The Seating Question

For dinner party-givers, it’s an age-old debate: seated vs. buffet? Our entertaining ace discusses the relative merits of each and shares practical tips for execution.

The Insufferable Food Snob Don Loncasty and I have a running joke that we’ll never have anything nice. Regular readers of this column know The Donald and I spend a lot of time cooking together in each other’s modestly sized kitchens, as well as in other, grander kitchens belonging to friends.

“Look at our friend’s eight-burner Viking Stove,” he’ll wail. “We’ll never have anything nice.”

The truth is we both have respectably equipped kitchens, but we enjoy kvetching. I emailed him a list of 10 “must have” kitchen tools I saw on a cooking blog and asked him if he had all 10. “Yes,” he shot back, “but they’re all cheap. Nothing like decent people would have.”

The Mother of Invention

Recently The Donald encountered a legitimate inadequacy, something to which many will feel kinship. On the Thursday before a Saturday night dinner party, he realized he had invited 11 people to dine around his oval-shaped table, which seats eight comfortably. He needed a solution, and fast. But in the meantime, for extra excitement, he invited one more person.

He headed for a building supply store and purchased two four-by-eight foot sheets of half-inch particleboard, which set him back all of forty bucks. He then had the nice people at the store cut two halves the width of his table, and the length he needed to seat another person on each side, at each end —about an extra foot. He plopped the boards on his table, covered them with an enormous vinyl table pad from Bed Bath& Beyond, and then draped the whole business with a jumbo-sized linen tablecloth he found at Crate &Barrel. The table looked beautiful. And now he knows he can seat 12 people in his dining room.

A Cautionary Note

The Donald counsels that one cannot get too carried away with the particleboard solution. “You only can extend the particleboard about 12 to 18 inches on each end because the board will bend downwards if it’s not supported from underneath,” he says. “Plus, it weighs a ton, and I have no idea where I’ll store the thing.”

When he originally realized his seating predicament, Don tells me he considered serving the food buffet style and having people sit wherever they liked. Haven’t we all had to wrangle with that decision: seated versus buffet? I generally land on seated, but both formats have their advantages.

The Magic of the Seated Table

There is something so special and intimate about bringing people together around a beautifully set table. It brings out the best in guests; they laugh and talk faster; their cheeks flush with anticipation as they sit down to the place set especially for them.

To create a pretty table, you don’t need expensive china, flatware or table linens. Use the best stuff you have, set it lovingly and be proud of it; never explain or apologize. Far more important than your tableware is the mood you set as backdrop to the meal. Everything looks better by flickering candlelight, with Billie Holiday singing in the background. Don’t get so caught up in the details of serving that you neglect to make your guests feel cherished and welcome.

Napery Notes

Nothing adds tone to the joint like linen damask napery. If you have it, use it, even for casual dinners. In the absence of that, you could purchase a couple or three yards of a chic toile or ikat fabric and make a showstopper of a tablecloth with matching napkins. (There is not a single fabric at Nell Hill’s that I wouldn’t love in my house.) Crisp, new bed sheets make fabulous table coverings as well. Or go naked, if you have a good-looking table with a resilient finish.

As far as napkins go, the bigger the better. I get mine at Pryde’s Kitchen and Home; they have a treasure trove of patterns and colors. Never use paper napkins at the dinner table, darling. Ever.

Dare to Be You

Fresh flowers transform a table; always keep them low so guests can talk across them. If you are serving more than six, place cards are a most excellent addition. Seat people boy girl boy girl, not next to their partners. I like to tart up my table with chargers, over-the-top napkin rings, individual salt and pepper cellars, colored glass goblets for water (always clear for wine), and a million votive candles.

Although I don’t have the restraint to execute a minimalist look, I love it at somebody else’s table. Everyone’s style is different. The most important thing is to get over thinking your house has to look like those in the pages of this magazine.

Ze Buffet Solution

Sometimes the best answer is to commandeer your dining or kitchen table for buffet service and tell people to sit where they like. When you have more people coming than you can seat at your table, for example. Or when your party is paced so people will be eating at different times. Or when the majority of guests will be kids.

Think carefully about where guests will sit. Nobody likes to eat dinner standing up. You can conscript all kinds of things for dinner seating: patio furniture, ottomans, piano benches, stairways. Combine your living room furniture with your dining chairs to create clusters for seating. (Used bamboo ballroom chairs are available for a song online.) In every crowd there are those who will gravitate to the floor in front of the coffee table. Make sure there are comfy pillows and spaces to set plates and drinks.

Keep It Simple, Honey

Avoid buffet items that require a knife; guests should be able to eat their meal with a fork and spoon. Choose make-ahead dishes that taste good at room temperature. You don’t need to serve a smorgasbord. You can’t go wrong with a party ham, roasted vegetables and a pasta salad.

If possible, set up your table so people have access from both sides. Arrange things in a logical progression: clean plates and cold items at the beginning of the line, hot items, if you’re offering them, at the last. Remember guests will be serving themselves with one hand. Silverware, wrapped in napkins, should be deployed at the very end.

Vary the angle and height of items on the table. An easy way to do this is to pile books or sturdy boxes under select platters or bowls, then cover the entire table with an oversized tablecloth, or big swaths of burlap or gauze. A smaller table with platters and bowls grouped together is more appealing than marching them evenly down the table. Remove a leaf from your table if necessary.

The Season for Alfresco

If you’re planning your dinner party for outdoors, no matter if it’s seated or buffet, you want adequate lighting: glowing hurricane lanterns; flickering tiki torches; tiny sparkling fairy lights; glimmering lanterns suspended from something.

Get wired for sound. Remember music is as vital to the success of an outdoor party as to an indoor one. And lose the bugs; outdoor foggers work best, supplemented by strategically place cans of Off!. Lastly, always have a plan B for inclement weather, even if it means a rain date indicated on the invitation. This is Kansas City, after all.

Simone Beck’s Champagne Cocktail

There’s something about serving champagne—any champagne, in any form—that conveys largesse. A champagne cocktail is an economical way to serve bubbly to a group, because you needn’t use pricey champagne. (Never waste good champagne in anything that masks its flavor.) This recipe makes the best champagne cocktail I have ever tasted. It was developed by Simone Beck, who collaborated with Julia Child on Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Makes six boozy, delicious servings

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 orange, sliced

1/4 lemon, sliced

1/2 cup cherries, marinated in brandy

1/4 cup brandy or cognac

1 bottle chilled champagne

Mix the first five ingredients in a jar and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight. Place a macerated cherry in the bottom of a champagne glass. Add about an ounce of the chilled mixture and fill with cold champagne.

Recipe reprinted from But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria: Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry by Julia Reed.