I AM DRAWN, LIKE MANY PEOPLE, TO ENTERTAINING Alfresco. There is something about being outdoors that invites camaraderie among guests and a relaxed ambience that encourages good times. Formal or informal, successful outdoor entertaining is enhanced by several key elements, including functional and good-looking furniture, pleasing lighting, a reliable grill and attractive accessories.

Unless you just plan to spread a picnic blanket under the shadiest tree in the yard, investing in some furniture has top priority. A redwood picnic table and benches will do, but in the last five years, a major trend has been to "bring the indoors outdoors," says Liz Roberts, merchandise manager for Casual Furniture Gallery.

This opens the door to all kinds of outdoor furniture, of which the dining table is most essential. The usual outdoor variety is a 48-inch round with a tempered glass top. Wrought iron, made by companies like Woodward, Lyon-Shaw and Meadowcraft, is drawing attention for 1991. Black and white are popular, but dark green is the color this year.

Mesh styling scores highest for outdoor use, particularly for poolside dining. The "meat and potatoes" of the Woodward line at Watson's Fireplace and Patio, says buyer Jennifer Cabell, is the Briarwood with its delicate floral design accenting the mesh. A pedestal table and four barrel chairs list for about $1,080. A word of caution -- wrought iron lasts forever, but it rusts. Be prepared to do some touch-up painting.

Aluminum frame tables are staples of the outdoor market because they are lightweight, maintenance-free, durable and cut across a wide price range. Well-known companies include Brown Jordan, Tropitone, Winston and Telescope.

In response to consumer demand for outdoor dining tables that comfortably seat more than four guests, companies have added larger oval and rectangle styles. Prices vary according to size, but generally a 72-inch table seats six and starts around $300, while a 90-inch table seats eight to 10 and starts about $400.

If you want a table that doesn't have a tempered glass top, look at the molded plastic/resin lines, made by companies like Grosfillex and Allibert. Tables can be lacquered or unlacquered, usually in white, and reflect a sleek, European look.

Grosfillex offers two outdoor extension tables, an oval model that goes from 64 inches to 91 inches ($1,140) and a second model that goes from 91 inches to 118 ($1,710), giving homeowners the option of seating additional guests with the insertion of one leaf. New on the market from Grosfillex is a resin-framed table with a tempered glass top that has a leaf for extra space.

Be warned that the quality of resin can differ markedly, even within company lines. Higher quality products resist fading and discoloring, withstand temperature extremes, clean easily with soap and water, remain cool in the sun, and can stay out all year.

Teak tables are beginning to attract attention. Heavy, durable, resistant to rot in even the most extremes of weather, teak loses its dark honey-brown sheen and becomes silvery with age. A staple on the English gardening scene since the 19th century, today's styles range from Edwardian to California Mission.

Barlow Tyrie offers a 5-foot rectangular table for just under $600. Brown Jordan has a dining table to seat eight, designed in the California Mission style, for around $1,200. A 48-inch table with four chairs is available from Kingsley-Bate for about $1,000.

If you have a table, can chairs be far behind? Surely not, since the most widely sold unit in casual furniture is a table with four matching chairs. These sets can range in price from about $350 to $2,000, depending on materials and design.

Traditional or boldly high-tech, chairs have either straps, slings -- a texiline mesh pulled tightly across the frame -- or cushions. Cushions come in a wide array of floral, striped and solid acrylic fabrics that resist fading, rotting and mildew. Cotton is not recommended for outdoor furniture. The color for spring: dark greens like hunter and forest.

Prices for chairs cover a wide range. Chairs come as low as $6 for a mono-block, resin chair that is stackable and perfect for additional party seating, to over $500 for a teak arm chair. Rubbermaid is bringing out a new resin Adirondack chair, priced under $70 at Hechinger stores.

While slings remain strong, the vinyl strip chair is receiving renewed interest, says Wina Reeve, merchandise manager for Stebbins Anderson. Straps are durable and easy to clean. The classic design is Brown Jordan's Tamiami with its crisscross pattern. List price for a 48-inch table and four chairs is around $1,250.

