How To Set The Stage For A Summer Dinner Party
Summer brings endless opportunities for entertaining family and friends, from al fresco mid-week meals to holiday barbecues to formal fêtes. The word “entertaining” itself implies that there’s going to be a show of some kind, and Melanie leans into that mindset with her legendary dinner parties.
“Dinner parties are like stories to me,” said Melanie. “There’s a cast of characters. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s a structure to the story arc; you plan everything in great detail, but you’ll always be surprised by something. A recipe doesn’t quite ‘make’, for instance. The mousse doesn’t set. Someone doesn’t show up, or someone you didn’t invite arrives unexpectedly. Maybe someone starts telling secrets…”
“Dinner parties are quirky little dramas and as the host, you’re the producer, the set director, the prop master and the sound engineer!”
If you’re lucky, the surprises won’t ruin the affair. But, like just about any other endeavor, luck will only get you so far. A dinner party definitely benefits from having a plan. It doesn’t need to be fussy or fastidious—especially when you’re sharing a relaxed summertime meal—but by starting with a script, you’ll keep your summer ‘theater’ production smooth, simple and low-stress.
“The whole process is very analytical to me, as well as creative,” said Melanie. “I think about the menu—how ambitious can I get and still pull it off? How do these tastes evolve through the evening? What wine goes with that?”
She approaches the menu a little differently in the summer, too: more fresh fruits and vegetables, more fish. White wine rather than red. A cheese plate with fig preserves for dinner.
And while sometimes she thinks she loves the planning more than the dinner party itself, she also has a soft spot for more spur-of-the-moment meals.
“A couple of nights ago, Mr. H and I ate our first home grown eggplants of the season, with a side of farmer’s market corn and a cucumber salad,” said Melanie. “I didn’t even put out plates. We sat at a small round table, covered with a patterned cloth. “
Think about what kind of setting you want your cast of characters to be in—how the table looks is a big part of the story you’re telling. It sets the mood: Is this event formal and over-the-top or is it casual and intimate?
Looking for inspiration? Embrace the ease and beauty of the summer season.
“I definitely get less formal in the summer,” said Melanie. “I love our new SmithHönig paper placemats. They add so much color and pattern to the table, but still seem really light and breezy. Plus, since there are so many patterns to choose from, it gets my creativity flowing.”
And for Melanie, the dishes aren’t just part of her storytelling, they often have their own stories, too.
“I have my wedding china and Mid-Century gilded pieces by Culver and Georges Briard, and my mom’s Homer Laughlin pieces that used to come in laundry detergent boxes,” said Melanie. “I just started collecting Wedgwood pieces that were designed as part of a 1962 collaboration between Kruger National Park and the World Wildlife Fund.”
The vintage dish obsession is a family thing. The go-to gifts between Melanie and her sisters are often vintage dishes.
“Funnily enough, every now and then my sisters and I all borrow from each other because despite our ridiculous collections, we just want to use something different,” said Melanie. “I don’t have any classic Blue Willow pieces for instance. But last Christmas, I borrowed my sister’s for Christmas dinner at my house and mixed them with red tartan.“
While all the planning and creative table setting is a delight for Melanie, summer entertaining is all about keeping it low-stress and enjoying the company of your family and friends. The most important thing you can create are memories of a fun night together.
We’re all about tassels-not-hassles when it comes to entertaining, after all!
Here are some of Melanie’s favorite summer place setting tips to capture that bright and festive feeling. Always elegant, yet simple enough to pull together on busy days.
- To find the right pop of color, start with a playful paper placemat to set the foundation for your table setting. “If there’s a tiny bit of blue in a placemat design, there will probably be a blue charger or a blue flower on a bowl used in the place setting.“
- Focus on one color that can beautifully embody the cheerful spirit of summer. “I am also absolutely in love with the colors of our new flax linen napkins. They feel really fresh to me.”
- Summer tables are meant to be casual and unique.” The African grass baskets are great at the table, too. So much color. They’re great for serving bread, wrapped in a colorful napkin.”
- While sticking with one style of dishware is a classic approach, it’s also fun to mix and match designs. “I love mixing colors and patterns. Suddenly, a piece will look totally different when used with something new. Almost anything goes—really!”
Set the stage for your next summer dinner party. Shop SmithHönig for the table.