A well-designed and well-equipped outdoor patio can be a boon for restaurant guests and owners alike, offering a pleasant, al fresco dining experience and an opportunity to boost traffic and revenues. But designing these spaces requires careful planning: There’s much more to it than simply setting up a few tables and chairs outside.

 “If properly designed, the outdoor space can be malleable and easy to dynamically change, rearrange and reconfigure in order to be responsive to new concepts, trends and market needs,” says Anthony R. George, principal, GeorgeArchitecture in South Pasadena, Calif. “For example, this is an opportunity to introduce design elements such as open flames and water features that would be disruptive or even overbearing inside.”

Restaurants can arguably construct outdoor dining at a fraction of the cost of interior space, George adds. “But outdoor dining requires constant vigilance with maintenance and cleanliness and quick and dynamic response to environmental changes. It is often a complicated endeavor involving the health department, fire department and building and zoning departments.”

In order to maintain the brand image, restaurants must pay attention to every detail when planning, designing and operating outdoor dining spaces. “The experience outside should be on a similar level as the experience inside,” says Adam Winig, principal at Arcsine, an architecture and interior design firm in Oakland, Calif. “When planning, ask these questions: How does the outdoor space interact with or relate to the indoor space? Should customers feel the same or different? Is there a service entrance to the exterior so the employees and patrons are not crossing paths with food and beverages? What is appropriate seating? Are restrooms located with good access to the outdoor space? Does it make sense for the outdoor space to be able to function for a private party? Does it need its own POS, server station and so forth?”

Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act represents an important consideration, Winig notes. “A design should allow all patrons to partake in the same experience whether they have disabilities or not,” he says.

Operational capacity represents another important consideration. “Adding more incremental consumption requires operators to effectively manage menu offerings, storage, production, warewashing and service delivery,” says Theodore Barber, FCSI, president, Theo Barber Company Inc. “The biggest mistake designers and operators make is not planning for all the needs to handle the additional seating and service requirements. As effective as outdoor seating and dining are, when not properly aligned with the kitchen, bar and staff capabilities, it can be devastating to the business and work against performance.”

Here is a closer look at some of the most important considerations to weigh when designing effective patio spaces.

Ambiance. It should reflect the overall design concept, but “with an al fresco twist,” George suggests. “Design elements such as fire and water, lighting effects, use of woods and natural materials, landscape growth patterns, canopy development and space-making elements can produce and enhance outdoor experiences that customers refer to as charming, magical, romantic and a secret garden.”

When designing outdoor spaces give careful consideration to ceiling elements such as trees, canopies, umbrellas; wall elements, such as plantings, fencing, screens; floor elements such as concrete, stone, masonry; lighting and accessories, George says. “Otherwise, outdoor spaces can look leftover or cheap.”

Landscaping and landscape lighting serve as effective ways to frame, partition and theme exterior dining spaces, says Barber, who adds that plantings can also play a key role in seasonal decorating. He cautions, however, that proper trimming is important and that staff must be trained to keep a watchful eye for trash. Papers, food waste and cigarette butts send the wrong message.

When it comes to the maintenance of trees and plants, George suggests using evergreens and evergreen perennial varieties rather than deciduous and annuals. “If using non-planting, hardscape elements, they should complement or contrast with plantings,” he says. In addition, George advises that plant odors and scents must not overpower the senses or be attractive to bugs and pests.

Sustainability factors. “Design must ensure that food waste is properly managed, exterior plantings are not disturbed, night lighting is efficient, and no toxic elements like cleaning chemicals and pest control agents are introduced to the environment,” Barber says.

Energy consumption can be minimized and customer comfort maximized with natural daylight, LED lighting in the evening, clean-burning natural gas for heat, and passive cooling techniques such as shading and controlled air circulation.

Temperature controls. “The number- one factor in outdoor dining is developing a space that capitalizes on the dynamics of a natural environment while effectively controlling that environment for customer comfort,” George says.

When controlling heat, he says, “spaceheaters and fireplaces can radiate heat into the environment and provide soothing ambiance. Though used less frequently, passive thermal mass such as masonry walls or features exposed to daylight absorb daytime solar energy and radiate it back into the environment once the sun sets. Infrared heaters, which heat objects, not air, are high-efficiency alternatives to radiant heating.”

Exterior cooling options are available as well. These include ceiling fans, water misting units and portable air conditioners for specific, controlled areas.

George adds that passive cooling techniques that manage heat gain, draw, and flow, shade creation and air distribution, and passive evaporative cooling techniques can utilize outdoor elements such as trees, shade and water features to lower temperatures 10 degrees F to 20 degrees F compared with direct exposure. Restaurants can incorporate cool-roof techniques that reflect radiant solar energy in canopy and awning designs.

Insect control. No matter how lovely the ambiance or comfortable the temperature, insects can quickly ruin outdoor dining experiences. Controlling them is critical, but Barber emphasizes that operators should never use chemical sprays in these areas. He also suggests positioning bug lights in unnoticed areas.

George adds that professional insect and rodent control is often combined with an extensive management program that includes passive and electronic traps, screens and lures to keep environments insect-free.

Sun shading. Providing protection from harsh solar exposure while maintaining dynamic ambient lighting is a complicated task. “Movable or retractable shading is usually preferable to fixed, because daylight intensities vary as the sun follows its daily path,” George says. “What may be desirable to protect against at noon might warrant exposure at twilight. An artful balance of blackout, translucent and open sky can produce dramatic results. Trees, trellises, screens, glass and glazing technology, and other shading devices can create diffused and ambient shading conditions, often dramatically changing as the sun path changes.”

Equipment and mechanics. “Typical patio dining is supported with minimal equipment requirements, unless table service for finishing is employed,” Barber says. Key pieces of equipment dedicated to these spaces might include service carts, sanitizing stations, coffee dispensers and warmers, iced tea dispensers, ice bins (insulated and covered), small undercounter refrigerators, heated holding boxes, bussing stations, hand sinks or sanitizing buckets for cleaning towels.

George adds that the food truck craze has brought about a new generation of portable restaurant equipment. In addition, commercial-grade outdoor cooking equipment such as grills, flattops, burners, ovens, steamers and fryers, in a variety of configurations and fuel types, are more readily available than ever. These offer options that previously would have necessitated expensive custom fabrication.

Also, commercial-grade outdoor sinks and sanitation stations are readily available, offering hookup (self-contained or direct), portability and configuration options.

Mechanical considerations include electrical wiring, which must be conduited, outdoor-rated, ground-faulted and must contain weatherproof covers. Hoods must be monitored for exhaust pattern and airflow to the restaurant and adjoining environments, and be accessible and maintainable because outside dirt and debris collects. Water must be and appear clean and sanitary. Sanitation itself must respond to direct dirt, dust and debris and also pests and odors.

Signature features. The increase in popularity of outdoor dining has seen an explosion of new design features and products that can be used to add sizzle to patio spaces. Barber notes that external heaters, for example, have become very exotic; and tall flames, columns, fire pits, heaters and light packages for patio umbrellas have become commonplace.

Outdoor entertainment options, too, are on the rise. “Outdoor television screens and audio systems can define an exterior patio or grounds,” he says.

Controlling such systems, along with outdoor security monitoring, shading, climate and lighting, is now easier than ever. George notes that wireless and near-field networking has greatly improved flexibility and adaptability, offering controls in a variety of devices such as smartphones, tablets, keypads, laptops and desktops.