Benches and swings make great additional seating for parties. The park bench variety, usually cast aluminum frames with oak rails, is popular. Kings River Casting makes a 4-foot Victorian-styled bench for around $260. Teak garden benches are stirring up interest. A plain, slated one from Barlow Tyrie lists around $770, while an elaborate Sissinghurst design is about $2,400. Lloyd Flanders offers an all-weather wicker porch swing, listing at $853.

A serving cart, sometimes called a tea cart or ranch cart, is extremely helpful for entertaining, usually serving as a bar. Most have casters or wheels and two shelves, which can be glass, resin, wrought-iron mesh, or even teak.

Woodward has a small tea cart with a mesh top for under $300. An all-weather wicker tea cart from Lloyd Flanders is $564. For just under $800, you can get a contemporary bar cart from Brown Jordon. A lacquered resin buffet cart with three shelves from Grosfillex is priced at $1,140. And at the top of the line is a teak serving trolley complete with two removable trays, bottle holders, cutlery trays, wineglass storage and ceramic tile work surface from Barlow Tyrie for $1,300.

Wrought-iron baker's racks and etageres, usually with two or more glass or mesh shelves, can be used to display accessories or act as a buffet. Lyon-Shaw has a wrought-iron mesh style for under $280. Lloyd Flanders, the company that pioneered weaving latex-coated fibers on aluminum cores to resemble wicker, offers an etagere for about $1,100.

Bar stools are made by several companies in aluminum and wrought iron. They can have straps, slings or cushions. Brown Jordan makes a high-style, sling stool for around $420. Winston has a strap model for $162, a sling for $290 and a cushion stool for $409. Wrought-iron stools start around $230 and go up. Bars, which can serve as buffets, are also available. Winston has a square bar, with a hole for an umbrella and holders for bottles, priced at $445.

If you really want to create a room on your patio or deck, a good choice might be Lloyd Flanders or Lane Venture's new Weathermaster furniture, natural wicker treated with a special chemical painting process to protect it from the outside elements. Sofas, love seats, lounge chairs, ottomans, coffee tables, end tables, sofa tables are available. A five-piece grouping can cost from $2,000 to $3,000.

The most handsome furniture won't impress guests if they can't see it. Dining by candlelight under the stars may be romantic for two, but night entertaining on a larger scale usually requires more light. Landscape lighting is one way to brighten patios, decks and areas around pools.

While security light is usually very bright and glaring, architectural lighting -- to highlight special landscape features -- and decorative lighting -- where the fixture is part of the design scheme -- provide pools of light that softly enhance a patio, deck, garden or pool area. But keep in mind, says Susan Dickinson, merchandising manager at Dorman's Lighthouse, that "a little light goes a long way on a dark evening."

Three options are available for landscape lighting. The 120-volt system -- standard house power -- is permanent, durable, powerful and must be installed by an electrician. The 12-volt system is a popular choice for homeowners who wish to add light to their entertaining space, but who don't want to cause a major disturbance to lawns or gardens.

Low voltage is safe, the cable can be just below ground level or even under mulch, and it can be moved as plants grow or landscaping designs change. The system can be a do-it-yourself project, but it does require a transformer (priced between $100 and $250).

Fixtures can be welled underground for dramatic uplighting, hung in trees or from sunshades for downlighting, positioned close to the ground for accent, spread and path lighting, and attached to deck rails. Industry leaders include Hadco, Kim, Hanover and Lightolier.

Custom-made outside lighting is available from companies like Arroyo Craftsman, which makes handcrafted brass lanterns priced from $200.

Generally, prices for landscape lighting fixtures range from around $35 for a small aluminum spotlight to $400 for an elaborate Oriental lantern in cast bronze. Most people buy at least three fixtures for a particular project. Landscape lighting is available in kits from companies like Brinkmann-Solar, Malibu and Toro.

