I grew up in a home where entertaining was done in true California-casual style. There were no formal, highly-styled table settings, no candelabras, and certainly no posh centerpieces. And while I remain a fan of simple table settings, I also believe that there's nothing quite like sitting down to a meal where there's clearly been care and effort put into the settings and tablescape. It doesn’t have to be anything grand. As is true for your entryway and powder room, the simplest of personal touches in your dining table’s décor can make your guests feel special. Even just a table runner and some candle sticks will elevate the meal.
Whether you’re hosting the Thanksgiving feast or just gathering for takeout on a random night, here are my best tips for creating a beautiful table that makes your guests feel celebrated without detracting from conversation and connection during the meal.
Aim for charming and sincere
There’s no need to pile your table with endless flowers and candles for a showy display. Small touches can feel so charming and personal, especially if they’re true to your own style. Don't concern yourself with what others do and what you may have heard should or shouldn't be done. What's reflective of you? What's important to you? What would set a warm, inviting mood for your guests?
I like to keep the dishes simple and then add color with the napkins, the runner, and the florals. Another approach I like is to layer a runner with great color or texture on top of a white tablecloth. Items like earthy chargers, jute runners, and raffia napkin rings are favorites of mine for bringing in organic, casual elements. That all said, I do think it’s possible to use more formal, refined china, with simple, organic foundational elements for a more casual, refined rustic effect.
Table shape matters
While this goes somewhat beyond the scope of the actual table settings, I can’t help but mention the impact the shape of your table can have on the conversations and connections among your guests. Round tables are excellent for group and individual conversation as long as they aren’t too large. Ovals are lovely because they offer that bridge between round and rectangular, allowing for effortless private and all-in conversations. Rectangular tables can be less ideal but if it’s not overly long and if you keep the table setting low, it can work just fine.
Don’t forget about the food
For me, the food should be more of a focus than the table setting. Many of the beautiful table setting ideas we see online and in magazines feature lots of décor in the center of the table. I get that these aren’t designed for real life, but if you use these as inspiration, where's the turkey going to go?! I prefer a setting that leaves space for at least some of the serving dishes, even if others need to overflow to a sideboard.
Additionally, I prefer eating on a plate that lets me see the food. I don't love a pattern and although I grew up with gorgeous blue plates by Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, I LOVE white plates, particularly if they have an artisanal, handmade, earthy quality. Informal yet interesting and understated enough to let the food take center stage makes for perfect dishes as far as I’m concerned.
Vary décor heights but stay low
Varying heights of your décor will make your table setting intriguing, but watch out for anything that might obscure conversation. We’ve all sat at a table where we couldn’t see the face of a person we wanted to chat with and it can be very annoying. No one wants to play peekaboo around a huge floral arrangement or a gigantic candelabra! When using candles, I find it best to bring in two or three different heights. There are no rules here and the only goal is to create interest so feel free to mix chunky pillars with tapers and tea lights. You can even mix candle holders with candles and without candles to create different heights.
While a single low centerpiece can be beautiful, I love using multiple arrangements of candles, florals, and other décor instead. Not only is this approach typically easier to create, but it also allows more space for placing serving dishes.
For an extra special personal touch, try something seasonal from your own yard. Small foraged elements like a sprig of rosemary, a pinecone, or a clipping from your oak tree or holly bush can go a long way toward making your table setting look and feel unique. Just be sure to clean up what you bring in–rinse them off and help the little friends who crop up get back outside where they'd prefer to be instead of having them show up on your guests' dinner plates!
When done right, a simple table setting can elevate whatever meal you serve and support the shared experience you want to give your guests. Have fun with it. Incorporate your own personal style but remain sensitive to anything that might interfere with or distract from conversation and connections.
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