- Illustrations by Mr Nick Hardcastle
- Words by Mr Dan Davies and Ms Sophie Dening
Eating outdoors is idealised, not least by those of us whose lives are spent cowering under pregnant, slate-grey skies (and that's only when summer really gets into its stride). Dining alfresco (Italian for "outside, at a fresh temperature" - or "in jail", depending on which dictionary you're using) conjures quintessential images of the Mediterranean: weathered tables, artfully mismatched chairs, gingham tablecloths, soft loaves and bottles of wine replenished by waiters working via telepathy. Blue skies, the sun on your skin and lazy afternoons that turn into pleasantly drunken evenings. Good times.
Or not. Whatever experts say about the science of food tasting better in the great outdoors or the psychological benefits of feeling closer to nature, there are pitfalls awaiting the northern European who remains blindly determined to follow the lead of his southern cousins (even after they've protested loudly that they really don't eat outside as often as we imagine they do).
Let us begin with nature, as we seem to become preoccupied with it once the sun comes out. In case you hadn't noticed, humans are not alone among God's children in enjoying the warm weather. Insects live for it, and their attitude seems to be that if we're eating outside, then they'll invite themselves along too. Just look across the terrace or garden at the diner waving their arms around in a manner that suggests they're attempting to park a particularly large plane in a hurry. Let that person be a reminder to you of the pleasures of dive-bombing wasps, flies gleefully doing the backstroke in your gravy and bees committing alcoholic suicide in your freshly poured glass of rose.
Then, when the weather gets really warm, there are the additional delights of mosquitoes. Do you protect yourself with socks and endure the sensation of your feet squelching in sweat, swathe yourself in so much insect repellent that your eyes water, or spend a good portion of the meal scratching furiously at the freshly sucked welts around your ankles? No, you just take the sensible option and eat inside.
Further up the food chain, things don't get much better. Anyone who has tried eating fish and chips out of the paper in a British seaside town will testify to the perils of seagulls swooping out of the skies like demented extras from Jurassic Park. In cities, it's their witless relations, the pigeons, with their grotesque knobs of chewed Hubba Bubba masquerading as feet and dollops of avian mayonnaise delivered with unerring accuracy from on high. When it comes to dining, my view is that birds should either be chirping from distant trees or arrive served up on a plate.
Dogs have no place at the table either, and yet they have become a fixture in the gardens of so-called "dog friendly" gastro pubs. Tell me what's so friendly about catching sight of a random canine meticulously lapping at its nether region when you're about to take a mouthful of over-priced food? The same goes for "child-friendly" outdoor eating spaces, unless of course your idea of a relaxing meal is the cacophonous backdrop of kids crying, falling over, hitting each other, being stung by wasps or admonished by flustered parents for picking bits of food off the floor that have presumably been left behind by the flies, pigeons and dogs.
Of course, dining alfresco is all about the weather but there are too many permutations to make it anything but a precarious experience. If it's too hot and you're in the wrong chair, you'll sweat through your shirt and be heading home with a sore head and the sunburn equivalent of Mr David Bowie's Aladdin Sane character; if you're in the shade, what are you doing eating outside in the first place? Forget your sunglasses and you'll spend the meal squinting like a daytime drunk (however much or little you've had to drink); wear them and you won't be able to properly appreciate the food on the plate before you. If the wind gets up you'll be contending with waves in your gazpacho; if it rains - or if you're in the UK, when it rains - you'll be cursing yourself for being so stupid.
Not all the myriad drawbacks to dining in the open air can be blamed on mother nature, of course. The indoor smoking ban has transformed outside areas into muster stations for furtive puffers, and if the acrid waft of cigarettes doesn't put you off your food, the proximity of the wall-mounted ashtrays - or the dustbins, surely will.
If only every terrace offered the bucolic charm and tranquillity of the one at the late El Bulli on the Costa Brava. The reality, however, is rather different. The desire to eat under the sun or the stars means that we all too often pretend away the drone of passing traffic, passenger jets or the incessant rattling of the air-conditioning unit, positioned conveniently above your head. Diners wouldn't be expected to put up with such noise pollution inside a restaurant, so why do we become so tolerant when outside?
Then there is the paranoia, a by-product of the devil-may-care attitude many exhibit when consuming their dinner in the great outdoors. If you're seated at a table on the street in a big city, and you're anything like me, you'll be concentrating less on the menu than on patting the pocket of your trousers to ensure that your iPhone and wallet haven't been hoisted. That and reminding your wife or date that she really shouldn't leave her handbag gaping like an open invitation to passing pickpockets. Both have the net result of rather killing the romance of the setting (unless, of course, you're sitting directly underneath the air-conditioning unit, from where she won't be able to hear what you're saying anyway).
To cap it all off, you're destined to spend most of your outside time waving at the waiter to try to get his attention. The problem is, he will almost certainly think you are being attacked by a wasp, fending off the attentions of a particularly hungry pigeon or throwing your hands up in despair at the fact that your toddler has just had his first course from the wheelie bins. Good luck with it all. I'll be eating inside and watching it all through an open window.