8 of California's Finest Outdoor Group Dining Experiences

September 25, 2019

From a farm-to-table meal in San Diego and a dock-and-dine outing in Newport Beach to a cocktail reception with resident giraffes in Greater Palm Springs, we sniffed out eight of the best one-of-a-kind outdoor dining experiences across the state for your next California event.

1. Farm-to-Table Dining in San Diego

Did you know? San Diego County has the largest number of small farms per capita than any other county in the country. 

It’s not common knowledge, but Epicurean San Diego aims to get the word out by introducing groups to the local agriculture community via casual outdoor farm-to-table experiences that allow meeting attendees time to relax and mingle while enjoying delicious food and drinks. 

Epicurean San Diego
Epicurean San Diego

A typical farm outing includes a welcome reception, a tour with the farmer and a locally sourced meal served family-style at a long table.

“We essentially create a pop-up dining experience that is completely unique to each client,” said Stephanie Parker, Epicurean’s director of culinary experiences. “We can custom-tailor everything from decor and florals to cocktails and cuisine.” 

Planners are invited to help customize the menu, which could feature anything from Mexican- or Italian-inspired dishes to seafood or vegan food. 

2. San Francisco Food Trucks

The food truck craze has rolled into California and it’s not going anywhere, especially in big cities like San Francisco.

San Francisco’s largest food truck park, SoMa StrEat Food Park, is available to host events of all sizes and will satisfy an array of cravings. Groups can line up at trucks that serve, among many other dishes, Korean fried chicken, gyros, wood-fired pizzas and Argentinian pastries. 

“The park collaborates with over 250 unique and gourmet Bay Area street food vendors to offer a diverse dining experience each day,” said owner Carlos Muela.

SoMa StrEat Food Park is available for buyouts for up to 1,000 people. Groups of up to 70 people can rent the renovated classic yellow school bus and deck, and the open-air barn accommodates up to 200.

Muela is also the owner of Parklab Gardens, another outdoor San Francisco option that accommodates corporate buyouts and features rotating food trucks.

Parklab sports an 18-hole miniature golf course that may appeal to groups seeking to pair a teambuilding activity with a food truck meal.  

3. Open-Air Culinary Creations in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is an epicenter of culinary creativity where groups will enjoy local dining experiences curated by influential tastemakers, according to Darren K. Green, SVP of sales for Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board

It’s also a place where meeting attendees will want to spend some time outside.

“There’s no better way for groups to experience authentic LA than dining al fresco at our endless array of inviting outdoor opportunities, from hotels and rooftops to oceanfront restaurants and new open-air destinations like City Market South in Downtown’s Fashion District,” Green said.

City Market South, located just one mile from the Los Angeles Convention Center, is a retail and dining destination where groups can book an outdoor meal function at Rossoblu, an Italian restaurant, or DAMA, a Latin-inspired restaurant and bar.

4. Wild Dinner Guests in Greater Palm Springs

It’s a must to plan an outdoor dining experience in Greater Palm Springs, according to Anne Marie Mourhess, national sales manager for the Greater Palm Springs CVB

She said groups have many settings to choose from, including scenic resort lawns with mountains as the backdrop and unique offsite venues like The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens

All manner of group events, including meetings and teambuilding sessions, can be arranged at Living Desert. The attraction is also an expert host for cocktail parties and banquets. 

Living Desert Zoo Gardens, Greater Palm Springs
Living Desert Zoo Gardens, Greater Palm Springs, Credit: Ruth Marie

“Groups could choose from a variety of outdoor venues that highlight the desert’s beauty, and meeting organizers can choose to add specialty experiences, including animal encounters and zoo tours,” said Erin Scott, the zoo’s senior manager, brand, marketing and public relations.

She added the onsite catering team uses fresh ingredients to create custom menus for everything from formal plated dinners and buffet-style backyard barbecue to heavy hors d‘oeuvres and desserts.

5. Dock and Dine in Newport Beach  

The Duffy electric boat is a Newport Beach invention that groups are encouraged to utilize for a variety of memorable teambuilding activities, including scavenger hunts. 

They are also well suited for “floating think tank” brainstorming sessions and mealtime outings featuring local cuisine.

“The most iconic Newport Beach activity is the Duffy electric boat, which certainly incorporates our year-round Mediterranean weather and world-class dining,” said Michelle Donahue, senior vice president of sales for Visit Newport Beach.

Dock-and-dine progressive culinary tours are popular with groups.

Planners can map a tour that includes stops at several of the dozen waterfront Newport Harbor restaurants with public docks. Local Duffy boat rentals are available through Duffy Electric Boat Company and Boat Rentals of America.

6. Boardwalk Bites in Santa Cruz  

Attendees meeting in Santa Cruz will expect some time outside to enjoy the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a classic seaside amusement park that accommodates groups from 50 to 5,000 within its exclusive oceanfront event spaces. 

According to Christina Glynn, communications director and film commissioner for Visit Santa Cruz County, a corporate picnic on the boardwalk is an iconic, only-in-Santa-Cruz experience for visiting groups.

