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The Pleasures and Perils of Outdoor Dining

by Jane Kelly

I'm not the outdoorsy type that you typically find browsing at Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean and Eastern Mountain Sports.  Run into someone in a sleeping bag at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?  It's not me. 

There are places, however, where I can be spotted enjoying the great outdoors.  Check out any bar or restaurant with outdoor service and there's a chance I'll be there.  Add a water element -- from a fountain to an ocean -- and there's a good chance I'll be there. 

Dining Outdoors

My love of outdoor dining has roots deep in my childhood.  When I was a kid my parents belonged to a club and we ate there several nights a month -- every month.  I can no longer tell you what the dining room looked like but I remember every detail of the wide porch where we ate on beautiful summer evenings. 

I'm up for any outdoor dining event but throw in some water and I'll go any distance, cross any barrier.  I'll even stand in line -- within reason.  I've eaten by water hazards, cement fountains, and baby pools.  I've driven two hours to the beach simply to eat at an oceanfront restaurant. 

On the Waterfront

As an adult, I have a simple goal:  I would like to live my life in summer afternoons at a waterfront bar.  You know the type.  The kind of place where sailors pull boats -- from dinghies to yachts -- up to the dock.  Where the dress is casual and shoes if required are flip-flops. 

I like to go from the beach to one of those spots at about 4PM and stay until sundown.  Sipping a frothy drink.  Just a little sunburnt.  Still a little wet.  That to me is living.

If you share my zeal for the outdoor dining experience, you'll weather any conditions.  I'll admit there are downsides to outdoor dining.  But they can be overcome.

 Here are a few helpful hints:

1. Check the weather forecast

Obviously, you'll know to avoid major stormfronts.  (Although I once had a lovely lunch at an outdoor restaurant while a very benevolent hurricane blew over.)  In general, however, if the local news is predicting evacuation, you might want to move your dining experience indoors.

2. Check the temperature

Only you can determine your comfort zone for dining outside.  Can you take it if the air chill drops into the low sixties?  If the heat and humidity both push into the nineties?  Only you can make the call. 

In the evening, the temperature might drop anywhere from five to twenty degrees while you are dining.  This is not a problem.  It can be a benefit -- especially if you start the evening at ninety-eight degrees.

3. Check the wind speed

Don't simply look at the temperature.  Check out the wind speed.  I've eaten in ocean front restaurants when the wind was whipping in from the east at 35 mph.  That'll put the sand in sandwich.  (I know a six-year that will love that joke.)  If you dine under those circumstances, you might want to bring along some weights to hold down the tablecloth.

4. Check the tide

You probably didn't think you needed a tide clock simply to make dinner reservations.  Let me tell you, it wouldn't hurt, if you're dining near the waterfront. I've made the mistake of eating on a harborfront dock when low tide and dusk coincided.  Once.  I still scratch my ankles involuntarily just thinking about it.  If you don't want to invest in a tide clock (although they make lovely souvenirs), Cape May Times's Boating section links to a good online tide table. 

Outdoor Dining Review:

So let's review.  You are about to go out to dinner.  You . . .

  • 1. Check the temperature.  If it is in an acceptable range, proceed to step 2.
  • 2. Check the forecast. If it is not going to rain, proceed to step 3. If rain is predicted, call the restaurant to see if cover is provided.  If so, proceed to step 3.
  • 3. Check the wind.  If the wind is not blowing in the direction of the dining area at an excessive rate (only you can determine an acceptable rate), proceed to step 4.
  • 4. Check the tide.  If it is low tide, ask yourself two questions:
  • Do you hate the smell of low tide?
  • Are you generally attractive to mosquitoes?

        If you answer YES to either of those questions, proceed to step 5. If you answer NO to both of those questions, go to step 5.

5. Go Anyway 

Life is short and summer is shorter.  The joys of outdoor dining far outweigh the perils.  Before you know it, the kids will be back at school, the leaves will be off the trees, and those tables will be stored in the back of the restaurants. 

Carpe diem, fellow diners.  Autumn is just around the corner.

Jane Kelly is the author of three mysteries with a humorous twist set at the Jersey shore.

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