off a welcoming citronella fragrance. Food themes may also work.


"People like to see a high-quality restaurant with their own herbs that they can come and pick themselves," Garbutt says. Other options include potted climbing

vines with pea pods, or other plantings likely to turn diners' minds to the menu.


In terms of design elements, container plantings can be used architecturally to define your space, create an entrance, or to draw eyes to attractive focal points (and away from areas that might not be as pleasing). If space is at a premium, hanging baskets conserve floor space while adding interest and colour.


It may be summer, but this is Canada: the weather might not cooperate. Ideally, your patio would be 26C and sunny, with a light breeze, from May through September. Since that's not likely, make sure your guests can still be comfortable at cooler temperatures in the early and late season, as well as on cooler summer evenings. Likewise, make sure the air circulates and your guests can find some shade during those muggy heat waves when the humidex starts to climb. Heaters, outdoor fireplaces, and wind screens can make a cool night seem cozy, and can also help provide a focus and limit not-so-perfect views. Patio umbrellas and awnings provide shelter from rain, as well as from direct sun on a hot day. In Whistler, where Garbutt operates, the cool climate means that heaters are always part of patio plans.


Other environmental elements to think about include wildlife. In Garbutt's region, she's careful not to use plants that are likely to attract bears, but in other regions it

might be raccoons or pigeons that aren't welcome. Bees can also be a big problem because customers may be allergic to bee stings, Garbutt says. She recommends asking a gardener about non bee-friendly flowers, especially for hanging pots.


Of course, the best and most lucrative way to keep patio customers comfortable is to make sure they're well fed and that their glasses are full. That means ensuring that service on your patio is as attentive as it is in your dining room. Make sure your staff has everything they need, whether it be an extra serving station, or wireless debit/credit card terminals that let customers pay at the table.


Some patio spaces, especially sidewalks and public squares, are on municipal land, and may require a permit. Check with your municipality for application procedures and fees, and for local rules governing alcohol service, noise, wheelchair access and times of operation.With a little planning and maintenance, your patio can set the scene to draw summer diners well into September.