Outdoor dining and wine service is a different breed from traditional indoor dining, as visits to top establishments nationwide show.

The essence of a wonderful outdoor dining experience is subtly different from what constitutes interior perfection. Satisfying food that has been appropriately paired with good wines, served with care in a felicitous setting, should be the order of the day in either environment. But in the open air, the edge of seriousness is sanded off and sheer enjoyment becomes paramount. Leafy trees flutter in a light breeze or candles sparkle in the tender night, enough to ennoble a lesser wine and make a first growth fun. As Rudy Rahbar, the wine director at Lark Creek Inn just north of San Francisco, puts it, “there’s more stimulation outside: more movement, sights, sounds, and smells, so you need something fresh and lively in the glass to go with the setting.”

In warm weather, sommeliers will more frequently suggest cool-country wines, both white and red, with lively acidity, to accompany summer fare. And wine lovers who “just say no” to Chardonnay can have a field day with wine lists that break the traditional mold by offering the likes of light and fragrant Moscato d’Asti. German and Austrian whites, especially Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, graced with the merest hint of softness, have become extremely popular this season. Summer is also when even the connoisseur must admit enjoying pink wine, whether it’s a serious Tavel or Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris de Cigare.

And whether sparkling or still, white, pink or red, the wines must be served at the proper temperature. Even grown-up red wines might find themselves taking a brief dip in the ice lest they become too warm.

We searched around the country for restaurants that tackle the outdoors with panache, not only in the setting but in the food and wine—places where care is taken to heighten the outdoor dining experience.

New York | Sea Grill
Open spaces are hard-fought in deep urban settings, and the generous skyscraper-ringed plaza at the heart of Rockefeller Center has been a magnet for visitors to the Big Apple for some 60 years. Anchored at one side by the gilded Prometheus Fountain, there is enough bubble and spray in the atmosphere to put anyone in a Champagne mood.

The newly redecorated Sea Grill spills into the garden along one side, under striped umbrellas and rimmed with baskets of geraniums, and offers a gradually escalating assortment of sparklers, from $45 to $200, with the nonvintage Jacquesson Brut Perfection at $60 a lovely choice as a summer apéritif.

Ed Brown’s glitteringly fresh seafood is accessorized, but not overdressed, with touches of Asia and the Mediterranean. His treats from the ocean are partnered with a rather inventive and well-selected list of about 200 wines grouped on the list according to style, instead of varietal, region or price.

Raw-bar specialties, grilled fresh sardines glossed with caramelized red onion, succulent slow-roasted salmon with plump white asparagus, seared sea scallops with Peruvian limas and a bright little explosion of piquillo peppers, and simply grilled black sea bass or grouper are all warm-weather appetite-pleasers. And the wines suggested to go with these dishes all have enough acidity to keep the palate from flagging.

“We promote a different program of wines that are easier to drink outside,” Brown says. “Alsatian Rieslings and spicy Gewürztraminers, which are terrific with our fish, are especially enjoyable out of doors.” Wines in those categories, like Blanck’s 1998 Altenbourg Gewürztraminer for $42, are mid-price. Even the Zind-Humbrecht 1997 Guebershwihr Riesling is a relatively affordable $56.

Brown says that for summer he has added some well-bred rosés, like Tavel, to the list, in addition to an ample selection of light, silky reds. The restaurant serves its reds, like the Bourgneuf 1996 Mercurey Clos l’Evêque for $48, at cellar temperature, making them relatively heat and humidity-proof. —F.F.

Sea Grill, Rockefeller Plaza, 19 West 49th Street, tel. 212/ 332-7610. Open for lunch weekdays, for dinner Monday- Saturday. 100-plus wines on list; 15 by the glass. Main courses $19-$29 at lunch; $21-$29 at dinner.

New York | A-Z
Rooftops offer another kind of outdoor setting in the city. A-Z, a new multistoried affair on the edge of the Flatiron District, has a broad, stone-paved patio on its top floor. There’s an alfresco feel all the time, with a greenhouse roof that is opened in balmy weather, but which can close in a twinkling (and does so at the first raindrops, thanks to electronic sensors). It’s a dining room unlike any other in the city. The setup also permits some open-air air-conditioning, protection against the occasional 90-degree evening.

