Going Out to Eat: Best Buys in Outdoor Dining Sets

With warm weather finally here, it’s time to get outside and enjoy the season. The latest in outdoor dining sets has upped the ante on comfort and table space.

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Innovations in outdoor dining sets tend to ripple on the surface, rather than crash against the shore. For 2012, we uncovered a smattering of new ideas, including solid-surface materials, new comfort options among chairs, and larger and extendable tables. The result is that today’s outdoor dining sets cater to a wider range of tastes than ever before.

MATERIAL CHANGES. In what once was a niche category for outdoor furniture, we found that chairs and tables that are constructed of solid-surface materials are entering the mainstream. These products are suited particularly to homes that are along saltwater coasts, where furniture is bombarded by the salt and sand that come with the territory or touched by bodies that are bathed in suntan lotion and oil. Although these factors can discolor fabrics, we found that furniture that’s made from materials such as Corian, Sky (an acrylic polymer that includes aluminum trihydrate) and a marine-grade polymer (common in boat manufacturing) won’t stain, don’t require special treating, resist humidity and require only soap and water to clean.

“We added a collection of stainless steel and Corian furniture for 2012,” says Robert M. Tandet of furniture retailer Allegro Classics. “The performance is expected to be superior to wood and synthetic wovens.” 

We found no evidence to support the claims about outdoor dining sets that are made from solid-surface materials, although the newness of the concept likely figures into the absence of validation of the claims.

However, solid-surface outdoor dining sets come at a premium price, particularly for models that are made out of Corian. 

You’ll pay at least $2,900 for a solid-surface outdoor dining set that consists of a table and four chairs that are made out of a marine-grade polymer. Our economy Best Buy recommendation in metal outdoor dining sets has a price of $1,498 and has six chairs (two of which are swivel rockers), and our economy Best Buy recommendation in wood outdoor dining sets (four chairs) is priced at $2,570. For comparison, Allegro Classics’ stainless-steel-and-Corian outdoor dining collection exceeds $11,000 for a 55-inch-square table and four chairs.

Meanwhile, a new hardwood has found its way into today’s outdoor dining sets—ipé. Ipé is a South American hardwood that’s denser than teak is, so it achieves a silvery patina at a slower pace and, thus, maintains its color longer than do other types of wood.

Mary Fruehauf, who owns Fruehauf’s Patio & Garden in Boulder, Colo., has carried ipé outdoor dining sets since 2009 and says the price of ipé models is comparable with that of similarly styled teak outdoor dining sets. We confirmed that. For example, we found a 48-inch-round ipé table that costs $1,350 and a similarly styled 51-inch-round teak table that costs $1,299.

For consumers who are concerned that harvesting ipé damages the Brazilian rainforest, you should know that some ipé furniture, like that of teak and eucalyptus, carries green certification from independent third-party groups. Products that have such certification have a proven chain of custody that ensures that the wood was harvested responsibly and legally. Although some contend that certification adds to a product’s cost, our comparison of certified and noncertified outdoor dining sets didn’t reveal a notable price difference.

GRAB A SEAT. Form follows function in outdoor dining chairs. Sure, you want the chairs to look appealing, but if they aren’t comfortable or functional, you risk the possibility that your party guests won’t stay past the burgers and brats. 

For added comfort, a few manufacturers now include padded sling chairs in their outdoor dining sets. Padded sling chairs are a compromise solution for those who want more comfort than they would get from a typical sling chair but don’t want to pay for a full cushion chair.

Padding adds at least $130 to the price of a sling chair, compared with a typical unpadded model, depending on the grade of the fabric that’s chosen. But that’s still significantly less than the premium that a fully cushioned chair adds. A dining chair that has a cushion in the same collection starts at about $460 more per chair than an unpadded sling chair costs. 

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