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We’re all for cutbacks. Swapping postal invitations for e-invites, sidestepping the Old World for the New and ditching your DJ for an iPod playlist – all ways to shave valuable pounds from your per-head spend. However, unless you want to channel the ‘pared-back chic’ of the staff canteen, a modicum of table dressing is a minimum standard at any sit-down meal. Sure, you might not have the budget of Elton’s White Tie and Tiara Ball, but a few thoughtful touches is all it takes (and we’re not talking about a bottle of ketchup).
Start from the bottom. Tablecloths are often a necessity. They’re expected for more formal set-ups and make sense even for casual affairs, as hired tables live a hard life and usually need covering. Don’t assume this has to be with the ubiquitous white cloths though – ask your supplier to send you colour swatches.
Consider chair covers. While a pared-back venue may suit plain wooden chairs, banqueting halls demand more of a statement. Covers come in all shapes, fabrics and colours (zebra-print spandex, perhaps?). Co-ordinate them with your colour scheme or add a pop of colour with just a sash.
Another thing to think about is using table runners. The benefit of these is that you can afford to be a bit louder with the design. Pick block colours, patterns or lace.
Napkins aren’t just to mop up gravy or inevitable red wine spillage. They can be used as a statement on their own. We’re not suggesting you whip up a neat little swan or bishop’s mitre – napkin origami went out with the nineties. Instead, play around with styles to fit with the overall aesthetic of your event. If you’re keeping it simple and elegant, tie a ribbon around a plain white napkin; for a more rustic look, use recycled paper or textured tea towels.
It’s easy to slip up with table centres. Recreating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the centre of a table can hamper conversation. Consider a less intrusive centre that doesn’t divide the table in two. Battery-powered LED pieces create an impact at evening events. For example, vases filled with coloured balls or cordless lights, which work particularly well in art deco venues, make a slick alternative to flowers (and a safe alternative to candles).
Pinterest is a great source of inspiration for table dressing, particularly for crafty ways of creating an eye-catching look without ripping through your budget. Food itself can be used as decoration. Fruit, veg or herbs are instant fresheners. Spray-painted pumpkins piled high for autumn, perhaps, or simple, colourful fruits like limes, lemons and green apples, which can be poured into glass vases.
When it comes to plates, shape and colour are the first things your guests will notice. Square plates go in and – most recently – out of fashion, but you can’t go wrong with round.
Colour should reflect the nature of the event, but do think about the menu you’re serving, as food can look ugly on heavily patterned or brightly coloured plates. If in doubt, stick with white (you can always dress it up with a coloured charger plate underneath). For summer events, look at mismatched vintage styles. You could bring in your corporate colours of course, but do decide whether they’d improve the eating experience or induce a collective bout of nausea.
Glassware is key. Wine glasses might usually be see-through (though coloured glass can add visual interest to a table) but they will be noticed as soon as they get picked up, so they should feel pleasant to hold. Heed the sommelier’s well-worn mantra: good wines deserve a decent glass while bad wines need all the help they can get. For a candle-lit dinner, consider using vintage-style cut crystal, which reflects the light and creates a pretty sparkle.
It might sound obvious, but it’s important to consider how much space you have to work with on your table. You need to allow for roughly 24 inches for each guest. If you want to serve sharing platters you will need more and likewise, if you’re using large plates. There’s nothing worse for guests than being squashed in, elbow to elbow with their neighbour, and tightly spaced tables are harder for waiters to clear.
Always ask to return hired crockery and glassware dirty. They might have survived your guests, but the real danger zone is the kitchen – most breakages happen during the washing-up. Make life easy and leave it to the experts.
From the square plates of 90s pan-Asian to the copper pans of the noughties gastropub, table presentation has always taken its lead from the food fashions du jour. Now that provenance is top of the agenda and here to stay, so too are a host of earthy materials, from bark, oak, bamboo and banana leaves to hot stones, slate and shells, homely Kilner and jam jars and terracotta pots.
As the white-clothed dining institutions of higher times are making way for more casual concepts, silver and fine china have been swapped for more rustic presentation styles and good condiments restored to tables.
Likewise, table decoration has gone all country kitchen: potted herbs (which serve the dual purpose of providing greenery as well as optional food flavouring), wild flowers in tins, salt pigs and bottles of olive oil.
In keeping with all this informality, sharing has proved to be more than just a passing trend. Expect family-style feasting, with homespun ceramic and cast iron serving dishes in the centre of the table for passing round.
This feature first appeared in the Square Meal Venues & Events Guide 2013.