Dining at its finest is found in dramatic outdoor settings that simply cannot be replicated within the confines of a walled and roofed structure. Even the most opulent interior design fails to achieve the splendor of a desert sunset, and no amount of indoor originality can compare to the liberating rooftop view of a cityscape or the simple pleasures of dining alongside a gently lapping river.
“People relax more when dining outside—there’s a freedom that even the most spacious dining rooms can’t achieve.” says Jimmy Schmidt, executive chef of Morgan’s in the Desert, the exclusive restaurant in California’s legendary La Quinta Resort.
He also observes that people linger longer in outdoor settings “to enjoy the environment,” as if dining is the entertainment of the evening rather than a prelude to the next event.
Whether diners actually eat heartier in an outdoor venue he can’t say, but “one thing is for sure,” he quips, “they drink heartier. Beverage sales are definitely higher on the patio than inside our restaurant.”
There is no denying the allure of alfresco dining—for diners as well as for restaurateurs. But outdoor dining also brings unique challenges, most often related to unpredictable weather, staffing decisions, and reservations management.
At Morgan’s, the challenge is the desert climate: “Morgan’s is a dinner-only restaurant and the temperature drops significantly at night,” says Schmidt. “Especially since the busiest season and the nicest time to dine outside is in the winter, spring, and fall. Keeping temperature in the food is critical—so that’s the biggest challenge.”
Fortunately, Schmidt is as much food scientist as culinary artist, so he selects china that can stand up to higher temperatures. “If you put hot food on a cold plate, the plate is heavier and draws all the heat out of the food—so china must have a thermal value to maintain heat. Also, you have to be aware of all this stored thermal energy in the plate that’s going to continue to cook the food.”