When summer weather hits, everyone wants a seat on the patio. Restaurants know that, and they do their best to accommodate as many customers as possible.
But, when you’re dining on a patio, there are sometimes special circumstances that require your cooperation and understanding. We’ve talked to a variety of service industry professionals who take the patio experiences at their restaurants very seriously. With their help, we’ve pulled together the following list of tips you should follow when dining outside … on just about any patio.
So give it a read. There’s probably something you didn’t know somewhere on this list. And we can pretty much guarantee that, if you take these things to heart, you’ll have a much better overall patio experience.
1. Don't seat yourself
Unless there’s a sign that says "please seat yourself," look for a host or hostess. If they've stepped away for a moment, please wait for their return.
"We have very good signage at all of our restaurants asking people to check in at the host station," notes CB Gersch, director of operations for the Lowlands Restaurants. "And the purpose for that is really so that we can give people the best possible experience."
Marie Edwards, an industry veteran who has manned patios at spots like Meritage and Harbor House, underscores that point.
"It’s all about giving people the best possible service," she says. "The host or hostess holds everything together and they help to ensure that everyone gets seated in the best possible locations on the patio at that point in time."
2. Trust the host or hostess
There are a lot of moving parts on a patio, from tables that need to be kept clean to waitstaff that need to be assigned to specific tables. There are also smart people who are paid to ensure that you have a good experience. So trust them.
In a good number of cases, you can make requests for specific spots on the patio, whether it be sunny, shady or in between. However, a good hostess is going to default to seating you where you’ll get the best possible service.
For example, if the patio is divided into sections (as many are), you’re unlikely to be seated in an area where the assigned server is "in the weeds." The host’s goal isn’t to overburden a server; rather, you’ll be placed in an area where the server has the capacity to really pay attention to your needs.
"Keeping the patio running is a very well choreographed dance," notes Edwards. "And we have sections for a reason. At Harbor House, our servers know their sections. Their paths and processes are all mapped out, and that ensures that guests get really good service."
In fact, everyone we talked to underscored the fact that the host or hostess really has the best interests of every customer in mind.
"We seat people very strategically, and it’s not to put people in ‘bad’ sections or areas," Gersch adds. "We seat them so that they’ll get the best possible service and have the best experience. It never makes sense to overload a particular server, so we will do what we can to ensure that we don’t seat too many people to a given section."
3. The patio is closed for a reason
"Every day on the patio requires a judgement call," notes Edwards. "You can’t control Mother Nature. For that reason, there are times we simply don’t risk opening the patio. At Harbor House, we schedule staff specifically to work the patio. If there’s rain in the forecast, we need to give them notice by 9 a.m. if they’re working the lunch shift. So there are times when the weather clears, but we’ve already called off our patio staff due to a questionable forecast."
Even on smaller patios where the staff doubles up on tables both inside and out, there might be circumstances that require your understanding.
"If we tell you we are not comfortable seating you outside because it might rain," notes Melissa Buchholz of Odd Duck, "please understand that if you choose to sit outside anyhow, and it DOES rain, there may not be seating available for you inside the restaurant."
4. Take large parties to large patios
"Large parties are pretty hard to accommodate on small patios," says Buchholz. "My suggestion is if you have a big party, go to a place with a big patio. They have more tables to work with and put together and can probably get you seated much faster than a place with a tiny patio."
5. Keep in mind: You’re outside
"There could be wind, or sun, or bees ... because don't the flowers look so pretty?!" says Buchholz. "There might even be a squirrel … we have a cranky evil one with a raggedy tail that has been around our patio for a number of years. And yes, he’s a jerk. There is very little a restaurant can do to control animals, insects or weather, so please understand that you are agreeing to deal with these things if you choose to dine outside."
Even when pest management is put into place, it’s pretty tough to control nature.
"We do everything we can to make peoples’ patio experience as pest free as possible," adds Gersch. "We avoid planting flowers that attract bees, and we also have humane bee traps on our patios to keep them away from guests as much as we can. But bees are attracted to sweet things, so there are occasions – say, brunch for instance – when you may have to deal with a bee that is attracted to the syrup on your pancakes … "
6. There might be dogs
If you choose to go to a restaurant with a dog-friendly patio, it’s important to realize that you might be eating in proximity to someone’s pet. If you’d prefer to avoid that altogether, you might want to choose your patio strategically.
That said, if you are on a dog-friendly patio – like the ones at Cafe Hollander – and an issue arises with a pet that is behaving badly, feel free to say something to your server.
"We allow dogs on our patios," explains Gersch, "and sometimes they don’t behave as well as we’d like them to. The last thing we want is people leaving unhappy. So, we really want people to tell us if they have an issue. We’ll always do our best to accommodate them."
7. Be smart if it looks rainy
"Here in Wisconsin, we are challenged by weather, and we rely really heavily on apps to predict if rain is on the way," notes Gersch. "So if we see that the weather is going to turn bad, we’ll often walk around and give people the option to be seated inside before it arrives. Admittedly, there are occasions when the restaurant is already at capacity inside. So, that might mean that they will need to wait for a table. But if they can exercise a bit of patience, the next available table will be theirs."
In smaller restaurants where they don’t have quite as much flexibility (and where dining times tend to be longer per table), you’ll want to be smart about taking a seat on the patio if the weather looks even a little bit iffy.
"We cannot hold tables inside for every party who chooses to dine outside just in case they want to come in," says Buchholz. "That means we would be holding up two tables for every one party that wants to dine, and we cannot afford to do that. If the weather seems inclement, stay inside, or know that you might just have to pay up and go if it downpours! That said, we do our very best to accommodate outside diners inside the restaurant in the case of fluke weather events."
8. Come prepared
Again, restaurants have no control over the weather. It could be sunny. Or buggy. It might even get cold.
"You may even want to think about sunscreen if dining during the day, and bug spray, particularly at dusk when the mosquitoes get bad," says Buchholz.
And, if you happen to have forgotten something, it never hurts to ask. Buchholz says she keeps bug spray on hand at Odd Duck for customers who need it. At places like Cafe Benelux and Harbor House, they offer fleece blankets for customers who’ve forgotten to bring a jacket when the weather turns.
9. Keep your shoes on
We hope this is obvious, but just in case it's not ... be cognizant of the fact that you’re outside, but you’re not in your own yard. Restaurants are public places of business. So, please, do not take your shoes off. And do not (above all) rest your bare feet on the table top or sprawl them over the chairs. If you absolutely must give your feet some air, keep them under the table and out of sight.
10. Don't be a squatter
The staff wants you to have a great time, and they don’t need you to rush through your dinner. But don’t be rude. If your table is cleared, your check has been dropped, and you are still sitting there, look around you. Someone might be waiting for your table.
"People tend to camp out on patios, so sometimes wait times are really hard to estimate, and they can be really long," notes Buchholz, who says they occasionally have a table that insists upon occupying a patio table for the whole of dinner service. (Yes, that’s up to five hours).
"If you really want to sit on the patio, be patient and willing to wait, because most likely there are tons of other people who want that exact same thing. If your main priority is to get fed as quickly as possible, tell the host that though you would prefer the patio, you are okay with sitting anywhere: patio, bar or inside in the dining room. The more flexible you are, the faster we can seat you and feed you delicious food!"
11. Have fun
And, in the end, Buchholz has some of the best advice there is: "Enjoy patio dining. We only get it a few months out of the year!"
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.