If giving a dinner party is a kind of performance art, then the dinner table might aptly be considered theater-in-the-round. It’s a stage set for conviviality, an environment whose combination of ingredients celebrates the personality of the party-givers. The dinner tables pictured here vary from beachy to more formal, but for those setting the scene, the message is, “Welcome!” It’s all about hospitality.
Everything in the Bell Island beachside cottage shared by interior designer Marisa Bistany and her fiancé Tristram Perkins has a story. This makes for great conversation at the dinner parties the two love to throw. “I’m into ‘found’ items,” she says, adding that 99 percent of their furnishings are flea-market or tag-sale treasures ranging from antiques to “junk-tiques.”
For a recent party, with guests due by 6:30 p.m., the couple shopped together in the morning as usual. Then Tristram, an investment banker who loves to cook, took over in the kitchen while Marisa set the table and the theme — relaxed, casually elegant but definitely beachlike. “An atmosphere that welcomes sandy feet,” Marisa says. “One guest told us she felt like she was on vacation in Nantucket.”
The sounds of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett in the background create a mellow mood, one enhanced by a before-dinner drink of Tristram’s trademark hot spiced cider with whiskey. Guests choose their own seats for the delicious meal: a seaside menu of black bean and cod cakes. And there’ll be real whipped cream to top the homemade pumpkin pie for dessert.
An early-autumn dinner at the Rowayton home of Kristen Schadt and her husband, Andy, celebrates +a special definition of hospitality. “My father ran a restaurant; my mother was the events planner,” Kristen says. “I grew up watching them make each person feel special.”
Kristen’s parents’ message — “So lovely to see you. How good of you to come” — is elegantly rendered on the card attached with a gold bow to place cards that have a double function: Each custom-designed orange polka-dot paper cube is a gift for the guest to take home. Like the invitation and menu card, the cubes are available through Luxe, a company Kristen founded with another entrepreneurial at-home mom.
The meal is both a gourmet and a visual feast. “I wanted it to feel like a walk in the woods when the leaves are at their peak,” Kristen says. In keeping with the seasonal theme, the floral centerpiece is tucked into a moss-covered decanter.
“We’ll begin with pomegranate martinis,” says Kristen, a passionate cook who is responsible for the main course of roasted pork loin in a fig and port sauce. Dessert will be melt-in-your-mouth pumpkin flan, courtesy of one of the guests.
Karen Zuckart with
floral designer Loretta Stagen
A winged creature — a rooster, hen, swan, duckling, pheasant, pair of geese or a long-necked goose with a golden egg — guards each place setting at New Canaan artist Karen Zuckart’s dinner table. “They’re Herend porcelains,” she says. “I love them.”
A mother of three and graduate of the Chicago Institute of Art, Karen and her mom run Gingerbitz Gingerbread Designs. As a baker and enthusiastic chef, Karen has also been inspired by her mother-in-law’s definition of hands-on gracious living and is unabashedly sentimental about entertaining.
One ace up her sleeve? Her husband, Andrew, who not only cooks and makes a mean pitcher of spicy Bloody Marys but also cleans up. The secret to their wonderfully casual dinner parties is meticulous organization, which includes a written timeline for the week before. “When people arrive, I like to be relaxed,” explains Karen. “I’ll invite them to put on an apron and help.”
The Zuckart children (Max, Sally Rose and Abigail) decide who sits where, and they make the place cards. Dinner might be roast goose accompanied by Karen’s Aunt Carol’s famous chestnut dressing. As for dessert, the selection of homemade fruit pies and cakes will usually include a mincemeat pie made by her father. “He makes it with lots of rum,” Karen says.
When Darien’s Mary Bloomer left the world of investment banking to raise her three children seven years ago, one bonus was time to indulge her creativity. “I love to cook,” she says, “and to decorate my home.” Inviting friends, family and her husband Jeremy’s business colleagues to dinner has been a pleasure. On such occasions, Mary is both chef and designer of a very inventive table.
A big bargain shopper who likes to combine classic pieces with great buys, Mary set this table with orange glass service plates from Target; the underlying white chargers are from Crate & Barrel. An appetizer of roasted butternut squash
ravioli will be served on white leaf plates by Michael Avon. “Those are from Barneys,” she says.
