How to Set an Outdoor Dining Table
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How to Set an Outdoor Dining Table

Jun 09, 2023


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How to: Set an Outdoor Table

The interior designer Young Huh offers a step-by-step guide to entertaining outdoors with playfulness and style.

By Tim McKeough

On a beautiful summer day, you don’t need much of an excuse to dine outdoors — especially if you’ve got a garden, patio or deck surrounded by greenery.

“It’s more relaxed when you’re outside, so the way you entertain tends to be more casual,” said Young Huh, an interior designer based in New York. “It’s a little more fun and a little less fussy. I focus more on bright colors and creating a joyful feeling.”

During the summer, Ms. Huh and her husband, Joon-Yeung Huh, a lawyer, entertain almost every weekend at their 19th-century house in Hyde Park, N.Y. And setting the table for those outdoor meals is “part of what I look forward to,” Ms. Huh said.

On a recent sunny Friday, while preparing a lunch for friends, she invited a reporter over to see how she does it.

It’s summer: time for alfresco dining! But first, you’ll need to set a table – one that’s “a little more fun and a little less fussy” than you’d set indoors, said the interior designer Young Huh.

Here’s how she does it at her weekend house in Hyde Park, N.Y. →

Choose the setting. If you’re cooking something fancy, put the table near the kitchen. Otherwise, put it under a tree or spread a blanket on the grass, for “an instant romantic mood,” Huh said.

If you’re using a table, dress it with a tablecloth for a crisp, clean surface.

Before you do anything else: Flowers! Instead of using a big arrangement, try multiple small vases, so “everybody gets some flowers at their place.”

Then choose the tableware.“But nothing too precious,” Huh said, “because there’s a high percentage of breakage when you eat outside.”

Add place cards – and candles, too, even if it isn’t dark. “I always do candles outside, usually in lanterns,” Huh said, so the wind won’t blow them out.

Plan your cleanup in advance. Have big trays on hand to cart everything back to the kitchen. And use dishwasher-safe tableware (you’ll thank us later).

Want more decorating ideas from the pros? Check out this helpful advice:

“The first thing I think about is who’s coming and what might be fun for them,” Ms. Huh said. That dictates the menu — and the setting, too.

There are any number of places on Ms. Huh’s eight-acre property where she can serve a meal: on the patio, around a pond, on grassy expanses under the trees.

When she needs to be near the kitchen for food preparation, she usually chooses the patio. But moving the table out into the landscape — or even just spreading a picnic blanket — “creates an instant romantic mood,” she said. “There’s a pastoral prettiness that we don’t get on the patio.”

There are a couple of tables Ms. Huh uses for outdoor dining. When she’s expecting a big crowd, she chooses the long wooden table that will accommodate everyone. If she and her husband are entertaining one other couple, there’s a small, round iron table that feels more intimate.

Either way, she dresses the table with a tablecloth, giving it a clean, crisp surface that begins to define a color palette. For her recent lunch, Ms. Huh chose a white cotton tablecloth from Fete Home, printed with a floral pattern in reds and blues — colors she planned to repeat in flowers and accessories.

Some people may consider flowers a finishing touch, but when Ms. Huh is setting an outdoor table, she focuses on them from the start: “That’s the drama and excitement.”

Instead of using one big arrangement, she prefers putting a few flowers in multiple small vases. “Then everybody gets some flowers at their place,” she said. “I like using clear glass vases in different styles to mix it up.”

She placed purply cornflowers, blue delphiniums and pink peonies in an array of low glass vases and a Delftware tulipiere without arranging any of them too carefully.

“It’s easy,” she said. “I like the flowers to feel a little wild.”

To set your outdoor table, look beyond your everyday dishes.

“If you have the same friends over a few different times, it’s nice to have different tablescapes,” said Ms. Huh, who keeps various sets of dinnerware on hand for that purpose.

On this day, she chose black-and-white floral dishes from Ralph Lauren’s collection with Burleigh to reflect the pattern of the tablecloth. Then, for color, she added purple and pink tumblers from Bitossi Home and red-rimmed wine glasses from OKA.

“I love using colorful glasses outdoors,” she said. “But nothing too precious — because there’s a high percentage of breakage when you eat outside.”

For flatware, she contemplated using mismatched antique silverware but ultimately chose pieces with bamboo-shaped acrylic handles from Blue Pheasant, for their outdoorsy appeal.

Finally, she put out simply folded napkins matching the tablecloth. “I don’t use napkin rings outside,” she said. “They tend to go flying everywhere.”

Although Ms. Huh prefers outdoor meals with a casual feeling, she still likes using place cards, which she frequently buys from Mr. P’s Place Card Company.

“It’s so easy to do,” she said. “And it makes people feel really special,”

She also puts out candles, for atmosphere — even when it isn’t dark.

“I always do candles outside, usually in lanterns,” she said, for a romantic flicker the wind won’t blow out.

A surefire way to spoil the pleasure of a meal is to be faced with a massive cleanup afterward. That’s why Ms. Huh thinks about the aftermath of a party while she’s planning it.

She uses big, sturdy trays to make carrying dishes between the yard and the kitchen quick and easy. And whenever possible, she chooses dishwasher-safe tableware, so she doesn’t have to hand-wash it after everyone goes home.

“You’re taking all these extra steps to bring things outside for guests,” Ms. Huh said. “But at the end, you want the cleanup to be nice and easy.”

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Choose the setting.If you’re using a table, Before you do anything else: Flowers! Then choose the tableware.Add place cards – and candles, too, even if it isn’t dark. Plan your cleanup in advance.Choose the SettingAnd Now: the FlowersSet the PlacesAdd Place Cards and CandlesPlan the Cleanup in Advance