Setting the scene


A good dinner needs to appeal to all five of the senses. We put a lot of effort into making each dish appeal to the eye, as well as the nose and tastebuds. A well-balanced dinner will also feature a variety of textures, too, some of which will stimulate the ear with a crack or a crunch as you bite into them. Before the food arrives, though, before they’ve even taken their first sip of your well-planned aperitif, your guests will have taken in the ‘look’ of your dining room. They will have noticed the delicious aromas of food cooking in the kitchen and perhaps heard the bubble and hiss of pans on the stove. I want to think in this post about how we use that first impression to really set the scene for the dinner that follows.

An opulent display for a Venetian event
First things first: decide on your overall look. Does the dinner have a theme? If you’re offering an evening of Spanish foods, sunshine colours and terracotta-ware will fit better than crisp white and cut crystal, but for a wedding anniversary you might decide that all-white is the perfect theme. Follow the seasons: pastels work well in spring, deep colours in autumn. Once you’ve got your overall look clear in your head, you’ll find ideas start to jump out at you while you’re doing other things. By using different flowers, candles, table linens and other decorative elements, you can create a truly immersive experience for your guests. Could you even extend your theme to the doorway, or beyond? I once placed flaming torches either side of the gate, for a dinner themed around Imperial Russia. I’ve placed a carnival mask display in the hallway for a Venetian event and had multi-coloured tealight holders up the stairs for a midsummer dinner.

Reflective surfaces and pink roses for a Russian event

Not everyone wants to spend as much time and energy as I do on preparing a room, but here are some tips and things to think about.

Table linens: my table top is 8’ long, and I have a choice of 3 tablecloths that fit it, but I hate ironing with a passion. To my mind, then, it’s worth paying the £6 or so that the local laundrette charges to run it through the roller-iron after I’ve washed and starched it. Try learning a couple of simple ways to fold napkins, so you can ring the changes at different events. Envelope folds are a piece of cake, as are Dutch bonnets. Mitres are easily mastered. Fleurs de lys aren’t too difficult and give some height to your “tablescape.”
Simple napkins on a spectacular Welsh landscape

Glassware must be properly polished, no matter how casual the event. I keep a linen cloth just for polishing glasses. It never sees fabric conditioner or anything else that’s oil-based. Everything gets a good rub over as it goes onto the table. I’m lucky enough to have an understanding partner and plenty storage space, so we have lots of glasses in various sizes and shapes. I also have a good friend who shares my love of fine entertaining and is always willing to lend us his crystal in return for a dinner invitation.

Coloured crystal on my Venetian table

Flowers are central to any attractive dinner table. They can be formally arranged, sat in vases or even placed directly onto the table. Make friends with a good florist and talk to them about your ideas. They’ll get excited to be doing something different and creative. I’ve had the most amazing table arrangements from my florist. She’s also been able to supply specific orders for me when I’ve asked. She didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked for forty stems of various dendrobium orchids for a 1930s-themed dinner. Thirty-five stems of out-of-season lily of the valley didn’t come cheap last year, but Lou got me them and ensured they came on the root, so I could plant them out afterwards.

Beautiful orchids, reflecting to colours of the 1930s.
The napkins were folded into fans for that Art deco "sunburst" shape

Don’t forget that scented flowers will release their aroma into the room. The aforementioned lily of the valley brought a lovely freshness to my event. Freesias do the same in the summer. Hyacinths will fill any home with their scent: think about having a bowl of them in the hallway, so that your guests are greeted by that lovely, heady scent as they arrive. Fewer roses are scented than you might imagine, and they’ll rarely be strong enough to fill a room, but it’s a lovely touch to place a scented rose at each place. Even the butchest of men will pick it up and smell it!

Brown tablecloth & garish colours for a tribute dinner to Fanny Cradock

Candles are the other element I think essential. Your grandmother’s silver candelabra will look amazing on a formal table but isn’t very versatile. The more dinners you host, the more you’ll find yourself spotting things in charity shops, pound-stores, IKEA and Matalan. We keep a box of glass votives in different colours at the bottom of a cupboard, and they all get used on a regular basis. Tea lights in jam-jars will be perfect if you’re looking for an “indoor picnic” vibe. Don’t always arrange your candles and votives evenly down the table. Sometimes, it’ll work better to have them in small groups. Mirrors make a dramatic base for candles, and you can lift them up on disguised boxes to give more height if needed.
A dinner to mark a royal jubilee

I’m wary of scented candles on a dinner table. The perfume used in them is often quite strong and artificial and it may get in the way of your guests’ enjoyment of the aromas of your food and wine. If you’re casseroling meat in red wine or roasting onions, the smell will be delicious. Don’t hide it with room sprays and such. On the other hand, if you're boiling sprouts, you might like to have some incense burning between the kitchen and the dining room! The best place for a fresh-smelling, scented candle is in the bathroom.

Obviously, the only limit to how you present your room is your own creativity. I’ve seen so many wonderful things in my time. I’ve seen fairy lights threaded through a chandelier, an outdoor cocktail bar with hanging Chinese lanterns, even a live harpist. See what you come up with next time you’re entertaining and add a comment to let me know how your guests react.

A stunning setting for a dessert buffet (not my work)

Next time: moving gin beyond tonic


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