The restaurant’s name is a play on Asie (French for Asia), and chef Patricia Yea’s food defines fusion. It has enough spice and flavor, with an edge of sharpness, to suit warm weather. Her tempura asparagus, Yukon gold spring roll “knish” with osetra caviar, beef cheek and foie gras terrine, panko-crusted duck schnitzel, and braised monkfish with curried bean purée and pappadams challenge sommelier Dan Perlman’s 600 wines housed in a 4,200-bottle cellar.

In summer, Perlman suggests starting with a simple, refreshing Avinyò-Juan Esteve Nadal nonvintage cava. Other of his summer favorites are the Domaine Armand Hurst 1997 Grand Cru Brand Muscat from Alsace and the Josef Biffar 1998 Riesling Kabinett from the Pfalz. For the duck schnitzel, he suggests a deep rosé such as the Michele Calo 1998 Mjère, as demanding a rosé as you could want. On a recent visit, the cool, well-focused and berry-like Barranc dels Closos 1997 Grenache from Priorat was excellent with the duck.

The wine list is categorized not only by country and by grape, but also according to style, set forth in Asian terms with symbols for the sun, wind and earth. It may sound a little confusing, but with many uncommon choices, it’s worth exploring, and best of all, the weather need not interfere. —F.F.

A-Z, 21 West 17th Street, tel. 212/691-8888. Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. 500 wines on list; 23 by the glass. Prix-fixe lunch is $20 and dinner is $52.

California | Tra Vigne | St. Helena
There’s plenty of open space in downtown St. Helena, but the grand terrace of Tra Vigne, with its wrought iron, pottery and tiles, transports you to Italy. Despite its renown, Michael Chiarello’s restaurant retains a casual air, all the more inviting in late spring, summer or fall. The menu interprets Italian food with lusty authority. And unlike many alfresco dining spots, Tra Vigne whets the appetite for red wine.

“We’re definitely more careful with our wines outdoors,” says David Stevens, the wine director. “Even though the terrace is shaded by fruitless mulberry trees, I may use a bucket for red wines.”

An emphasis on California wines notwithstanding, you can find ample tastes of Italy with Cal-Itals like the well-balanced, slightly peppery 1996 Montevina Refosco ($30), among my first choices with the rosemary and garlic pizzetta, the oven-roasted polenta with crescenza cheese and wild mushrooms, the pappardelle with slow-roasted Napa Valley lamb and red mustard greens, or the grilled Sonoma rabbit.

“You want wines with bold flavor outdoors,” Stevens says. “Wine tastes different outside, there’s more wind, and pollen; more competition.” Stevens adds more whites and sparkling wines, and a whole rosé section, to the mix in summertime.

Other summer-leaning reds on the list of 240 wines are the sleek d’Arenberg 1997 Custodian Grenache from McLaren Vale in Australia, the elegant 1997 Joseph Phelps Le Mistral, and Luna’s 1998 Napa Valley Sangiovese. And for those who would like to explore without investing in full bottles, the restaurant offers 110 wines by the glass. Many are offered in a choice of a 2- or 5-ounce pour, including a quenchingly grassy South African Buitenverwachting Constantia Sauvignon Blanc for $2 or $5, and in sample flights of five different wines. —F.F.

Tra Vigne, 1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena, tel. 707/963-4444. Open from lunch til 10:30 p.m. daily. 240 wines on list; 110 by the glass. Pastas and main courses $10-$20.

California | Lark Creek Inn | Larkspur
The lovely Victorian landmark mansion which houses the Lark Creek Inn in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is set at the edge of a grove of towering redwoods. A few tables nestle among the stately trees and there is also a richly planted and trellised patio, a magnet for those who prefer to dine outside on Bradley Ogden’s creative American cooking, like barbecued oysters with pancetta or Southern-fried catfish with field greens and sweet salsa. The menu changes daily and is accompanied by a 300-wine list. “When I was a kid I only thought of drinking lemonade in summer,” says Rudy Rahbar, the wine director. “You want the same kind of juicy acidity in a wine.”

Her preferences these days are Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Gris, such as the Duckhorn 1998 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and the Long 1999 Pinot Grigio from Carneros. Wines like these, even before the food comes, set up the palate on a summer day. Rahbar prefers to match the wine to the food, not vice versa. She’ll recommend a crisp white to complement the spring pea and morel risotto. Reds aren’t off-limits, however: The grilled chuck steakburger on a homemade roll demands a Zin, like the Rabbit Ridge 1997 Sonoma Zinfandel or the Turley 1998 Black Sears Vineyard Howell Mountain Zin—not really warm-weather outdoor wines, but Rahbar notes that the restaurant’s location rarely gets too hot. —F.F.