In a separate category are all-weather, electric patio lights. Olympia makes table lamps, floor lamps and umbrella lamps that have all exposed parts encased in a special plastic coating so they can be used on the outside. The lamps come in 47 colors, and range from $140 for a table lamp to $195 for a floor lamp. The three-armed, three-globed electric fixture that clamps onto an umbrella pole is about $210. Olympia also has a string of eight globe party lights for $375.

If budget or time constraints limit these more permanent types of outdoor lighting, consider patio torches. Lamplight Farms has a beachcomber model that will burn citronella for about six hours, and costs $16.95. Tag makes a citronella-wax torch (4/$8.95 at Watson's) on a 4-foot bamboo stick that will burn for three or four hours. Weber, the company that makes the grill, also makes a large kerosene torch, with a snuffer cap to protect the wick and fuel supply from the rain, for under $40.

Baltimore Building and Supply Co. sells Tiki electric patio lights, in all colors, for $15. At Dorman's Lighthouse, you can order custom-made strings of one-watt patio lights for $10 per foot with a transformer. Susan Dickinson says they are great for stringing under deck rails. One tip from Bob Jones, vice president at Valley Lighting: Add a dimmer switch to security floodlights to control the brightness and comfortably light an entertaining area.

Outdoor lighting greatly facilitates nighttime barbecuing on any type of grill -- charcoal, gas or electric. Generally, gas grills are the most popular because of push-button start mechanisms and the quick heat-up times (10 minutes compared to 30 to 45 minutes for a charcoal grill), but some barbecue fans complain that food cooked over gas does not have the authentic taste of food cooked over charcoal.

Electric grills are convenient and easy to use -- just plug them in and grill. Stebbins Anderson has the Meco line, ranging in price from $119 for a table-top model to $199 for a cart-type grill. Electric grills are small, usually with one burner. They aren't a good choice if you grill for a crowd. But, they are safe for apartment and condo balconies.

A number of companies -- Sunbeam, Charbroil, Thermos, Charmglow -- make grills. The Hechinger Co. is offering a wider variety of manufacturers in prices ranging from $129 to $529 for gas and $29.99 to $159 for charcoal. Specialty stores in the Baltimore metropolitan area seem to favor Weber or Ducane.

Weber, the company that pioneered the kettle cooker, has charcoal grills, ranging from under $45 for the table-top Smokey Joe model and going up to around $300. The most popular model is the One Touch kettle with a 22-inch grill for around $80. A major selling point for the Weber kettle is an attached lever that adjusts the bottom vents to easily sweep out the ashes. Closing the vent extinguishes the fire. Weber also offers a smoker for just under $200.

In 1985, Weber introduced a gas barbecue that has patented flavorizer bars to reduce flare-ups. Weber gas grills start about $450 and go up. Top of the line is the Genesis V model, priced under $830, that includes two warming racks, a storage area, a smoker, two swing-up work areas, and a range-style side burner to heat sauces, coffee and to "even steam crabs" says Meg Gilmore, manager at Watson's Garden Center. Weber gas grills can be permanently installed. Fire Magic makes grills, gas and charcoal, that can be built into a patio area. Units start around $350, not including construction costs.

Ducane makes eight gas grills ranging in price from $450 to $1,800. The Southfork model was originally created for the set of TV's "Dallas." It includes not only a cooking unit, but enclosed storage space, a hot and cold compartment with a hood, two cutting boards, an ice chest and a condiment tray. The price is around $1,400. Ducane also makes a gourmet food cart with a nice storage area, ice chest, bar and refreshment shelves, cutting board and other accouterments.

Grill accessories are really coming on strong for 1991. "The idea," says Ms. Gilmore, "is to be able to cook anything outside that you can cook in the kitchen." Accessories include all types of tools including forks, tongs, basting brushes, and turners in stainless steel and chrome, some with hardwood handles; plus racks to hold ribs, roasts, shish kebabs and potatoes. Prices range from $7 to $60.

Grilling baskets in all sizes and shapes are convenient for cooking fish and hamburgers. Charcoal Companion has a grilling grid that prevents small pieces of food from slipping through the grates for about $22.

