I’ve always fancied being the sort of person that could throw one of those dinner parties that seemingly only exist in Ferrero Rocher commercials and magazine shoots; French farmhouse tables overflowing with flowers and flickering candles, fine linen napkins placed upon artfully stacked place settings… A proper lavish dinner party thrown by the sort of grownup that I thought I would become. One day. The organised and stylish sort, possibly wearing a one-shouldered fuchsia organza ballgown and sporting an elfin crop.
In reality my table is covered in crayon and if I even get the food served onto it it’s a bloody miracle, especially at Christmas – who has time to arse about with flowers and linen when the turkey’s still defrosting in the sink and the cranberry sauce has bubbled over onto the hob and you’ve accidentally blocked the kitchen sink with goose fat?
But this year, this year, my reader friends, I am stepping up my table game. Partly because I met an actual real-life Tablescaper (it’s a thing) at a luncheon and became transfixed with her Instagram feed but mostly because for the past few years I have had an urge to make everything in my life a bit more domesticated and adult and this Christmas is the proverbial climax. I’ve bought a food processor so that I can make grown-up shredded vegetable ‘slaws’ like Jamie Oliver, I’ve bought a welly rack so that I can stop slugs from taking up residence inside my wellies. I use the phrase “willy nilly” and also “goodness gracious” (mainly to stop me from saying for f*ck’s sake all the time) and I bought some pot pourri.
See? Completely domesticated and adult.
But the grown-up dinner table thing is a bit more difficult. Firstly, I don’t happen to have a Tablescaper to hand (seriously, it’s actually a thing – check out event designer Fiona Leahy on Instagram) or a food stylist, like in the magazines. No washing up liquid in the beer to make it more frothy, no varnish on the turkey skin to make it gleam – no insulation foam squirted atop the pies to make them look as though they’ve been adorned with the most perfect swirls of cream…
It’s just me and the table. And the five thousand torn-out magazine pages that I’ve been studying obsessively to work out what these stylist people actually do to make everything look so fancy. Here are my thoughts and they’re all pretty straightforward – just little bits and bobs you can change or add to make things a bit fancier looking. Like. And none of these tweaks and upgrades need to be particularly expensive, either, apart from the posh plates bit, if you want posh plates, but even those are saving money in a roundabout way if you follow my advice…
So read on to find out how to make simple upgrades for a showstopping dinner table. (You know it was at the top of your list of priorities.)
I usually avoid candles like the plague because I am (since having kids) a health and safety fanatic. Although my cat is the same colour as the stair carpet and we’re all at risk of breaking our necks about eighty times a day, so I’m not sure why I even bother worrying.
Anyway, this is an obvious one but candles really do make a dinner table look amazing. And I’m not talking about IKEA tealights, though those serve a purpose, I’m talking about candles of height and distinction. Unapologetic candles. Long, elegant tapered ones that are raised upon ornate holders, so that their flames softly illuminate the chattering guests’ faces and don’t just lie there at tabletop level, heating up the hummus and scorching people’s sleeves.
Get those candles up high and all of a sudden you have drama and theatrical shadows and the thrilling prospect of at least one person knocking them over and setting fire to the tablecloth.
I’ve recently discovered pillar candles, too – the best I’ve tried are the Charles Farris altar candles (you can find them at John Lewis here*, from £6) but I’d welcome your own recommendations. I love how solid and chunky the pillar candles are and how brilliant they look grouped together – I buy different heights and plonk them on a large plate or tray or wooden board.
Leopard candlesticks were bought from OKA here* – £45 for two. Pillar candles bought en masse from John Lewis (see above), pottery is Burleigh x Soho Home here. Table is vintage Ercol, bought from eBay two years ago as a set with six chairs. Napkins are Zara (see below) and the bee napkin rings were from House of Fraser two years ago.
Posh Useful Plates
Choosing nice dinner plates (and bowls, and side plates and whatever else you end up getting once you dip your toe into the world of dinnerware) is an absolute minefield because you always end up doing one of two things (at least I do):
1 Buying amazing plates that are far too fancy to eat on every day; they are so fine that they break if you cut your potatoes too vigorously, or they shatter if you sneeze too hard in their direction.