Lark Creek Inn, 234 Magnolia Avenue, Larkspur, tel. 415/924-7766. Open for lunch weekdays, brunch Sunday, and dinner daily. 300 wines on list; 11 by the glass. Entrées at lunch, $9-$16; at dinner $16-$34.

California | LaVande | Los Angeles
Spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean aren’t the only draw at Lavande, which is on the beachfront in Santa Monica. Crowds of the cognoscenti followed chef Alain Giraud, of Citrus fame, when he came to Lavande. Giraud left recently, and the menu under executive chef Yves Bainier is a little less French and more Mediterranean, but a fine wine list heavy on French selections remains.

Roughly one-third of the restaurant’s 150-plus seats are in the outdoor deck area, and manager Andre Kallus claims the best of both worlds for outdoor dining: “warm days good for a nice buttery Chardonnay or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc at lunchtime, and it’s cool enough with the ocean breeze at night for enjoying a Châteaubriand for two with a bottle of fine Bordeaux.” (He recommends the 1994 Château Andron Blanquet or a splurge on a ’94 Château Cantenac- Brown.) Visitors to the hotel in which the restaurant is located tend to be put in more of a summertime state of mind by the California weather, Kallus says, and are eager to explore white wines, while Los Angeles natives still tend to move to interesting full-bodied reds once the sun goes down.

At lunchtime, Lavande is noted for its well-presented lobster salad, with which Kallus recommends a ’97 Caymus Sauvignon Blanc. For dinner, the terracotta-baked salmon in dill jus with forest mushrooms and asparagus tips elicits several elegant pairing suggestions: a Loire Pouilly-Fumé, a Chassagne-Montrachet, or the ’98 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. —Mary Hunt

Lavande, Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, tel. 310/576-3181. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 200-plus wines on list; 17 by the glass. Lunch entrées range from $14-$24; dinner entrées from $22-$30.

California | Michael’s | Los Angeles With outdoor dining a realistic option in Los Angeles throughout much of the year, the experts at Michael’s in Santa Monica have a good deal of insight into handling wine in warm weather. Michael’s, which is a long-term fixture on the LA dining scene, has a large outdoor/garden dining area resplendent with plants and flowers.

General manager and wine director David Rosoff says that one of the good things about warmer weather is the opportunity to wean novice wine lovers away from their red-wine-and-health fixation: “I cringe when they want Merlot even with their oysters. Summer gives you a better chance of convincing them to try Champagne, or Grüner Veltliner, which is terrific with oysters.” The 400-strong wine list at Michael’s is geared to food-friendly wine; Rosoff admits a preference for “conscientious winemakers, small production, balanced wines; not oak bombs or fruit bombs.”

While not opposed to red wine in warm weather, Rosoff believes that certain grapes show noticeably more poorly outdoors than inside. “Pinot Noir is the greatest grape in the world, but it loses its aromatics very quickly in warm weather. If you taste a glass inside and carry it outside, the difference is dramatic.” Because one of each red wine on the list is kept behind the bar for fast service, where ambient temperatures can reach 80° (they are replenished as needed from the ample cellars), the waitstaff at Michael’s is trained to cool down the red wines in ice buckets with water added for a period of five to seven minutes.

Rosoff does encourage more white and rosé drinking in summer. With Michael’s grilled calamari salad with shaved fennel and ruby grapefruit, he recommends the 1998 Fred Loimer Kamptal Grüner Veltliner, which has some fennel-like qualities; he also favors Domaine Merlin-Cherrier’s 1998 Sancerre, or an off-dry German Riesling like the ’98 J.L. Wolf from the Pfalz, which plays off the squid salad’s grapefruit particularly well. With the pear salad on bitter greens, which includes bits of Spanish Cabrales, apples, smoked bacon and toasted walnuts, his favorite is the Southern Rhône blend Château de Tourette (1998), for its “real vivacity and tropicality. It’s got good acidity, fat enough for the bacon, some Meursault-like nuttiness to play off the walnuts, and distinct pear-like flavors.” —M.H.

