The popular alfresco riverside terraces at Captain's Quarters. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Masterson, Captain's Quarters)

We love outdoor dining, unless we don’t

By Robin Garr

The whole world of dining out, it sometimes seems, is divided into two kinds of people: Those who love dining alfresco, and those who don’t like it one bit.

I used to be in the latter category, preferring the creature comforts of temperature-controlled, tobacco-smoke-free and mostly bug-free dining to the patio scene. And that went double when Louisville banned indoor smoking in public bars and restaurants, so patios became the de facto smoking section.

Early in the pandemic, dining outdoors on Selena's shady patio gave wary diners a small sense of security against the plague.
Early in the pandemic, dining outdoors on Selena’s shady patio gave wary diners a small sense of security against the plague.

But then came Covid, and suddenly the comparative social distancing and cleansing breezes on the patio didn’t seem nearly so annoying after all.

I get the impression that I’m not alone in this attitude shift. Even now that the pandemic is receding in our cultural rear-view mirror, dining under nature’s light in patios, grassy greenswards, even city sidewalks out front of an eatery seem more popular than ever.

What’s more, there’s outdoor dining, and then there is outdoor dining. It’s one thing to relax at a table on the ziggurat of grassy terraces along the Ohio River’s banks at Captain’s Quarters (pictured above). Occupying a tiny table on the sidewalk along busy Bardstown Road or Frankfort Avenue is quite another. There’s a place for both those extremes, though, and the broad range of expansive to minimalist options in between.

What do we love about dining au naturel? Let me rephrase that. What do we love about dining under Nature’s glorious sunlight and balmy breezes? What don’t we like so much about these things?

Let’s count the ways. First, a few reasons why we love alfresco dining:

  • Depending on our specific choice, our dinner table may feature a beautiful view. This may help explain why I am more open to alfresco dining when I travel. Who wouldn’t love a shady table in a vineyard garden in Provence, a harborside table in Trieste, or a tiny table within sight of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris? I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy each of those things, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.
  • Fresh air and pleasant weather are big pluses, when we’re lucky enough to encounter them at any time of day.
  • The relatively relaxed atmosphere of an outdoor setting may work better for you at any given time than the more buttoned-up experience of upscale dining indoors.
  • In a mindful, serene way, proximity to nature may be a plus if the mood is right. Relax amid birdsong, the scents of spring flowers and summer leaves, the gentle touch of an evening breeze on your face.
  • Where space is available, outdoor dining areas may be open and expansive, allowing space between tables for a more private and relaxing experience than you’ll get at the closely set tables indoors.
  • For many of my friends, a pet-friendly dining area is the biggest selling point of all. The folks at Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness take a stern position against bringing Hamish or Manny to your indoor dining table, but most local eateries welcome your best friend to accompany you outdoors.

Naturally, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Herewith, a few reasons why people hate – or at least strongly dislike – the outdoor dining experience.

  • Let’s face it, the weather doesn’t always cooperate. A heat wave with 90º-plus temperatures extending into the evening, or a sudden frog-strangling summer downpour can send outdoor diners racing for cover.
  • While we may enjoy the company of our companion animal at the outdoor dining experience, other forms of animal life aren’t as welcome. Flies and mosquitoes, stink bugs and centipedes and even the occasional urban rat are rarely seen as desirable dinner companions.
  • WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU! As much as we gripe, and rightly so, about loud indoor dining environments, alfresco dining can be noisy too, particularly at tables located on busy city streets or with loud music systems blaring overhead.
  • If that relaxing breeze veers into a quick gust or a sustained wind, you may find your napkin blowing down the street and your pleasantly hot meal cooling down before you can enjoy it. If you’re facing the wrong direction, that pleasant afternoon sun may turn into a blinding glare or an ovenlike blast of heat.
  • Thanks to the Metro Louisville Smoke-Free Ordinance of 2006 and its tougher 2017 amendments, Louisville restaurants and bars are gloriously smoke-free. Outdoor dining areas? Not so much. While patio smoking is barred within 15 feet of a restaurant entrance and any windows or air intake vents, smokers are otherwise welcome to light up, unless the restaurant decrees otherwise by establishing all or part of its outdoor dining area as smoke-free.

So there we have it. Six good reasons to turn toward the inviting patio, and another half-dozen sound reasons to choose the door into the dining room.

Still, if you haven’t enjoyed an alfresco dinner lately, give it a try! Plan ahead. Check the forecast. Pack your bug repellent and sunscreen. Dress for the weather. And before you make your final choice, be sure to check LEO Weekly’s recent helpful report, 25 Louisville Patios For Dining And Drinking This Spring.