Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all? You could substitute the words which and table for who and you would have the conundrum many people face when shopping for outdoor tables. Yes, you want a coffee table (or dining table) but do you want a coffee height coffee table or a conversation, or chat, height table? Do you want a dining table, a counter height table, or a bar height table? Why are there so many heights and which one to buy?
What’s the purpose of a chat, or conversation height table, versus a coffee table? Let’s start with the table height. A coffee table is typically 16” high. This is the height that has been used as a standard for indoor furniture and thus, carried over into outdoor furniture. It is an ergonomically determined height based on the seat height of a sofa, love seat, or lounge chair. This height is convenient for reaching the table top when seated in a cushioned furniture piece. (It’s also convenient for putting one’s feet up in lieu of an ottoman.)
A conversation, or chat table (the terms are interchangeable), is a little bit higher. Varying by manufacturer from roughly 18” to 24”, the conversation table allows the user to reach it while seated but also casually dine from the table. This idea is born of the desire to dine casually from small plates when outside.
Speaking of dining, the traditional height of a dining table is 29” (although you will find some wiggle room here with an inch or so up or down). When furnishing an outdoor area that has a safety railing around it, however, that dining height puts the eye level of the person seated at the same height as the railing. The solution, of course, is to put the eye level of the diner above the railing height. A counter height (at 36”) does this but keeps you seated below the top of the railing. This is a good choice for balconies or decks where a railing would impede the view if a dining height were to be used. Note: You may also hear the term “bistro” table used for a counter height table. To most furniture professionals, however, if you ask for a bistro table, they will respond by showing you a table that is 30″ round (for two people) and is at the traditional dining height (29″).
A bar height table is typically 42” high. A standard height bar stool with a seat height of 36” is used with this table. Anyone who has sat at a bar anywhere in any restaurant or hotel has sat at a bar height surface. If you like the idea of sitting at a bar, this is the height for you. In fact, many people seem drawn to a bar height table and chairs because it reminds them of an exotic and relaxing vacation somewhere.
Either counter height or dining height will give the same effect, however, if you have children or elderly people who will be using this furniture, I recommend choosing the more easily accessible counter height, if the more practical dining height is too low.
It is important to remember that while these heights for tabletops and chairs are considered standards, anyone can build anything they want—and, often do. It is imperative to check the height of the table or chair that you may already have when shopping for its companion piece. Built-in tabletops or railings that one may use as a ledge have been found to be all over the place height-wise. Custom designs can be whatever the designer or builder specifies, and often are. A quick measure will help you ascertain what height table or chair you need to go with it.