The picnic menu is barbecue-style with options ranging from hamburgers and hot dogs to coconut shrimp and tri-tip.

“Group activities typically include rides, games and beach volleyball, but we can also arrange teambuilding and coordinated beach games, DJs or a band,” said Karley Pope, director of sales and entertainment for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. 

7. Wining and Dining in Napa Valley

A meeting itinerary in Napa Valley is hardly complete without a visit to a local winery for a tour, wine tasting and delicious meal.

“The Napa Valley provides the ideal setting for outdoor group dining events,” said Teresa Savage, vice president of sales for Visit Napa Valley. “Napa Valley is best known for its renowned wineries, which offer groups the perfect backdrop with natural beauty, breathtaking landscapes and a wealth of open space for private events of all sizes.”  

Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park
Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, Credit: Visit Sacramento

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is a standout example. Here, groups can have an outdoor reception on the vineyard outlook patio or a meal at the picturesque FAY Lake. 

Gourmet meals are prepared by an acclaimed Napa Valley chef and are thoughtfully paired with Stag’s Leap wines.

8. Farm-to-Fork in a Historic Sacramento Setting

Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is a popular place for a meal function in Sacramento. 

“Serving local products, beer and wine make for a perfect farm-to-fork experience, and the setting is unique to Sacramento and its Gold Rush history,” said Lucy Steffens, director of travel media/film commissioner for Visit Sacramento.

“Docents in period costumes are available to demonstrate arts and crafts from this era.”

Planners can work with a Sacramento caterer and feature local purveyors of wine or beer on the menu. Wines from Bogle Vineyards and brews from Ruhstaller Beer and New Helvetia Brewing Company are a few possibilities.  

5 Planners Who Organized Outdoor Dining Events in California

We asked a few industry luminaries to chime in on the outdoor group dining events they arranged during recent meetings in California. Their experiences include menus designed by hotel chefs and local caterers, wonderful outdoor spaces and more.

(1) Lindsay Poss, CMP
Senior Manager of Meetings and Events
California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE)
Roseville, California

“Our ELEVATE CalSAE Annual Conference was held in April at Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage. We had an offsite event the first night at Indian Wells Golf Resort. Guests were treated to a ‘Shots in the Night’ glow golf experience, photo booth and DJ. This outdoor event was really fun because of the interactivity and collaboration by the vendors.

“Resorts based in Indian Wells, including Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa, Miramonte Indian Wells Resort & Spa and Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa, served appetizers, desserts and signature cocktails from food stations set up on different greens.

“They had their chefs managing the stations and interacting with our guests. The energetic vibe of the event set the tone for the rest of the week.”  

(2) Barbara Logan
Vice President, Meeting and Event Services,
U.S. Travel Association
Washington, D.C.

“U.S. Travel Association’s summer board of directors meeting was held in July at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa.

“We took advantage of the beautiful setting and wonderful California weather by hosting one reception, three breakfasts and two luncheons outdoors on the Marriott grounds. The hotel’s culinary team prepared outstanding California coastal menus utilizing locally sourced produce and seafood. The freshness and color of the foods added a special flair.

“Mealtimes and receptions incorporated the outdoors into our meeting program and allowed everyone time to regroup and network in a casual environment.”

(3) Rose Stanton, CMP, CTA  
President, Wine Country Destinations
Petaluma, California

“Northern California has so many opportunities for groups to enjoy and take in the beauty and bountiful food and wine we offer. I reserved the premier 5,000-square-foot Alexandrite Suite at Sausalito-based Casa Madrona Hotel & Spa for one of my corporate clients.

“The onsite chef prepared the gourmet menu in the suite’s kitchen. Before a seated indoor dinner, the group enjoyed an outdoor sunset reception with passed hors d’oeuvres and sparkling wine on the terrace, which has panoramic views of the bay.

“Hors d’oeuvres included pancetta-wrapped shrimp and miniature crab cakes.”

(4) Lynnie Kim  
Owner, Button Events
Los Angeles 

“The NFL Commissioner’s Awards post-ceremony party was held outside on the event lawn at the Marina del Rey Hotel. We had a modern Hawaiian theme featuring a fresh, seasonal island-inspired menu prepared by the hotel’s in-house caterer. The spread included a tiki grill station that served chicken and beef shish kebabs and pineapple fried rice, and a seafood station with sushi and a poke bar. Dessert included a shaved ice bar and Hawaiian malasadas.

“Having a themed culinary experience made this evening event complete. Guests were relaxed, well-fed and comfortable, adding to a positive group experience.”   

(5) Janessa Bender  
Management Team Administrator, PanAmerican Seed
West Chicago, Illinois

“Ball Horticultural is our parent company. The Ball Horticultural stop at our annual California Spring Trials was held in Ventura County this past March. We had a catered outdoor happy hour reception for our customers at the PanAmerican Seed breeding location in Santa Paula.

“Seasons Catering, based in Ventura, is always professional and their menu is wonderful, including shishito peppers with whipped lemon goat cheese, and cardamom and coriander spiced shrimp. There’s something special about having chef-attended stations, which we like to do during our sales and marketing event.”

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About the author
Carolyn Blackburn