2 Buying plain, solid plates that weigh the same as manhole covers but that spark no joy whatsoever and feel too dowdy for nice dinners, which means that you then also end up buying option one anyway and keeping them in the “special” cupboard for three hundred and sixty days of the year.
What you really want (I now know from vast-ish experience – I have many plates, both living and departed) is a plate that’s practical, reasonably hardy and that sparks utter, utter joy every time you lay the table. Dinnerware that you will use every single day, that isn’t so absurdly dear that you’ll have palpitations about it but that is beautiful enough to serve every situation.
Enter from stage left: Burleigh pottery. My Burleigh jugs (hoho) are some of my most prized home possessions. Sounds silly, I know, but they really bring a smile to my face. The design on them just looks good everywhere. Rustic old table? Put a Burleigh jug in the centre and suddenly it’s a scene from Country Homes and Interiors. Mid Century glass-fronted sideboard? Fill that with Calico tableware and the contrast between traditional and modern is a pleasing one of intense and magnificent beauty.
(Do I spend too much time thinking about how stuff looks? Absolutely. We all have our hobbies!)
The Burleigh pieces in these pictures are a combination of the stately Black Regal Peacock range (on Burleigh’s website here) and the glorious Hibiscus, which is exclusive to Soho Home (Burleigh x Soho Home here). You can find all of the classic designs on Burleigh’s website here. The brilliant thing about Burleigh is that almost everything looks great thrown together, even from different ranges – a mix and match set-up looks cool and purposeful rather than weird and accidental. The feeling should be a general one of “ooh, look at me, I’m too cool to have everything matching – I’m so eclectic!” rather than “shit, I’ve dropped another three plates into the sink Tony, we’re going to have to use some bits from the wedding set.”
Have a browse on their site – there’s also a factory shop, which I must never go near ever, ever because I would buy it all, and there are various pre-chosen sets that offer better value than buying pieces separately.
Oh and if you’re still after gift ideas then there couldn’t be a better gift for a tea-lover than a Burleigh tea set, surely? I love the pretty blue Felicity tea set, here and the traditional Blue Calico, here.
Pillar candles from John Lewis, as before. Pottery as detailed above. Gold cutlery bought from Marks and Spencer last year here*, beast-footed bowl was bought from Anthropologie. Glassware bought from H&M home.
Oh I do love a proper napkin. We never use them at home if we’re alone (bit of kitchen roll if it’s a particularly messy taco-typed meal, otherwise why do you even need one?) but for dinners and special occasions it just feels lovely and so grownup to offer a pressed linen or cotton napkin.
If you can be arsed to press them.
If you can’t be bothered to iron then make sure you get the linen ones that look hipster and cool even when they are wrinkled. And tie a bit of rustic ribbon or brown string around them instead of using a napkin ring, so that they look like something you’ve found in a hay barn. Sprig of dried lavender, job done.
I rather like the napkins simply folded over once and thrown nonchalantly onto the top of the plate, as though a Parisian waiter has laid the table. “F*ck you customer!*”
(*not all Parisian waiters hate their clientele, I’m sure. At any rate, their constant ire is always a great source of amusement to me!)
I bought my table linen from Zara here – the napkins were £19 for four and I bought a matching lace-trimmed table runner. To be quite honest, the runner is something of a faff – I didn’t need it and it’s covered in all of the candles/flowers/serving plates anyway!
Crocodile Candle Holders, £30 each from &Klavering – I bought mine at Amara here*.
Duck leg candle holders, £9.95 each – I bought mine at Graham & Green here*.
Kitsch Pointless Plates
If you already have serviceable crockery but want something quirkier, adding some smaller plates to sit over the top of your existing ones can be cheaper and less of a commitment than going for a whole new set. It also looks really fancy when you use your normal dinner plate as a charger and then place a smaller, more decorative one on top. Utterly pointless, from an eating point of view, but gives everything a bit of a facelift.
I quite like pointless plates, anyway – good for olive stones, serving individual quenelles of butter, sauces, ketchup or anything you want to decant from a jar or bottle. As plates for eating from, they are ridiculous, but for adding a bit of jazz and flair to the table they are excellent! Which makes them not pointless, I suppose…
I bought these badgery/fruity ones from H&M Home and they were a few pounds each. (I have no clue where they have gone online, they seem to have vanished, but I only bought them the other week so they may have a comeback tour.)
