So You Want An Outdoor Bar Area...

Outdoor Bar

In the summer months when the weather is prime for sitting outside well into the evening, nothing can get customers to stick around and enjoy your nightly drink specials like a comfortable, inviting outdoor bar. Whether it's an addition to your already-thriving restaurant or a standalone seasonal concept, there are a few hallmarks of any successful outdoor bar. These characteristics include the obvious, like comfortable furniture and the right bar equipment. Still, attention must be paid to other important details, including the drinkware you choose, which may be determined by local laws dictating which types are allowed in outdoor seating environments.

Since the bar itself is the main attraction, we'll focus first on setting it up. There are a number of ways to do that, ranging from a full-fledged permanent bar with an outdoor seating area to small-scale portable solutions that are covered or wheeled into storage at the end of the night. Let's look at those simple solutions first.

Portable Bar

A portable bar like the Cambro Cambar is the simplest way to start serving drinks outdoors. These can be wheeled virtually anywhere, and they're particularly popular for setting up ad hoc bars at special events, but can be used on restaurant patios as well. They can serve as a quick and portable solution for serving drinks at small, intimate venues where a couple dozen or fewer patrons will be present.

The simplest of these feature basic amenities like ice bins, speed rails, and storage room for glasses and supplies. Some models even include soda guns that can be attached to portable pre-mix systems. These bars are usually built with lightweight plastics that can handle the elements and wear-and-tear of being wheeled around.

Heavier-duty portable bars are made of stainless steel and may feature wood-grain accents to help match the décor and theme of your establishment. These deluxe models often include sinks with portable water supplies for rinsing and washing drink prep supplies. Invest in one of these higher-end portable bars when you need a more long-term solution to serving drinks outdoors but can't justify making any permanent alterations to your building.

Permanent Outdoor Bar

If your vision of an outdoor bar involves a more permanent solution, one that may act as the main attraction of your eatery and serve hundreds of patrons a day, a portable bar won't be able to keep up with the demand. Instead, you should consider building a permanent outdoor bar as an expansion of your building, one with a back bar that can be closed up after hours and during the winter and be outfitted with full-size bar equipment.

Building a permanent outdoor bar is an ambitious undertaking, but can be well worth the investment if you create a setting that invites customers to spend their summer evenings there. You will need to hire a contractor to make an addition to your building or make the necessary modifications to your current patio. This could be as simple as modifying a wall to add a service area to your outdoor seating area or as complex as building a mini kitchen with all the proper utilities to service your equipment.

Whatever the project might entail, you'll almost certainly have to get approval from your local building authority. Your contractor will have to provide complete plans of what you intend to do, and the authorities at city hall will have to verify that is permitted by law and within your local building codes.

Investing in the Right Bar Equipment

Once you have the plans for your bar expansion sorted out, the next step in the process is to pick the equipment you'll put in your bar. For complete discussion of bar equipment and supplies, see our article on equipping your bar for success. Every successful bar has equipment from the following categories:

  • Commercial refrigeration for keeping all your drinks and mixers chilled to the right temperature.
  • Commercial ice machines for keeping plenty of ice on hand for frozen cocktails and drinks served on the rocks.
  • Bar Sinks for maintaining the proper rinse, wash, and sanitize procedures.
  • Bartending Supplies to give your mixologists the tools they need to concoct your customers' favorite drinks.

Outdoor Bar Drinkware

In addition to the heavy equipment for chilling and preparing drinks, you'll want to take care to choose the best bar drinkware for serving your patrons' favorite potables. That choice can be a little challenging for an outdoor bar. For the safety of customers and passersby, many local laws prohibit the use of glass drinkware in outdoor bar areas. Luckily, there's a wide range of plastic bar glasses available that mimic the look and feel of real glass. These come in all the major barware pieces, including cocktail glasses, beer glasses, wine glasses and shooters. Most can be washed in a commercial dishwasher and reused again and again.

Outdoor Furniture

Nearly as important as serving delectable drinks is having a comfortable environment for your guests to enjoy them in. The wide selection of outdoor furniture available ranges from simple, economical plastic and metal to seating with upholstered cushions. Your ultimate choice will depend on the budget set aside for that purchase, your bar's particular style, and the expectations of your customers.

Outdoor Chairs

  • Plastic is generally the most affordable and easy-to-maintain type of chair. Plastic chairs are durable and hold up to the elements very well. Many chairs in this category are made with a plastic body and metal legs, while others are made entirely of plastic. Plastic chairs may be inappropriate for upscale venues, but they're just fine for casual neighborhood watering holes.
  • Metal chairs vary dramatically in price, ranging from simple folding chairs available for less than $100 each to premium steel mesh chairs. Most outdoor metal chairs are made of steel or iron and are coated with a protective layer of paint or epoxy to protect them from corrosion and damage. If the chairs are handled roughly, that coating can be chipped and damaged to leave the steel underneath vulnerable to rust. Aluminum chairs, even those made of bare polished metal, will never rust, but are less resistant to bending and dinging than steel and iron chairs.
  • The ultimate outdoor seating solution is furniture with upholstered cushions. These bring with them the greatest level of comfort, but also the greatest demand for care and the highest price tag. While outdoor cushions are made to withstand the elements season after season, they must be regularly cleaned to maintain an ideal appearance. Outdoor chair cushions should still be taken inside when they're not being used, especially when the patio is closed for the season. If the cushions start to show dirt, they should be cleaned according to the manufacturer's guidelines or sent to a professional cleaning service.

Outdoor Tables and Umbrellas

Many of the above considerations also apply when you're choosing an outdoor bar table. Table bases are almost universally built of metal, and either rugged steel or rust-proof aluminum. Many items in this category include the table top and base together as one piece, but bases and tops are also sold separately so you may choose the pair that best matches your needs. Here's a rundown of the advantages of each table top style.

  • Laminate is the most economical option. This material is available in a variety of colors and finishes, including imitation wood, granite, marble, and other natural patterns. They're easy to clean but don't hold up to wear and tear as well as some of the alternatives.
  • Metal mesh tables offer a durable and low-maintenance solution. Their tops won't collect water, so they're ideal for patios that will be subjected to the occasional rain storm. They're generally built with coated iron or steel, which makes them heavy duty but susceptible to rust if they're damaged or neglected. Lighter-weight aluminum mesh tables are also available.
  • Solid-top metal and wood tables each provide a high-end aesthetic, though they do demand the most attention for care and cleaning, and may come at a higher initial cost.

On sunny summer afternoons, having patio umbrellas covering your tables is nearly as important as having tables to sit at. Choose a color that matches your dining furniture and be sure to order an umbrella base to pair with each one.