When the temps rise, indoor seats empty as diners head outside to eat their meals with a side of fresh air and sunshine. “The dynamics change as the weather gets warmer,” says Kerry Paterson, director of residential dining and catering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. Sure, there’s the standard grill fare—burgers, brats, barbecue—but operators are looking beyond the obvious to creatively cater to alfresco dining cravings.
Shell that seafood
At Oregon State, students celebrate the end-of-semester warm weather with outdoor dining events such as a Southern-inspired crawfish boil. The tiny crustaceans are served family-style, dumped from metal buckets onto tables covered with red-and-white-checked plastic tablecloths, Paterson says. Side dishes include potato wedges, corn coblets, jalapeno cornbread and sliced watermelon.
Try tacos and tostadas
Last fall, University of Cincinnati added a flat-top grill to its patio at MarketPointe, a dining center near two residence halls. Jonathan Hunt, executive chef with University Dining Services, has had success with Mexican-inspired dishes such as tacos with fish or carnitas. One memorable hit was braised pork tostadas topped with lettuce, radish, avocado, jalapeno and chili-lime ranch dressing. “Everything about that screams summer,” he says.
Paterson featured tapas stations, inspired by costal Spain, in a dining event last June held at OSU campus garden Callahan Food Forest, incorporating ingredients grown on-site. “It goes with fresh and healthier-type eating, smaller portions, and mixing and mingling and walking around,” Paterson says. Offerings included blackberry-sage agua fresca and gazpacho with ajo blanco, hazelnuts and cilantro vinaigrette.
Dining Services Director Colin Targett, who designs menus for Unidine’s corporate accounts and also manages Cafe 1000 at Unidine’s headquarters, turns to Mediterranean-inspired flavors for the summer season. “Traditional Greek salad does not have lettuce in it. It has peppers, feta, tomatoes, kalamata olives, some chopped mint in there,” Targett says. “So I’m going to take that and add fennel to give it a little twist, and we’re going to do grilled lamb kebab served with charred-tomato yogurt dressing.”
To take advantage of a gas fire pit on the MarketPointe patio at University of Cincinnati, Hunt planned a campfire-inspired evening with s’more kits. “We bought what we call the PC graham crackers—portion control, two in a bag—put a marshmallow on a wooden bamboo skewer, about 10 inches [long], and took a piece of chocolate and stuck those three things in a cup.”