Note: This article is a companion to our Gilded Fork: Entertaining at Home cookbook. With 13 dinner party menus, and the tips you’ll find in this and our other entertaining articles, we’ve done a lot of the work for you. Sally forth!
All four elements were happening in equal measure – the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the overall ambience. It taught me that dining could happen at a spiritual level.
— Charlie Trotter on his experience at Girardet
If a guest can come away from the table with that kind of inspiration, it should stress to you the kind of importance ambience can have on the experience of a dining guest. The entire premise for this section of The Gilded Fork is to perpetuate and encourage the ideal of elevating your entertaining to that of fine dining at home. Granted, it certainly does not have to equal that of a Michelin 3-Star restaurant, but there should be a signature of you present for all the guests to experience: a style. It will be present in your table décor, your music, your lighting, and the styled plates of the dishes you serve. Make a statement.
We have included the key elements here for creating a sumptuous atmosphere (and will address food styling itself in our Mise en Place menus). If, like most people, you are short on time, these tips should help you to craft that signature style, and do so in the timeframe of your life. Think about evoking the senses of your guests, and how you want them to feel when they are welcomed at your table.
Table Displays: Cocktail Parties
One of the most impactful ways to make a statement to your guests is by presenting your feast in a sumptuous display. Depending on the size of your space, you have several options: We suggest setting up a main table, and if space allows, several side tables, which will enable you to disperse the food setup around the room so all your guests do not gather (and clog) one area. If your space is smaller, you may not be able to avoid this, in which case we recommend staying with a single table setup.
For the main table, you want to craft an array of goodies that appeals to the eye, and the best way to achieve this effect is to create a series of levels on the table for your various dishes and platters. This creative effort instantly transforms any menu into a formidable display, and creates a variety of eye candy for the guests who approach.
Find some sturdy elements you can use to build levels on which to place serving dishes. We have used upside-down pots, bowls, boxes, and bricks in our displays. All of these will be covered with a cloth, so it doesn’t matter how attractive they are — they just need to provide a solid foundation. Cover them with a large cloth, then use smaller cloths bunched around the levels to make an attractive nest. If you are particularly creative, you can accent the table with decorative items like branches, dried flowers or candles, provided their scents and/or leaves do not interfere with the food.
We suggest keeping all elements requiring chafing dishes on the main table, as you will more easily be able to monitor them. We also recommend staying with a flat surface for side or accent tables, as they are easily bumped. You can use these for crudités, breads, cheeses, or cold hors d’oeuvres.
Table Displays and Settings: Dinner Parties
If your dinner party is being presented buffet-style, you can use the same setup we suggested for our cocktail party table, with dishes at different elevations for a more visual appeal. You will redefine “casual elegance” using this technique.
For the table where everyone will sit to eat, you can be as creative as your mind and budget allow. Don’t be afraid to mix and match the place settings and accessories — you can use alternating place mats, settings, or flatware. This is particularly helpful if you have smaller, matched sets, but are serving quite a number of people. For example, if you are throwing a party for 10, but have two dinner settings for 8, alternate the patterns. No shopping to do, no fuss.
For more formal parties, you can still use these guidelines for place settings, as it is perfectly acceptable to alternate patterns, textures, and dinnerware. In fact, we find this to be a rather lively solution to a boring table. We have even known risk-takers who have crafted each place setting to match the guests’ personalities — to great effect.
With setting up a buffet-style or plated service setting, use sumptuous candlesticks and linens on the dining table to add elegance, along with some décor that celebrates the particular time of the year in which you are throwing your party. We have also developed a custom line of tabletop, The Gilded Fork Home Collection™ by Caserta Italia, to add a regal presence to your feasts. (How was that for a sly marketing tactic? We liked it, too.)
Music is a very personal choice, but we thought we’d share our general thoughts to give you some fuel for creativity. For cocktail parties, we typically choose more upbeat music, including the Rat Pack (what is a cocktail party without Frank Sinatra?), swing, jazz, or anything that gives a lively vibe. For dinner parties we tend to be more subdued, and will choose classical music, a soft jazz, or any instrumental that is soothing without being yawn-inducing. You’ll want to keep your guests stimulated, not sedated.
If you have a dimmer switch, experiment a bit with the lighting in your home to see how various levels affect the room. Cozy corners are always resplendent with intrigue, but remember that the food itself should be clearly lighted. Do put yourself in a guest’s shoes while experimenting — consider that you may not want a bright spotlight on the table so it seems like a lighted stage for those partaking of the feast (you know how shy people can be sometimes).
If you do not have a dimmer option, we recommend placing table and/or floor lamps with lower-wattage bulbs (60 watts or lower) in various parts of the room, but turning off overhead lighting, or turning off half the lights. You want a soft, sumptuous glow — it puts people in the party mood, and enables them to let their guard down a bit.
Candles are also a classic, inviting way to softly light a room; they offer a soothing welcome that beckons guests to relax and enjoy, and everyone looks wonderful by candlelight. It is important to remember to use unscented candles, as you do not want any smells to interfere with the beautiful food you have worked so hard to prepare.
You may want to use a variety of unusual candle holders, including pillars, spiked stands, or festive dishes for boules in white or cream. If you are really adventurous and have the time, consider carving out the tops of apples or gourds and placing tea lights in them (yes, we realize this is way over in that other realm of decorating, but we’ll put it out there anyway).
All of these little touches will add a sumptuous glow of decadence and welcome to your surroundings, and guests will marvel at the talent you have for creating a scene.