How to Throw a Coffee Table Dinner Party


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The median price per square foot of a Manhattan apartment is $1,500. The median price per square foot of a Los Angeles home is $723. The median price per square foot in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood is roughly $395. And not a single one of the apartments listed on Zillow at that price point in any of those places has a dining room.

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The dining room dinner party is a staple of film and archival magazine photography. The Astors and Rockefellers and Carnegies and Hearsts all ENTERTAINED in all caps. Hired staff — wine pourers and plate bussers — brought out Chicken Kiev and Beef Wellingtons in cloches, laying porcelain china plates on white linen. In the absence of a dining room (and an inheritance), that kind of aesthetic isn’t achievable (at least right now, dream big!), so people looking to throw dinner parties still default to the kitchen table with formica surfaces on linoleum floors. Bad call.

When high-end is off the table, it’s best to get low. The coffee table dinner party is to be embraced. Lean in, get down, and enjoy.

How to Set a Coffee Table

A dinner needs a table, and that table needs to be set. More specifically, it needs a tablecloth. “I think placemats can feel a little overwhelming so by putting down a tablecloth you bypass the need for placemats,” says design consultant Travis Paul Martin. “I also like to use a bold napkin that coordinates with the tablecloth but is not matchy-matchy,” Martin adds, also mentioning that a deeper color is better in that it creates a warmer feeling.

Also, dark colors make a great underlayer for bright, colorful food like green salads or red meats. The idea (cooking skills aside) is to provide a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the stomachs. To that end, investing in bold dinnerware like the plates from East Fork Pottery or the cutlery sets from Sabre makes sense.

East Fork Pottery Plates
East Fork Pottery Plates

East Fork Pottery Plates (4-Pack)

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Price: $128.00 $95.45

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Ssense Sabre Green Bistrot Brilliant Flatware Set
Ssense Sabre Green Bistrot Brilliant Flatware Set

Ssense Sabre Green Bistrot Brilliant Flatware Set

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Price: $55.00

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According to designer Lanier Hicks, even your serveware can do double duty. “Repurpose serving pieces! In New York, space is at a premium so the idea of storage for serving pieces is laughable,” she says. “We already ask our spaces to work in multiple ways so why not think the same about your kitchen supplies? Why can’t a colander hold citrus for cocktails? Think copper baking pans that are filled with berries and plantain chips while roasted veg sit on a ceramic pie dish.”

In the absence of a big, beautiful room that looks like money, bold, unexpected table settings need to look like thoughtfulness. A great trick to ensure that everything seems intentional? Add very small dessert plates. “Coffee table dining is a balancing act of elbows, wine glasses, and candle frames. Clearing up some of the real estate with little vessels rather than large serving pieces is key.” Perhaps try ones with small graphics like these from Amano Brooklyn.

Amano Brooklyn Hand Painted Ceramic Plates
Amano Brooklyn Hand Painted Ceramic Plates

Amano Brooklyn Hand-Painted Ceramic Plates

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Price: $30.00

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“I like things in odd numbers. So sometimes I will do a set of candlesticks and then three small flower arrangements down the center of the table,” says Martin. “Or, one flower arrangement surrounded by a bunch of votives. I like using small bud vases for little arrangements. But you can also just use an empty low-drinking glass. I also think it’s fun to add in an interesting candlestick color or a candle with great texture on it.”

Food52 Hawkins New York Aurora Sphere Colored Glass Vase
Food52 Hawkins New York Aurora Sphere Colored Glass Vase

Food52 Hawkins New York Aurora Sphere Colored Glass Vase

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Price: $42.00 - $75.00

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And then there’s the seating. Guests need some back support. Sure, you can pull up the sofa or move an armchair into position, but consider these floor seats from Temu. They’re adjustable and have backs. They don’t really account for where to put your legs, but it’s better than sitting criss-cross applesauce and having terrible posture. They cost $34 and can be shoved under a bed. Similarly, these chairs from Bed, Bath, and Beyond look like a fold-up version of the Jeanneret Chair and can be stacked up against the back of a closet.

Temu 1pc Small Adjustable Recliner Rocker
Temu 1pc Small Adjustable Recliner Rocker

Temu 1pc Small Adjustable Recliner Rocker

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Price: $34.38

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Bed Bath and Beyond SAFAVIEH Couture Desiree Cane Folding Dining Chair
Bed Bath and Beyond SAFAVIEH Couture Desiree Cane Folding Dining Chair

Bed Bath and Beyond SAFAVIEH Couture Desiree Cane Folding Dining Chair

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Price: $316.99

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“Clear the table of books and objects in favor of a flower arrangement—can be as simple as bodega blooms of Trader Joe’s—or tapered candles like you’d see on a traditional table,” says Hadley Keller, director of editorial and community for the Design Leadership Network. “Then, rely on small plates! Forget large dinner sizes and use salad-sized options so you can fit more. Employ a counter, sideboard, or entry table to serve buffet style, and have your guests gather around the coffee table when they’ve helped themselves.”

She adds that if you’re really looking to lean in, employ Japan’s “Chabudai” of seating and arrange floor pillows instead of dining chairs.

If you really want to lean into it, go Japanese “Chabudai” style and arrange some floor pillows in lieu of dining chairs.

“Most importantly, make sure the drinks are flowing, the candles are lit, and the playlist is turned up. Good dinner parties are about the ambiance, no matter the table size,” says Keller.

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