With furniture, lighting and a grill, you can entertain quite well outside. Accessories add zip. A hot item for the 1991 season is the market umbrella. Based on the umbrella that European street vendors put over their stands, market umbrellas are traditionally made with wood poles and ribs and a large, cotton canvas shade in white or beige. Today cotton is usually replaced with acrylics, sometimes in bright, solid colors.

Market umbrellas usually start around $270, but can go up to $2,000. Basta Sole is a top name, but casual furniture companies have jumped into the act with their own versions. Telescope has an 8-foot model with an oak pole for under $240. One strong point for market umbrellas, says Casual Furniture Gallery's Liz .. Roberts, is that they look as good standing alone or shading plants and lounge chairs as they do covering tables.

Standard umbrellas are probably the most popular patio accessory, not only for shade, but for the colorful, summertime flavor they give to furniture groupings. For entertaining, they can shade bars and buffets. While open-weave mesh fabrics that match chairs are strong, Ms. Roberts says there is renewed interest in the solid-colored vinyl umbrellas that really keep out the sun. Umbrellas are usually round, 7 1/2 to 8 1/2 feet, but some firms are adding new oval shapes. Prices range from about $100 to $400. Hint from Ms. Roberts -- "Always test-drive an umbrella in the store to make sure you can manage putting it up and down."

An unusual accessory that is gaining in popularity is the outdoor fireplace. Weber offers a model that burns real wood and has a heat shield so that it can be used on decks as well as patios and grassy areas. The fireplace is priced just under $100.

Bird cages, birdhouses and bird feeders are items that have captured the consumer's fancy, not only for their practical applications, but for their decorative value. Lady Slipper offers a sophisticated line of all-wood, all-white birdhouses patterned after Victorian homes, Colonial cottages, old-fashioned schoolhouses, traditional mansions. Prices range from $60 to $80. Several import firms are bringing in Victorian and gazebo-styled bird cages in wire and wood. Average price is around $110.

Electric fountains are appearing in garden stores. Copper Fountain makes a handcrafted, copper and brass model that is self-contained and recycles the water through its system. The fountains sit on garden pedestals, table tops or hang on walls. Fountains run about $329.

Also on the market for patio and garden areas are accent sculptures from companies like Hen Feathers. Made from a marble-resin combination, Hen Feathers sculptures -- bunnies, children, frogs -- come in a variety of designs, in finishes like verdigris and lead, and start at about $20.

Planters are popular. They can run from terra-cotta pots to old-fashioned wicker boxes on legs. Lloyd Flanders makes one in all-weather wicker for $219. Cube planters made of white resin are popular and durable. Grosfillex offers them from $6 to $100, ++ depending on size.

Table-top accessories range from napkin holders to salad bowls. If you plan to entertain often on your deck, patio or around your pool, an investment in some dishwasher-proof, plastic glassware and tableware is worthwhile.

For years, Stotter has been making plastic glassware ($3.50), ice buckets ($22) and trays ($13) from traditional summer patterns, like the shell, to abstract and art deco designs in bold colors. The watermelon pattern is a bright look for this season. Stotter also makes latex fish-net place mats in the basic colors and fashion colors like mauve, violet, apricot, peach and turquoise. The place mats come in oval or wedge shapes, cost $3.50 each, and are machine washable.

Precisioncraft makes a sophisticated, contemporary line of plastic tableware, which includes wineglasses, mugs, goblets, trays, pitchers, salad bowls, tumblers and even dinner plates. Colors include a periwinkle, a green, black and a pattern with a sunburst design that looks very much like fine glass. Prices range from $5 for a plate or glass to $30 for a tray or large salad bowl. Ancapa makes flatware with melamine handles in a variety of summertime colors. A fork, knife and spoon cost around $3.75.

So from spoon to dining table, you can find just what you need to make entertaining alfresco a special event. And, keep in mind that most of the prices quoted are suggested manufacturer's list prices. Prices on all items vary store to store. For extra savings, look for outdoor furniture sales in March and April and grill promotions in June, July and August.

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