Mary suggests a do-it-yourself bar to get the party started. An advocate of place cards, hers are nestled in clusters of orange berries in banana-leaf covered cups. “I like to separate husbands and wives,” she says, “and make sure that two shy people don’t end up sitting next to each other.”
After a gourmet meal culminating in an elegant tarte tatin, party games can lead the evening in delightfully unpredictable directions. “Twenty Questions is a great conversation-starter,” Mary says.
When the hostess is from Louisville, a Kentucky Derby party is always in season. Juleps served with fresh mint in traditional Derby glasses are guaranteed to break the ice. “The glasses are collectibles,” says interior designer Michelle Canning, who loves to introduce New Englanders to Southern regional specialties like “hot browns,” which make great hors d’oeuvres. Guests invited to the family’s Charleston-style home overlooking Five-Mile River in Darien can expect biscuits and honey plus corn pudding and scalloped tomatoes to accompany a filet of beef served in a casually elegant atmosphere.
Place cards with an autumn leaf motif deliberately “spread the talkers around” Michelle’s mahogany pedestal table flanked by nineteenth-century English chairs. The blues and browns of a Scottish pottery planter reiterate the dining room’s color palette, while glossy green magnolia leaves from a tree in the backyard set off chartreuse eucalyptus, deep purple calla lilies and brown cattails. Green artichokes fill an antique blue and white porcelain footed Staffordshire compote guarded by seated Sister Parish bronze whippets holding ivory candles.
So what’s for dessert? A favorite recipe from the Colonel Sanders Cookbook, Michelle’s go-to source for down-home recipes. “Chess pie,” she says. “It’s crème brûlée, Southern style.”
PLANNING A PARTY?
Consider these hints from our hostesses:
Get organized. A well-executed week before the party will let you relax when your guests arrive. The point of entertaining is for everyone to enjoy the evening.
When it comes to setting the dinner table, let yourself play. Whimsy rules.
Look in your own backyard for raw materials. Twigs, flowers, leaves, pinecones, interesting rocks and shells add texture to your table.
Have fun with color. Coordinate with your dining room décor, but add some new variations.
Be eclectic. Dare to mix dishes, silverware, glasses and table linens. Juxtapose flea-market finds with actual antiques.
Be sentimental. Use family heirlooms and legendary recipes.
Don’t overdo the hors d’oeuvres. You want to just tweak the appetite in preparation for the main meal.
Welcome cocktails are great icebreakers, but remember that your guests are likely to be drinking on an empty stomach.
If your children are interested, find something they can do to help.
Do what you’re good at and what you enjoy. Let professionals handle the rest.
Where to buy it
Over the years the individual hostesses have collected many of the items pictured, while they purchased others from the resources listed below.
DESIGN / GIFTS, etc.
Greenwich (203) 422-5421Westport (203) 259-0043
•Barneys barneys.com New York, NY (212) 826-8900
•Bungalow Westport (203) 227-4406
•Crate & Barrel crateandbarrel.com
White Plains, NY (914) 682-0900
•Hoagland’s Greenwich (203) 869-2127
•Home Goods homegoods.com
Norwalk (203) 853-1204 Stamford (203) 964-9416
•Ikea ikea.com New Haven (203) 865-4532
•Jean’s Silver jeanssilversmiths.com
New York, NY (212) 575-0723
•Kate’s Paperie katespaperie.com
Greenwich (203) 861-0025
•LUXE soluxe.com (203) 246-4979
•Lynnens lynnens.com Greenwich (203) 629-3659
•Rinfret Home and Garden
Greenwich (203) 622-0204
•S. Browne & Co. New Canaan (203) 966-2403
•Simon Pearce simonpearce.com Greenwich (203) 861-0780 Westport (203) 226-2353
•Smith & Hawken smithanhawken.com New Canaan (203) 972-0820 Westport (203) 454-0010
•Target target.comStamford (203) 388-0006
•Gingerbitz Gingerbread Design
New Canaan (203) 801-0281
•Loaves & Fishes Cookshop
Bridgehampton, NY (631) 537-6066
•Mint Premium Foods Tarrytown, NY (914) 703-6511
•Brooke Connors Design Rowayton (203) 434-4302
•Colony Florist Greenwich (800) 227-7836
•Loretta Stagen Floral Design lorettastagen.com Stamford (203) 323-3544