Forget bringing the outdoors inside. When it comes to summer soirees, “I just try to think of everything I would do inside and bring it outside,” says Emily Felts, owner of A Silver Nutmeg Occasions, a Washington events business. She’s fond of using real linens, china and servingware for parties, many of which she hosts at family farms and parks in the area.
Heather Christo, a Seattle-based chef and lifestyle expert whose first book, “Heather Christo’s Generous Table: Easy & Elegant Recipes Through the Seasons,” came out this month, agrees, though she hosts most of her gatherings at home on her lawn or patio. “It’s still like you’d be serving people at your dining table, but you’re bringing it outside,” she says. Felts and Christo shared with us their ideas — including decorating compostable bamboo flatware and creating monochromatic centerpieces out of produce — to help make our al fresco festivities as fancy as our indoor affairs. As Christo says, “just because you’re entertaining outdoors doesn’t mean it has to be a barbecue with paper plates.”
Whether you want to dress up your patio table or cover up sticky park picnic tables, ideas for table coverings abound. Felts prefers to use real linens. “I try to stay away from the typical patio supplies,” she says. Christo likes to save money by using fabric remnants and hem tape to make her own. “I also like using craft paper or butcher paper,” she says, especially if there are kids around. She’ll put out votive holders with crayons for coloring. For a paper runner that will please kids and adults alike, try Modern Lola’s Table Wrap Cutlery
50-foot paper runner ($33, www.modernlola.com).
For those wanting to spare the indoor linens but still create a classy setting, there’s tried-and-true wipeable oilcloth in modern patterns such as the Caribe tablecloth from World Market ($45, www.worldmarket.com).
Don’t forget textiles for the chairs, too. “Think about what makes guests comfortable,” Felts says. Restoration Hardware’s Corsica outdoor pillow collection is made of fabric that will weather the elements and make guests want to linger longer. Available in Pool (shown), Graphite, Poppy, Vert and royal blue. ($50-$67, www.restorationhardware.com).
Preparation is key when it comes to entertaining, but even more so when the party’s outside. “Try to bring extra supplies, paper products, a trash bag,” Felts says. “And use a napkin holder so your napkins aren’t flying around.” (Sur la Table’s galvanized napkin holder would help prevent such napkin flyaways.) But no matter how prepared you are, always have a backup plan for mishaps or sudden rain. “Only the host knows what Plan A was,” Felts says. ($15, www.surlatable.com).
Pewter rope napkin rings from Lands’ End will hold napkins down for more intimate gatherings. ($20 for four, www.landsend.com).
Flatware caddies work for getting forks, spoons and knives to a party’s location, as well as for keeping them organized for buffets. “If you’re having a party outside, have it outside,” Felts says. “Don’t make people carry stuff from inside to outside.” A wire-mesh caddy would lend a table a rustic feel ($22.99, www.modcloth.com).
Likewise, a flatware caddy with three mango-wood coffers and an optional engraved “F,” “S” and “K” can hold flatware as well as servingware — or even fun party straws ($49, www.potterybarn.com).
When it comes to drinkware, “you’re not stuck with plastic keg cups” anymore, Christo says. Acrylic old-fashioned glasses or wine glasses in green, orange and blue look just like the real thing. ($7 each, www.surlatable.com).
Make sure drink dispensers have lids so bugs don’t get in, Felts says. Pottery Barn’s barrel outdoor drink dispenser features a screw-on cover ($59, www.pottery
Especially when hosting a party on a farm, Felts likes to put drinks in a wheelbarrow with ice. For a smaller gathering in a park or your back yard, try a ceramic beverage tub ($119, www.ballarddesigns.com).
Christo suggests personalizing bamboo or beech flatware, such as Modern Lola’s Tablee beechwood cutlery, for each occasion by decorating the ends with a patterned rubber stamp. Cleanup is easy: “You compost them afterwards,” she says ($30 for a set of 10, www.modernlola.com).
“I’m a total sucker for color and for patterns, and I’m all about mixing new and old, pink with green, blue with orange,” Christo says. Go bold with colorful French Bull melamine salad servers that come in a variety of bright patterns, such as Multidot ($16, www.frenchbull.com).
Serving utensils by Ladies & Gentlemen Studio are a play on traditional metal servers, with the ends dipped in colorful polymer — teal, red, mint or white ($30 each, www.ladiesandgentlemenstudio.com).
For serving, Christo picked out French Bull’s Kat melamine collection. The sleigh tray, trio tray, serving bowl, platter and cutting board can all add bright layers to a table. For even more color, try making outdoor centerpieces out of fresh produce. “I also like doing bowls of fruit up and down a table, plums or apricots or cherries,” Christo says ($18-$26, www.macys.com).
World Market’s pair of rectangular seascape platters would also lend color, and a nautical feel, to a tray of nibbles ($16, www.worldmarket.com).
For plates and dishes, rise above paper and try the melamine Trellis Collection from Pier 1 Imports in a green and cream pattern ($6-$7, www.pier1imports.com).
And both Christo and Felts love the look of galvanized metal outdoors. “I’ve got trays, huge buckets that I use to store iced drinks,” Christo says. “I have double-tiered stand serving platters, which mimic something that you’d find inside but in steel for outside.” For something similar, try Pottery Barn’s tiered stand in galvanized iron ($69, www.potterybarn.com).
Galvanized metal “is very durable and really inexpensive,” Christo says. Plate appetizers on the Shindig tray with wood grips ($40, www.crateandbarrel.com).
“If you’re throwing a dinner when it’s dusk,” Christo says, “lighting makes everyone look and feel better.” And there’s nothing like string lights to cast a magical “Midsummer Night’s Dream” quality. Try globe-style festival lights for a classic glow ($36, www.shopterrain.com), or Edison-style brown patio string lights to radiate a more retro feel ($29, www.lowes.com).
Felts prepares much of the food and supplies the day before, and then the day of the party, she tries to find a shaded spot outside to set up. By the evening, all that’s left is the final touch. “I think it’s beautiful to cluster a bunch of lanterns,” she says. “It creates a nice ambience.” World Market’s ribbed glass lantern candle holders can be clustered on tables or hung from their metal handles. ($3-$8, www.worldmarket.com).
Ikea’s Solvinden solar-powered table lamp is a quirky take on the expected outdoor lantern and comes in yellow, teal, orange and white. Just make sure that other centerpieces are low so guests can see one another and that there’s enough room on the table for food, Christo says ($20, www.ikea.com).
Roberts is a freelance writer.