A Canadian’s Guide to Dining Al Fresco

How to brave the elements and enjoy a meal outside this spring
Published April 25, 2016

The days are longer and brighter. The grass is getting greener. It’s finally getting to that special time of year when we can finally feel the sun on our face and a breeze in our hair as we dine al fresco. For Canadians, this dream comes but once per year for a short period of time. “As soon as there’s a patch of sun, we go crazy and want to eat outside at any chance we get,” says Jessica Rodriguez of the Drake Hotel in Toronto.

From synthesis of vitamin D (the “sunshine vitamin”) to just boosting your mood, being outside provides plenty of health benefits. Eating outside is good for us, too – there’s something about how eating outside opens up our senses, helping to eat more slowly and mindfully, while enjoying our meal more than if we were just eating inside.

Whether we’re seeking out a coveted patch of sun on our favourite patio, or sneaking a meal outside on our lunch break, there’s no dreamier way to eat than al fresco. However, living in Canada, despite the sunshine, the temperature can drop at a moment's notice so outdoor dining isn't as easy as simply packing a picnic basket. When a snowstorm isn't out of the question until after Victoria Day, there are a few precautions you've got to take to enjoy the great outdoors. Here are a few tips to enjoy al fresco dining, Canadian-style.

But first, to dine al fresco or not to dine? – that is the question. As a Canadian, there are two things to consider should you find yourself wanting to enjoy your next meal outside:

  • Is the sun out?
  • Is it a day that ends in “-day”?

If you answered yes to these questions, it is time to eat outside! Here are a few things to consider when choosing the where, what and how of alfresco dining.

“Climate-defiant” patios
Whether there are plastic sheets and covers, umbrellas or heat lamps, many Canadian patios are prepared for less than perfect weather, and will keep you warm and comfortable in any season. The Drake Hotel, on Toronto’s hip West Queen West stretch, is famous for its year-round “climate-defiant” rooftop Sky Yard patio that offers patrons blankets and special seasonal cocktails suitable for any type of weather. Check out restaurants in your city or town to see what patios are weather-resistant.

Essentials to bring
If your chosen eating establishment isn’t climate defiant, or if you are creating the perfect al fresco eating environment at home, investing in these essentials will make your dining experience all the more comfortable. Keep these near your door or in your car so you have no barriers to enjoying the perfect dining experience.

  • Sunglasses are essential because if the sun is shining, it is probably shining into your eyes.
  • Sun hats will help to keep the sun off your face, and toques will help to seal in any body warmth that you have. Either will come in handy should a gale-force wind come blowing through. Use your discretion when choosing an appropriate hat. When in doubt, wear both!
  • Blankets or thick sweaters are helpful for an inevitable breeze. A scarf that’s the size of a blanket does double duty.
  • Gloves are essential for a brisk day. If you can’t figure out how to deal with a knife and fork while wearing gloves, consider investing in a fingerless variety, which will make it easier to eat with cutlery.
  • Dress in light layers so you can quickly add or shed a layer.
  • Candles and lanterns will make any nighttime dining experience more enjoyable and cozy.
  • Clenching your napkin between your thighs so it won’t blow away may be a good leg workout, but wouldn’t you rather have a weighted napkin? (Note: this item probably does not exist, but if you can sew, consider making your own.)

What to eat
If the weather is right, any type of fresh salad is perfect. If you are partaking in an adult beverage, why not have a white wine spritzer, made with plenty of soda water and sliced lemon, to help keep you from getting dehydrated from the sun.

If you find yourself on a chilly patio, be sure to order something that will warm you up. A hot bowl of soup before your meal will help to keep you warm. Opt for broth-based soups or pureed veggie soups without milk or cream. If you’re hosting or cooking for yourself, great! Make a veggie-centric dish with a dressing made with some warming and circulation-boosting ginger grated in, or fire up your barbeque and grill some meat that’s been rubbed with spices.

Here are a few recipe ideas.

Ginger Sesame Asparagus

Grilled Flank Steak with Onions

Grilled Vegetable Kabobs