I recently had a glass topper made for my round, wooden dining table. It was something I had contemplated for decades, every time I set the table for a dinner party, which involved hauling table mats up from the basement, then back down after the party. It took the quiet of the pandemic for me to take decisive action. One call to Santa Fe glass and several days later the topper was gently plopped down on my table by two nice men wielding suction tools.
Why did I ever wait so long? Now I can feed people a spontaneous dinner in my dining room without table mat struggle. I can burn a hundred votives if I want to, and I can dispense with tablecloths altogether. Which is not to say I ever would, because there is something so uplifting about the sight of a set table, anchored by a pretty tablecloth. Pure linen with a hemstitch makes for the best tablecloth, but clean, crisp bed sheets will do nicely. Throw them over the table straight out of the dryer—no creases or wrinkles! Here are some other highly subjective nuggets of wisdom about fine tableware.
A Wine Glass Primer from Dan
My friend Dan Nilsen has a discerning eye for many things, including wine glasses. I thought I had decent everyday wine glasses until one carefree pre-pandemic day, when I went shopping with him for a gathering at his house. He had mentioned his wine glass supply was low; I suggested we swing by World Market to look at the pinot noir glasses I use as everyday red-wine glasses, sometimes as water goblets. I hasten to add these are from the store’s more refined “Connoisseur” series, as distinct from their “Event Glasses.” As we stood in front of the display, Dan examined the glass and gently pointed out its shortcomings: the stem has seams; the bowl is thick, unpleasing to sip from; and the point where the stem meets the foot is graceless and indelicate. “I’ll just go to Halls and pick some up later,” he said, feet pointed toward the door.
I haven’t yet replaced my wine glasses. But we break wine glasses regularly—cheap ones shatter more easily—so next time I buy new, I’ll know better. In the meantime, I’ll lovingly serve wine out of my World Market glasses. I would never let lack of the perfect wine glass—or the perfect anything else—stop me from having my friends over. Neither should you, honey. But it is confidence-building to know you are serving guests from beautiful tableware, isn’t it? You can proudly share take-out or store-bought fare when you know your table looks gorgeous.
And Speaking of Halls and Wine Glasses
My friend Kelly Cole, happily retired president of Halls, quotes verbatim what the Neiman Marcus saleslady said to him when he purchased his very first set of crystal wine glasses many years ago: “One thing about washing these? Do it the next morning.” And he has wisely followed that advice ever since.
Breakage issues notwithstanding, who feels like handwashing anything anyway, after an evening of wine, food, and revelry? Before I turn in, it’s all I can do to get the food put away and one load going in the dishwasher. In fact, Kelly tells me many Halls tableware purchases came down to that single question—can you throw it in the dishwasher?
An aside about Halls and tableware: the venerated retailer has recently phased out of tableware and no longer offers a bridal registry. If you are a bride-to-be looking for that same level of quality and unquestioned good taste, Kelly recommends local purveyor Sharyn Blond Linens, whose Crestwood store boasts a full-service bridal registry.
A further aside, this one about Kelly himself: after selling their Mission Hills house in two days(!) he and husband Charles Shrout next month are moving their dapper selves back home to Laguna Beach. They will be much missed and promise to visit KC often.
But Back to the Dishwasher Question
At my house, practically everything goes in the dishwasher. If I had to hand wash my dishes, glassware, and silver, I would never have another dinner party. For one thing, I am a lazy sack of sloth. For another, I go through a lot of stuff. The glassware alone is dreadful, what with aperitifs, wine glasses, water goblets, after-dinner drinks. It all goes through the dishwasher, on the china setting, and everything almost always comes out okay, even when I am flagrantly violating the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Dish Companies: Not the Boss of Us
Don’t let the marketeers dictate how you use your stuff. You can serve a margarita out of any glass you like. You can use your cereal bowls for dessert, your dessert plates for nachos, your teacups for pre-dinner servings of chilled white gazpacho. (Email me for this and any other recipe mentioned herein!) You most definitely don’t need to be confined to having full place settings of everything. Be fearless about mixing patterns.
For a dinner party I use two separate sets of dinner plates because I serve a plated salad as a first course—Ina Garten’s endive, pear, and Roquefort salad is divine, or her arugula with Parmesan—and I like to have plenty of room for error when I drop it on the plate. Then I use another set of plates for the main course. It’s fun to have a variety of plate choices, providing you have storage space. You can find cheap, smart-looking earthenware dinner plates at Target, World Market, Pier One. Just don’t expect them to last like fine-china plates which, though delicate-looking, are much more resistant to chipping and cracking.
When it comes to tableware, Sharyn Blond tells me tradition is very much alive in Kansas City. The wedding registry at her store continues to see engaged couples registering for crystal, linens, and fine china. That’s good news, as it makes wedding-gift shopping much easier. Just send the bride and groom a place setting of their china and call ‘er done.
If I were registering today, I’d ask for eight Sferra Classico linen dinner napkins, 24-inch by 24-inch. Sheer luxury. But there’s no crime in using “buffet napkins” from World Market. You can find sets of six for ten bucks, in a wide variety of colors. It’s handy to have a few packages stored away for spur-of-the-moment dinners.
Call Me Old-fashioned
Are you inheriting sterling-silver flatware? If so, lucky you. When I was a new bride, my mother-in-law gave me place settings for 12 in the Joan of Arc pattern—including iced-tea spoons and butter spreaders—and for years I was too dim-witted to appreciate the fabulousness of it. But now I do, and I thank her up in heaven every time I set my table. I use my sterling for even the most casual gathering because it looks and feels marvelous, and it’s certainly never going to be the worse for having been used.
That’s the thing about sterling. It never wears out, unlike silver plate, which can look just as exquisite but will go downhill with use and begin to expose its seamy copper underbelly. Still, it’s the next best thing to sterling. You can buy tarnished silver-plate flatware for a song in junk shops and flea markets, polish it up and set a magnificent-looking table. Your guests won’t care that it’s not sterling. They are just happy to be sitting at your table. In fact, your guests won’t care if it’s stainless from Tar-jhay. Just don’t use plastic, darling, unless it’s the direst of emergencies, or a picnic.
An Easy “Peasy” Soup
I found this — the perfect first course for a spring dinner party — in Ricky Lauren’s beautiful book The Hamptons: Food, Family and History. I use Green Giant frozen sweet peas and my immersion blender, and it’s done in no time! You can serve it hot or cold.
Spring Pea Soup
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3¾ cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 pound fresh peas, shelled, or 4 cups frozen peas
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped mint
Melt the butter in a saucepan and sauté the onion and garlic until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the stock and peas. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil.
Add the mint, then purée the soup in batches in a blender or by using an immersion blender. Check for seasoning. To serve chilled, refrigerate at least four hours. Serve with Parmesan crisps.