You don't need fancy tabletop to throw a good party.
by Alecia Stevens, Tastemaker in Residence
I am an interior designer and I know almost nothing about tabletop. To go a step further, I don’t really care that I don’t know. However, I was caught off guard this spring when, as I was completing a fairy tale project on the Upper East Side in New York, my dear and generous client said something like this: “I would love for you to finish the house. You know, all the linens and accessories. And outfit the bathrooms with hair dryers, shampoos, soaps, and go ahead and fill the bar. Oh, and tell me what I should do for the tabletop. Help me find the flatware, glasses, and dishes.” This, by the way, for three floors of dining - the kitchen / breakfast table and garden level, the main dining room on the second floor and the penthouse for al fresco dining.
Now, I can fill a six-story townhouse with furniture, rugs, curtains and accessories – no problem. I can outfit a bathroom with toothpaste from Florence and a tortoise shell toothbrush, shampoo and body wash from Kiehl’s and thirsty Turkish towels from Gracious Home. I can make the perfect bed with Sferra sheets. But I have no idea how to do tabletop, no idea where to even start. I only know how I’ve always done it.
With white dishes. White dishes from Pottery Barn, then white dishes from Crate and Barrel, now white dishes from Target with a sprinkling of vintage pieces I’ve picked up at resale shops in Minneapolis and Charleston. (Jean George’s ABC Kitchen does vintage tabletop better than anyone, including flatware.) It’s not that I wouldn’t like to have something other than white Target dishes. It’s not that I don’t secretly covet a set of Richard Ginori Antico Doccia china now that I know about it after finding it for my client, but I don’t need something other than white Target dishes and my orphaned vintage plates to throw a good party. No one does.
What I need to throw a party I learned mostly from living in the South, specifically in Charleston where the phrase, “Pawty, pawty, pawty.” is a kind of dinner bell ringing nightly around the city. There’s always someone inviting you for drinks on the piazza (which is what they call a big long porch) or out to the beach for an oyster roast or just a casual come by for a drink in the parlor when the weather is cool. Flowers, candles, booze, and interesting people are all you need to throw a party in Charleston. Food is good too. And a little music if you like. But, no one ever doesn’t throw a party in Charleston because they can’t produce a Martha-worthy tabletop.
We go back and forth between Minneapolis and Charleston so when guests are coming, no matter where we are, I follow the same routine to make it easy. I bring in flowers for two to three locations in the home, usually a low bunch of orange roses purchased a few days in advance so they are full and pouty and something more dramatic like lilies or orchids or just a tangle of branches. I light the antique candelabra, looking like something out of Great Expectations, all crusty with wax and cloudy crystal. I go to my candle drawer (which I have in both places) and pull out at least two dozen votives and toss them around the room where we will be gathering. Outdoors I light vintage hurricane lanterns. I pull out the cloth napkins, preferably vintage, for both appetizers and dinner if we are having it. This takes a total of twenty minutes plus the time to buy the flowers.
For the booze, I keep a pretty simple bar stocked with the basics: gin, vodka, vermouth, tonic and lots of limes. Given my druthers, I’d just serve gin and tonic in Charleston with some Prosecco for anyone wanting something fizzy. Beer is nice in the summer, especially. How do you deal with all the microbrews now? Just have something dark and something hoppy. Whatever that is. I recommend that you tell a 20 or 30-something to bring the beer. They will make it local. In the south, you should have a good bourbon, I guess, but I don’t know much about that yet, so haven’t added it to my bar collection. It’s probably a good thing to follow the “when in Rome” theory for stocking a bar. So you can see this is something I have to learn.
More commonly in both places we have friends early in the evening for drinks and appetizers so I don’t always even put plates out. One less stressor around the tabletop matter. Just napkins if everyone is cozy and the food is within reach. If not, I add small plates – maybe some little square ones from Target or mix in some of the vintage. The food is served on a big slab of wood or slate or marble; it is covered with cheeses, some charcuterie, nuts, dried fruits, maybe some honey and a basket of crackers or bread. Occasionally I will put out some pimento cheese or salmon spread or hummus. I can make a mean hummus so will do that on occasion but buy the most amazing spreads at Ted’s Butcherblock in Charleston so would never attempt to compete with them. My motto is “Know good places for food.”
If you are busy, call a local cheese shop and have them put together a plate for you. I do this all the time in Charleston if I am serving more than about six people. Goat, Sheep, Cow in Charleston is much better at composing a cheese tray than I am. Even if I decide to do my own for a small group, I just copy their trays now. Copying others is a grand idea when it comes to entertaining. If you’ve seen it done well somewhere, just copy it. If you want to get a little fancier, you can toss some olives in a pan on very low heat in olive oil and lemon zest and a sprig of thyme. This I do if I am actually in a cooking mood.
If you love to do all this prep work yourself, do it, by all means. The point is we should never avoid having people over because of the pressure to be Gwyneth Paltrow. You just need the basics, then buy the rest from your “good places for food.”
If I am serving dinner, as I do on occasion in Charleston because I have an actual dining table on the piazza, (not just a coffee table for dining as I do in Minneapolis) I still follow a simple routine. I use an old hippie Indian block print tablecloth with about eight very low votive candles on it to make it sparkly in dimming light. There is a vase of flowers and I usually put some large shells and some crystal chunks around the vase just to make it more hippie and kind of magical, as if a gnome is coming to dinner. I pull out the same antique white napkins or maybe a striped linen one for something more casual, use the same white Target plates and dumb flatware, but people say it’s lovely.
A week ago, after a going-away dinner party for my daughter and eight of her friends, one of them said, “You are such a great hostess.” I couldn’t have been happier. She may just have been being nice but I noticed the good feeling, too, with the ceiling fan whirring on low above us, and the sun setting, with the steeples of the city forming shadowy arrows pointing to the heavens, with the breezes off the Ashley river and the swallows swooping by, with toasts to Isabelle and her friends all around, it was a perfect evening. Really, candles, booze, flowers and friends. It’s all you need.