Greek philosopher Epicurus once said, “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.”
It seems humans have indeed always enjoyed gathering to eat, even pre-Epicurus, with evidence of communal feasting going back tens of thousands of years to when flint blades were used as primitive cutlery.
As our species progressed so did methods of dining, and for many this meant gathering around a table. Aristocratic males ate from low tables at the Greek symposiums of the 9 and 8 century BC; Roman triclinia featured three couches surrounding the table; large trestle-style tables filled the Great Halls of the Middle Ages; and Victorians sat at tables beneath extravagant chandeliers.
In her book “Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat,” professor Louise O. Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, mentions that while a quarter of the world’s population do not eat at a table, for those who do, the table has become “a stage” – a symbol of solidarity and an enforcer of tradition and ritual. “The table is the center of a universe in which we seek our place, revolving like planets around the sun,” she writes.
While the banqueting and tradition of yesteryear may have made way for quick dinners at the kitchen island for many families today, the dining table “stage” has managed to survive in many homes, continuing to draw family together, especially at special occasions.
But how to choose the perfect location for Epicurean meals, traditions and rituals? No matter what your taste, budget or space restrictions there is a dining table perfect for your home and family.
How to choose a shape, style and material
Round, square, rectangular, oval or free form? Choosing the right shape of table for your dining space can make a difference to both the look and function of the space.
Rectangular dining tables may be the most popular and useful in terms of function, coming in a wide range of widths and lengths to fit any room size or layout. Extra leaves are also available allowing growth if more guests are expected and room space allows.
Oval or circular tables on the other hand make it easy to add seats when needed, and make conversation between diners easy. These also work well in small spaces due to their smaller footprints.
However, it is not just the shape that you should take into consideration.
“There are so many little things that people forget to consider when choosing a dining table,” says Lydia Uzzell of Lydia Uzzell Interior Design. “I think the best advice I can give is to consider both the dining table and dining chairs at the same time, to avoid a lot of common mistakes. For example – if you plan on banquette seating you must have a pedestal table otherwise the table legs obstruct access to the banquette, if you like the idea of dining chairs with arms you must choose a table with an apron that the arms will fit under, and if you are looking at especially wide chairs you need to make sure your table legs are far enough apart to accommodate them.”
The table’s materials can be chosen to match the style of your home, whether an elegant glass-top, laminate, metal, tile, marble or traditional wood. Remember however, dining tables are likely to take a beating.
“I love specifying tables for our clients that have some type of texture in the finish, nothing too shiny or smooth, so that they don’t have to be precious about using it,” says Lydia. “Entertaining, and even just spending time around the table with the family, is so much more enjoyable when you aren’t worried about the furniture being damaged.”
Another top tip from Lydia is to avoid ‘sets’ of matching dining tables and chairs if you are after a designer look. “It is perfectly OK to mix and match timbers and finishes, and Pinterest and Houzz offer tones of visual guidance if you are nervous about getting it right.”
Do your measurements
When choosing a table keep these measurements in mind, as advised by online home goods company Wayfair. To make sure there is enough room to maneuver around the table leave at least 36 inches, but preferably 42-48 inches, around the table. If you are planning on serving food away from the table you can reduce the table width to 28-30 inches, or if needing place settings and serving pieces then 36 inches will be a better width.
Think about how many people you would like to seat, and allow 24 inches per place setting. Utilizing a bench instead of separate seats, or buying an extending table with extra leaves with also increase the number of possible place settings.
To soften up the space a rug may be a good addition, and measurements also matter in this area.
“Our goal is always to design spaces that are inviting and encourage people to linger,” says Lydia. “While a rug isn’t practical for everyone, it adds a huge amount of warmth to a dining room, and helps pull the space together. Be mindful of size – you want the rug to be at least 24 inches larger than the dining table on all sides.”
Dressing and setting the table
Accents on the dining room table can reflect the formality of the dinner and create extra atmosphere. Use textured table runners such as lace or jute, and use the color of your serveware to set the tone if you have the option – with neutrals for more formal affairs and color blocking or patterns for more informal events. Adding natural elements appropriate to the season or event as centerpieces can also add an extra touch.
When it comes to setting the table, a simple knife and fork will likely do for most family dinners, but when extra company is expected hosts may want to make sure they get it right.
Etiquette and manners experts The Emily Post Institute ‘lays’ out their directives for setting the table for basic, informal and formal purposes on their website www.emilypost.com.
For basic setting, simply remember the word FORKS. From left to right, F is for fork, O is for the shape of a plate, K is for knives and S is for spoons.
To remember which side is for bread and butter plate and utensils, and which side is for drinks glasses, touch the tips of your forefingers to the tips of your thumb – you’ll see a lowercase b (bread and butter) on the left, and a lowercase d (drinks) on your right.
Other things to remember are to face knife blades to the plate and the napkin to the left of the fork or on the plate.
For guides on more intricate informal and formal settings visit The Emily Post Institute website.