Elegant Wedding: Dining Out

From Barbecue to a beachfront banquet, when you're planning your wedding meal outdoors, the sky's the limit

Picnics at the lake, buttery fresh crabs caught at the Jersey Shore, the tangy island barbecue that was the highlight of a trip to the Caribbean — the most memorable meals all seem to have two ingredients in common: fresh air and sunshine. It makes sense, then, as you plan what you’ll want to be the most memorable meal

PICNICS AT THE LAKE, BUTTERY FRESH CRABS CAUGHT AT THE JERSEY SHORE, the tangy island barbecue that was the highlight of a trip to the Caribbean — the most memorable meals all seem to have two ingredients in common: fresh air and sunshine. It makes sense, then, as you plan what you’ll want to be the most memorable meal of your life, to think about ways to bring those fresh flavors and great memories to the table. Whether you’re an alfresco fiend or a member of the more traditional white-tablecloth-and-candlelight set, it’s easy to plan an outdoor meal to fit your vision, from a family-style cookout to a formal garden party.


It’s no coincidence that the height of wedding season hits from May through September, when the weather is perfect for outdoor meals. Local caterers say the majority of their bridal business occurs outside. “It might be a farm or house where the bride grew up, or if they summered at the beach they might get married at the beach,” says Jon Weinrott, who, with his wife, Lori, owns Peachtree & Ward, a catering company in Willow Grove. “Some people want it to be more rustic, and some people want it to be absolutely ballroomlike.”

Peachtree has done its share of both, although Weinrott estimates that two-thirds of his business is what he calls “events in tents” — formal, sit-down meals with cocktails, dinner and dancing under the requisite canopy. Tents are virtually unavoidable at outdoor venues, providing insurance against rain and shade from the heat, but you can get creative with how you use them. One of Weinrott’s brides negotiated with the rental company so she could decide within a six-hour window whether to take the tent down. For another wedding at the Jersey Shore, the bride and groom walked through a canopylike, muslin-covered walkway down to the beach, had the ceremony performed by the ocean, and then proceeded back through a series of three tents, stopping at each for cocktails, dinner and dancing.

For more casual events, food stations and buffets fare just as well outdoors, although they may cost more than a sit-down meal. “We do stations quite a bit,” says Jeffrey Miller, owner of the Philadelphia catering company of the same name. “It’s more like a party and less like a banquet. I think that’s the way to go, especially when you’re outdoors.” For one casual wedding, he even spread linens on the grass and served the meal picnic-style, in wicker hampers.


WARM WEATHER LETS YOU TAKE ADVANTAGE of delicious seasonal foods. “When you’re outdoors, your mind does naturally tend toward light food casually served,” says Miller. “Typical summer picnic-style foods like fingerling potato salad, a pasta bar.” He encourages room-temperature or cold entrees. “You don’t want a hot mushroom bisque in July,” he says. But that doesn’t mean skipping the soup course. Miller serves gazpacho shooters in tiny shot glasses, or begins a meal with chilled cantaloupe soup.

Cucumber and fresh fruit such as strawberries also make good chilled soups, says Jerry Diehl, co-owner of Perfect Setting Catering in Berwyn. “It’s all about the summer bounty, things that are fresh and pop,” he says. That includes everything from chicken with mango-papaya salsa to a grilled veggie platter drizzled with lemon aioli. And, of course, salad. “Most people will do an interesting seasonal salad, like a tomato and mozzarella and basil salad that has a lot of color, texture and taste,” says Deborah Diehl, who co-owns the business with her husband. “And grilled corn is great, but some brides think it’s too casual. So we might put it in a salad: corn and black-bean and cilantro salad.”

Weinrott’s signature salad is a baby Caesar, served from a bowl made from a hollowed-out wheel of parmesan cheese. “We peel off parmesan from the wheel as we toss the salad,” he says. He’s also fielded requests for pasta served the same way, and for heirloom tomato salad.

The No. 1 request for a first course Peter Callahan gets in the summer months is for his Caprese salad: tomato, buffalo mozzarella, basil and olive oil. “It’s really simple, but it catches the essence of summer,” says Callahan, whose catering business has offices in Philadelphia and New York. He has also been experimenting with microgreens and herbs. “I use a flowering bok choy with teeny little yellow flowers,” he says. “Put that on any first course and it makes it look so beautiful and seasonal.”


