Table Manners

How to Set the Stage for a Sophisticated Soiree

by Amanda Garrigus

A few years ago, when I was in the throes of running an LA-based lifestyle magazine, I agreed to host a dinner party for an actor of high esteem. We had, that month, featured him on our cover and were all set to toast his success. Not only was he one of the most celebrated and successful actors in all of Italy, he was also decidedly stylish and devastatingly handsome. Now, up until that point I had hosted a handful of potlucks, maybe some backyard BBQs and a few children’s birthday parties. To say I was in over my head was an understatement.

I figured I could plan a menu of sufficiently edible things, and the bar was no problem. What made me nervous was the table. I knew it had to look spot-on. But, in spite of all my years writing about, and consuming fashion, this small tablescape eluded me. So I called in two of the most stylish people I knew, whose dinner parties were legendary in our circle of friends, and I laid myself at their feet. They came to my rescue, table runners and tea candles in hand, and by that evening, a captivating stage was set for what would turn out to be a pretty memorable night.

If you’re similarly on the cusp of throwing an important dinner party, and in need of a little guidance, let me now pay it forward and share what I learned.

  1. Decide on the mood. This is informed in part by the occasion, but also by the menu and the guest list. Are you throwing a boisterous New Year’s Eve dinner? Or maybe a low key gathering with close friends. If, like in my case, the stakes are a little higher, then decide if you want an opulent table or a minimalist vibe, or maybe some combination of the two.
  2. Choose your color palate. You would never wear a green shoe with a red dress, unless you were interviewing for a job in Santa’s workshop, so similarly, make sure you pick complimentary colors for your table linens. All white is a safe bet, but can also be a little stark. For my dinner, we opted for layered neutrals, flax-colored table cloths with white napkins.
  3. To table cloth, or not to table cloth, that is the question. In my view, either option is acceptably stylish, though a tablecloth does add a level of refinement and sets an expectation of some formality. We chose to use a tablecloth at my dinner because the occasion seemed fancy enough to warrant it. Pro tip: cushion your tablecloth by placing another table cloth, or even a (ehm, clean) flat bed sheet, underneath. Some of the world’s chicest restaurants have tables with a lovely, muffled spring to them. This is why.
  4. You should have some greenery on your table. Whether you opt for full floral bouquets or simple olive or fig branches, enlisting the help of Mother Nature’s bounty will breath a little life into your decor. If you’ve chosen a neutral palate for your linens, as we did, consider adding color with flowers. If you’re lucky enough to live where there is a flower market, go there. You’ll find great deals and plenty of experts on hand to offer advice.
  5. Don’t be afraid to mix and match your cutlery. Of course, using a matching set of forks, knives and spoons is perfectly acceptable, but, if you have some old silver lying about, and you can cobble together enough to accommodate your number of guests, then don’t be afraid to do so. Mismatched silver adds a quirky eccentricity to a table and also suggests a pretty high level of confidence on the part of the host/hostess. One caveat: Mismatched Ikea cutlery does not leave the same impression.
  6. Glasses are the jewels of the table, at least that’s what I think. Once you’ve got your plates and cutlery, linens and greenery in place, the addition of glasses fills your table with light and sparkle. Bonus, the glasses don’t even have to be fancy to accomplish this. They just have to be clean. Water and wine glasses at every place setting are a must.

Last but certainly not least, is the lighting. I love a table full of candles. They make the space feel so much more intimate than overhead lighting alone. As the evening wears on and the candles begin to melt, they add an unmatched romanticism to the whole affair. Whether a smattering of tea candles, or hurricane glasses filled with pillars, or both, your party will be made exponentially better with the addition of their warm glow.

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