They have that kitsch sort of appeal that seems to be de rigeur at the moment and I thought that they looked relatively festive, too. They are small enough that they can all be packed away into the back of the cupboard when they’re not needed – all much more convenient than buying a whole set of specific “Christmas” plates with – I dunno – pine trees on them or something.
Foliage and Flowers
I am not a person who buys flowers for myself. I’m incredibly fortunate in that now and then clients might send me a beautiful bunch, and in the spring and summer I pick bluebells and various other flowers from the garden, but going to the actual florist has always seemed like a huge extravagance.
However I did splash out a few times this year, usually because I was filming something in particular and wanted to sort of “dress” the background, and it’s amazing how much of a difference a vase of flowers can make to a room.
So put a load of flowers on a dinner table and all of a sudden you’ve halfway there in terms of looks. Add flowers, or foliage, and it’s no longer just a dinner table, it’s a desirable place to be. People are drawn to their seats, everything suddenly looks so sumptuous and decadent and of course the food will be delicious if the setting looks that good…
(Little do they know that you’ve reheated four Tesco lasagnes and put some sprigs of parsley on top. Dug around the edges with the back of a teaspoon to make it look more homemade. Drizzled it with extra virgin olive oil. Scorched the top a bit with a bunsen burner to make it look authentic.)
So yeah: flaaaars. The ones in these pictures were for my birthday and the red berry ones were taken home after an event I was at because I didn’t want them to go to waste. They’ve lasted over a week already – I just need to keep feeding them and nursing them for a couple more weeks and I might be able to use them for Christmas! (Mental image of me gently wiping the berries and leaves with a cool cloth, changing the water hourly, adding special feed powder and carefully snipping out dead bits.)
Joking aside, because I will have to buy more at Christmas, it’s really worth taking a look inside your local independent florist’s. Mine quite often has a bucket of “imperfect” blooms outside, dead cheap, really great condition still but not quite up to the standard they need to be for the full-price bouquets. I agree it’s an extravagance, but a beautiful extravagance and one that – if you’re anything like me – will bring you great cheer.
Lots of Stuff Overstuffing
One of the common things you see in the tablescaping images on Instagram (what has my life become?!) is that the tables tend to be really full of stuff. I mean you can barely get the plates in front of the guests. There are huge flower arrangements that take up 80% of the surface area, place names on elaborate cards, candles by the dozen, glasses for this and tumblers for that, gifts for the guests (for the love of God don’t get started on that, you’ll be financially bereft by Boxing Day!), jugs of Seedlip Cocktail, decanters of well-drawn eco-water…
It’s all very OTT and would be faintly absurd in a domestic setting perhaps, but the feeling of table excess does look very appealing and inviting. So I suppose the general rule is to do things with purpose – if you’re keeping it all very elegant and minimalist then fine, a white linen tablecloth and some beautiful candles will do, but if you’re going for the “fuller” look then try not to do it by halves!
You can easily “get the look” by keeping your flowers (if you have any) low and spread out, rather than tall and slim so that they cover more ground. At Christmas, rather than paying for an expensive bunch of flowers, you could ask the florist if they have lots of seasonal green foliage, which is cheaper and looks great in abundance around the centre of the table. Smells amazing too.
(If you have a holly bush/fir tree in the garden then you know where you need to go with your garden scissors!)
If you’re short of bits and bobs and the table looks a bit empty then bring out the condiments and put them in interesting bowls and jugs. It’s a bit of a pain when you have to decant them back at the end of the night but it’s nicer than having a jar of Hellman’s on the table and it gives you more – well – stuff.
I realise this is becoming a little bit Pippa’s Tips obvious, so I’ll stop now, but surely you’ve got the gist of it? Make it look decadent by grouping things like candles and vases, add height to the table with tall candlesticks rather than little tealights and add some interest with gorgeous dinnerware and cutlery. If you’re going the whole shebang with your dinnerware and cutlery then get stuff that you’ll use all the time and not just squirrel away “for best”, and if you’re on a budget or have perfectly good crockery that you just find a bit boring then add some quirky little plates to sit on top. (Hunt around for bits that look good with it, or that purposefully mismatch.)
Right, I’m off to work out how to use my new food processor. Hopefully it won’t go the same way as the last one, which had an accident when it tried to crush some ice. (It had already drunk six salt-rimmed Margaritas…)