IF YOU PREFER THE SCENT OF CHARCOAL TO GARDEN-FRESH PRODUCE, don’t rule out grilling. Callahan recently catered a beach wedding where the entree consisted of three gourmet versions of that American standard, the hamburger. Each plate had organic, free-range beef on a homemade bun, a wild-mushroom burger and a sushi tuna burger, plus a zucchini boat filled with summer greens and melted pecorino cheese, and a monogrammed paper cone filled with frites. “It’s basically hamburgers and fries,” says Callahan, “but it looks extremely attractive, is very fun and delicious. No one at this wedding will be saying, ‘I flew all the way from California and I’m getting hamburgers for dinner?’”

More classic grilling menus include everything from porterhouses and filets, where guests can choose their own cut of beef, to whole grilled branzino, a Mediterranean fish. “People might do a mixed grill, with fresh Maine lobster or a slice of lamb on the grill accompanied by, say, a vegetable tower with grilled eggplant and zucchini,” says Weinrott.

While most brides tend to shy away from classic (read: sloppy) barbecue fare, a skilled caterer can make just about any food wedding-ready. “Instead of ribs, you could do short ribs Tex-Mex style and serve it on biscuits,” says Weinrott.

Barbecue isn’t strictly ribs and burgers. The Diehls have done Southwestern and Polynesian themes, including one island-themed wedding menu that included grilled pineapple and chicken satay, seared swordfish ribbons marinated in ginger and lemongrass, and a slow-roasted pig carved to order. At the couple’s request, Perfect Setting served alligator sausage and macadamia-nut-crusted ostrich bites as hors d’oeuvres, and capped off the evening with Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and a piña colada wedding cake.

For another bride who had traveled all over South America, the Diehls made Brazilian churrasco, a classic South American style of barbecue where beef is marinated in salt, lime and garlic. “Classically, it is carved off a spit,” says Jerry. “We modified it for Paoli, and served it London-broil style. It was phenomenal.”


SEAFOOD AT A BEACH WEDDING ISN’T A REQUIREMENT, but it is usually a highlight. If shrimp cocktail bores you, Perfect Setting offers a seafood martini of grilled shrimp and scallops, and lump crab on seaweed salad, or try a Caribbean crabmeat cocktail from Peachtree & Ward: jumbo lump crab, mango, lime, peanuts and toasted sesame oil. Weinrott also makes a layered lobster salad with slices of celery root topped with truffle oil.

The ever-popular raw bar is a natural fit for the outdoors, says Callahan, but why reserve seafood for the sideshow when you can serve it for the main course? “When you’re outside, serving a fish entree is totally appropriate,” he says. He recommends swordfish chops, which he calls “a really delicious seasonal food that reflects the summer.”

Other alternatives to beef or lamb include Jersey Shore bluefish and soft-
shell crabs (in season). “We do whole braised baby tuna, grilled red snapper, a lot of grilled salmon,” says Miller. “And some nice seafood salads with scallops, squid, a little octopus and a lime vinaigrette.” Also popular is the lobster salad, made with asparagus, grapefruit segments and baby lettuce, and Miller’s tuna sashimi cones, which he makes with cilantro, chili oil and lime juice.

For the true beach-lover, though, nothing is more authentic than the clambake Miller concocted for one couple. “We dug a big pit in the ground, lined it with stones and built a fire. When the stones got hot, we threw seaweed over the embers and had lobsters, clams and corn on the cob.”


NO SUMMER MEAL IS COMPLETE WITHOUT a frozen dessert. Minis are popular: Miller butlers shot glasses of milkshakes and his personal favorite, tiny ice cream cones, and serves petite scoops of lime, peach and strawberry sorbet on a bed of crushed dry ice with greens. Callahan does his own version of mini ice cream cones, along with tiny popsicles. “It conjures up images of everyone’s childhoods, evenings spent on the beach,” he says. He also uses lemon sorbet mixed with prosecco and vodka in his crowd-pleasing Italian frozen drink,
sgroppino, a suitable dessert substitute.

For weddings in the heat of summer, look for desserts with a higher melting point, such as Peachtree’s baked peaches with lemon verbena ice cream. Or choose a dessert where melting is part of the fun: Both Miller and Weinrott have featured that campfire favorite, s’mores. “We had a wedding in Delaware in June where we dug firepits and had make-your-own s’mores,” says Weinrott. “It was a beautiful night. People had dinner in the tent, then wandered around the grounds.” An evening like that, he says, is something you can’t re-create indoors. “At the end of the day, the fanciest hotel ballroom isn’t going to compare to your house in the country where you grew up.