Any American restaurant can set out tables and chairs on the sidewalk, stick a daisy in a Perrier bottle and hand guests a menu of lightweight fare like soup-and-salad. But the idea of a true al fresco dining experience is quite another thing.
In Europe, dining outdoors is as much about the food as the view and the weather; in the U.S. it seems more about simply catching some rays and watching people walk by. I would be the last person to deny that the view itself can have enormous appeal, but when you add exquisite food to a unique landscape, and when a restaurant can combine the freshness of the outdoors, the warm sun, great food, and a very particular style all its own, then al fresco dining becomes irresistible, as long as the weather holds out.
Think of dining fabulously well at D19 below the ski slope in Aspen; having a French bistro dinner at twilight harborside at Miel in Boston; a jazz brunch in a bosky New Orleans courtyard at Brennan’s. Or sitting in the tiny Texas town of Marathon eating buffalo burgers at Café Cenzo while the sound of a freight train whooshes by.
“With so much attention to environment and the provenance of ingredients, al fresco is a way of bringing natural beauty to the dining experience,” says Eric Weiss, President and Founder of Service Arts Inc, a hospitality consulting service. “It is the opposite of the artificially created environment inside, but the food should be every bit as good and reflective of the chef’s talents. Just because it’s outdoors the menu shouldn’t be just Caesar salad and grilled chicken breast.”
In that light, take, for instance, the garden dining area at Barbetta, a posh Italian restaurant in NYC’s Theater District since 1906 and still run by the Maioglio family. Shielded from the noise of the city by its location in a courtyard behind brownstones, the garden centered by a statue of a nymph trickling water from a jug. The food is sumptuously Piedmontese — fonduta (an Italian fondue made with taleggio cheese), plump agnolotti pasta glossed with butter, and beef cooked slowly in Barolo wine. There is nothing like Barbetta’s garden anywhere else in the Big Apple.
Of course, no city has more courtyard dining at such a high level as New Orleans, where most of the old French Quarter mansions had beautiful, cool patios out back. One of the finest is at Brennan’s, here since 1946, and still run by the Brennan family with appropriate Southern bonhomie. The jazz brunch is famous here, the bananas Foster a signature dish, and the leafy oasis outside is one of the most cherished spots in the Crescent City.
On the West Coast, where the sun and surf lends itself to beachfront eateries, Michael’s, in Santa Monica, introduced a decidedly California-style of al fresco dining, complete with large white canvas umbrellas, a collection of modern American master paintings, and a waitstaff in chinos and Oxford shirts. That was back in 1979 and founder Michael McCarty is still the paradigm of the genre (he opened a branch in New York some years later).
“California cuisine really wasn’t about goat cheese and Sonoma lamb and fresh herbs and baby this-and-that,” says McCarty. “It is more of a philosophy ... and we Californians are very susceptible to new ideas and very eager to do our own things, to try anything and just be fascinated by all the great ingredients out there. That was what we tried to do at Michael’s.”
And the proof is in the menu, with dishes like roast quail with wild rice, bacon, and pea tendrils; Tasmanian sea trout with “forbidden rice,” lobster, bok choy, and a Thai basil pistou; and wild Alaskan halibut with succotash of morels, fava beans, potatoes, and beurre blanc sauce.
Key West, Fla., is as laid-back as it is full of outdoor bars where flip-flops and Ray-Bans are as ubiquitous as longneck beers and fried shrimp. But for something wonderfully secluded from the tourist traps, there is the 25-five year oldLouie’s Backyard, a favorite of Jimmy Buffett. Owned by Phil and Pat Tenney, the century-old building was beautifully restored and the outdoor deck is much sought after as one of Florida’s best, most innovative restaurants, known for Chef Doug Shoop’s golden, hot conch fritters, pancakes with cinnamon-blueberry sauce, and Mediterranean seafood stew.
The Pacific alternative to Florida would be Hawaii, where, owing to year-round fair weather, dining indoors seems like an odd choice. Still, many of the outdoor restaurants are geared towards tourists who want to be near the beach rather than near a good winelist. Which is why the weirdly named Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (the state fish) at the Grand Wailea Resort on Maui is unique: It sits in a thatched gazebo-like structure floating on a raft, with a 2,100 gallon saltwater lagoon. While you watch the sun set you feast on macadamia-crusted mahi-mahi with citrus butter sauce and jasmine rice; whole roasted Pacific snapper with island tomatoes, pancetta, and shaved fennel; and Thai-style salmon with cherries, apricots, and cranberries.
On the reclusive island of Lanai, the Ocean Grill at the Four Seasons The Lodge at Koele, is poolside, and during the day the fare is pretty predictable. But come evening, have cocktails here then choose from among a remarkable array of seafood cooked on the grill with an emphasis on Pacific Rim flavors.
As Jack London once observed of evenings in Hawaii, when the trade winds are blowing at night, it is like hearing the earth breathing.