1,001 Arabian bites: Eating and the outdoors prove a mismatch

For the insider types who shun it, al fresco dining is more nuisance than delight.

A picnic on the beach might sound like the pinnacle of midsummer pleasure to some people, but I'm not one of them. To me, beaches put the "sand" in "sandwich"; a guarantee that grit will finds its way between turkey and mustard, and eventually, into everything from the pink lemonade to the secret inner pockets of your sundress. At the end of your picnic, you'll have to clean up the mess. There will be the cooler, sloshing with melted ice, the stack of disposable drink cups decorated with sticky ant carcasses, and a few remaining sandwiches damp with condensation and sea spray. After you've brushed a flurry of greasy potato chip crumbs from the picnic blanket and knocked the plug of wet sand from the spout of the flask of tea, you can defile the boot of your car with your sand-encrusted picnic cargo and be on your merry way.

Like those mesmerising chocolate fountains at all-you-can-eat buffets, the dogged insistence so many people have on dining outdoors sometimes seems to rest on an erroneous assumption: when you combine two good things - in this case, food and the outdoors - the result is one terrific thing. But al fresco dining, to the insider types who shun it, is an obsession whose popularity seems to elude practicality and circumstance. Relentless, inescapable, and conducive to the polar extremes of formal (weddings) and casual dining (camping), it accommodates pedestrian activity and reinforces the general vibrancy and joie de vivre associated with urban spaces.

In the UAE, a restaurant's longevity during peak seasons relies enormously on an abundance of outdoor seating, particularly during winters, when the night air is sublime. If, by some quirk of dated upkeep, a terrible clerical error were to revoke the ordinances allowing Abu Dhabi's late-night shisha joints, beachside and rooftop cafés and the sandwich shops where boys congregate outside to drink layered juices in the lurid glow of streetlights, the sociocultural artery of the UAE would be forced into atrophic paralysis. Beirut would be unrecognisable without the throngs and endless columns of outdoor seating that skirt the walkways of the city centre. Paris is romanticised for its pavement cafés. New York City's street food is so fantastic that it can be hard to resist in an effort to save room for seated meals.

I generally dislike dining al fresco at restaurants. I'm a curmudgeon; wind annoys me and pollen makes me sneeze. I dislike car exhaust, sun stroke, cigarette smoke, pigeons divebombing the table, people staring at my food, weather. It's not fair to expect a waiter to be responsible for al fresco diners' satisfaction, or expect a restaurant to control the elements, annoying flies, or absorb the cost of losing yet another drink to a renegade autumn leaf or a twig that falls from the big tree you're sitting under. I'd rather be enclosed in a restaurant's dining room with my food, assuming it's air-conditioned, smoke-free, free of insects, exhaust fumes, the elements, pigeons and passersby looking at my food.

Fortunately, this means I can usually find a seat indoors during the months when most people want to sit outside, even at the most crowded restaurants. And this takes care of another uncomfortable problem for me: eating in full view of the hungry people awaiting your table. Unlike those who see eating and the outdoors as a perfect match, I view it as more of a business relationship, riddled with stipulations and contingencies. But having recently acquired my first home patio set, I feel like my life has been divided into pre-patio and post-patio chapters. Key factors of awesome: proximity to home, freedom to change position to avoid or bask in sunlight, privacy, handicap accessibility.

During the golden sunset hour, with some good company and a big bowl of watermelon on the lazy susan, a patio is a beautiful thing. Plus factors include proximity to home, freedom to change position to avoid or bask in sunlight, privacy. I don't own a grill (yet) and I don't have an amazing garden (yet), but having found a way to embrace al fresco dining, just give me time. It's summer after all. No need to rush.

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