Michael’s, 1147 Third Street, Santa Monica, tel. 310/451-0843. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday and lunch on weekdays. 400 wines on list; 12-15 by the glass. Lunch entrées range from $13-$22; dinner entrées from $24-$34.

Chicago | Thyme
Chicago, which as the joke goes is a Native American word for “uninhabitable six months out of the year,” has a short alfresco season. When it finally arrives, Chicagoans bask in the sunshine, even in oppressively hot and humid conditions, with a zeal all their own. The competition to capture the outdoor market is fierce, and the lovely outdoor café at Thyme has captured its share. Replete with beech, holly and pine trees, and anchored by a 40-foot sycamore right in the middle, the 150-seat outdoor area is a refuge, and a perfect place to soak up summer’s warmth and some lovely bubbly by the glass, such as a Taittinger La Française Brut at $16, or Bouvet Rosé at $10.

The bubbles and the serene atmosphere provide the perfect backdrop for chef-owner John Bubala’s French-American cuisine. Maryland crab cakes in a citrus vinaigrette or yellowfin tuna carpaccio with wasabi caviar, both off the appetizer list, are wonderful complements to the sparklers.

That would allow a smooth segue into a wine by the glass or bottle. “We like to offer a range of wines to please the novice as well as the hardcore foodie or grape nut,” says Bubala.

“And, when you’re picking a wine for dining outside, we want the flavors to be crisp and clean, and the wine to have good acidity.” That might mean the latest Heyl Riesling, Georges Duboeuf Sauvignon Blanc, or Zind-Humbrecht Wintzenheim Gewürztraminer. As elsewhere, Bubala notes, in Chicago there is a marked move among customers from reds to whites as the weather warms.

The crisp-and-clean theme carries over into Bubala’s entrées, which place a heavy emphasis on seafood. The complex flavors of the mahi mahi with grain mustard, braised cauliflower, and cumin work well with a Riesling such as Zind-Humbrecht from Alsace or d’Arenberg from South Australia. The North Atlantic salmon with couscous and red pepper—a big summer seller, along with the yellowfin tuna with cracked black pepper served with saffron vegetarian risotto—allows red wine lovers to get into the act while still staying the seafood course, with a ’98 Duboeuf Beaujolais or a well-balanced ’97 Swanson Napa Valley Merlot. —Dave Eckert

Thyme, 462 North Halsted, tel. 312/226-4300. Dinner only, seven days a week. 100 wines on the list; 11 by the glass. Appetizers range from $10-$14, entrées from $18-$28.

Atlanta | Canoe
“Hotlanta” is what residents call this sunny city. But the one place cool enough for alfresco dining seven or eight months of the year is Canoe, with the rarest of Atlanta real estate—an open-air veranda on the swift, green, very scenic Chattahoochee River, a National Recreation Area. Particularly stunning is the inversion layer of cold air, which at certain times creates a mystic fog bank over the water, adding greatly to the outside ambiance.

Kevin Good, Canoe’s general manager, edits his mostly New World wine list—50 wines by the glass, 360 by the bottle, and 520 cellared in inventory—every 14 days, adding seasonal wines such as a Saintsbury Vin Gris and a McDowell Grenache Rosé that perfectly complement the smoked salmon and the grilled poussin with herb fettuccine on the contemporary American/Southern menu. Is there a seasonal difference in what Atlantans drink? Good says yes, “very definitely yes to white wines once the patio opens in early spring. Reds still sell well, but there is a noticeable move to lighter, chillable varieties.” For the proper service of red wines in the heat of summer, behind the scenes Good and his talented staff chill light reds in ice buckets for five minutes before bringing them out. At the table, reds are served in a “water bath” of tapwater with just a handful of ice, which melts in the ice bucket to 60-70°F for keeping red wines, even Cabernets, at the correct serving temperature. —Anita LaRaia

Canoe, 4199 Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta, tel. 770/432-2663. Open daily for dinner, weekdays for lunch, brunch on Sunday. 360 wines on list; 50 by the glass. Entrées $16-$24.

Florence Fabricant is a food and restaurant columnist for The New York Times. Additional reporting by Dave Eckert, producer/creator/host of the PBS-TV series Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert, and Anita LaRaia, director of The Wine School in Atlanta.

Published on August 1, 2000
Topics: Restaurants