I remember the interior décor of the house we lived in when I was very young as a marvellously on-trend seventies family home with brown patterned wallpaper, orange melamine tableware, a telephone on a table in the hall and brand new thick (possibly shag pile) carpet that had been installed over the old fashioned, herringbone parquet flooring (I know, I know). There was also a hostess trolley that was used when we had Chinese food (high days and holidays) that otherwise resided in the dining room – a room that we children went in only at Christmas and adults went into only for a dinner party. The house was far from huge so preserving a room for so few occasions meant that a quarter of the downstairs rooms in the house were pretty much out of action most of the time. I remember the room being a much less comfortable proposition than our kitchen table which was on the whole a pretty inviting place to be. Despite preserving the dining room as a no-go area, my mother did insist on all food being eaten at the kitchen table and I have reflected on this quite a bit during the last year when daily customs have been challenged and it has been tempting to allow standards to slip whilst we cope with being confined to our homes.
So how do we, in our modern world, tear ourselves away from the temptation to graze whilst stretched out on a comfortable sofa in front of the latest Netflix series? Part of the answer lies in the effort put into eating well but equally, just as we are drawn to a restaurant by the whole experience, the vibe of a place as well as the cuisine, it is vital to create an attractive and inviting place to eat in the home.
The location of a dining table is curiously tricky. It needs to be near enough to the kitchen as no one wants to carry food a long way to a table or indeed dirty dishes back again. However, the kitchen isn’t the only option and consideration needs to be given to whether you can give a bit of breathing space between the food preparation area and the dining space. Part of the issue is that by its nature, a table gives several different views of a space. One person may have the luxury of a view onto a garden, or an attractive picture or fireplace but another person may be looking at a chaotic scene of dirty pans and clearing up to be done. This can be managed with lighting changes between the cooking and eating stages and with clever kitchen planning, but for any dining table, it is worth considering the experience each person will have from each side of the table.
Lighting as ever is crucial, and this applies for both daytime and evening dining. There is a delicate balance at a dining table of being able to clearly see what you are eating, and to be able see your dining companions (perhaps not quite as clearly as the food) but lack of light can make for a dismal experience. You really want light directly onto the table which is why pendant lights are so useful in dining spaces and them some supplementary light behind the chairs such as lamps or subtle wall lights. Candles are almost always good on a table but rarely provide enough light on their own to see if there is a fly in your soup.
In a similar vein, temperature control is also important. It is lovely to have a fireplace in a dining area but unless the table and chairs are set back from the lit fire, you probably won’t be able to see it well from the table and it is possible the one or more people at the table could be uncomfortably hotter than others. And whilst we are on the subject, I am a great fan of a (practical) rug under a dining table. They define the area, making chairs and table look settled in a space, they soften noise levels and they keep your feet warm. Those with young children make a robust case against a rug but as soon as the high-chair is on Ebay, I would suggest introducing a low cost, forgiving rug under your dining table with a view to replacing it if things get significantly out of control at any particular mealtime, children or otherwise.
Dining in style should never mean a lack of comfort, indeed the more comfortable you can make your table, the more likely you are to use it regularly. The chairs need to be inviting, even if you sit in them for a long time, and the height of the seat relative to the table really does make a difference – if the seat is low to the table, you immediately feel like a child and too high is equally uncomfortable, particularly for your legs which will feel squashed against the underside of the table. There is also a world of selection, and not all expensive, for good crockery, cutlery, table mats, serving dishes, candlesticks and so on and I would encourage you to treat both your food and your stomachs to a thoughtfully presented table. I think it makes eating an occasion, rather than just refuelling ourselves. In addition, if you are anything like me, the end of the kitchen table could possibly be a resting place for a pile of paperwork, magazines, pens, post (etc. etc.) that seems to magically accumulate when you are not looking. Sort this out rather than let it creep along the table until you are trying to eat supper in the last two feet of the table that are uncluttered.
Finally, and I am going to show my age here, I would like to make a strongly-felt case for technology free dining. I am guilty of allowing a phone or tablet to appear on the table, then you just quickly check an email or look something up online and suddenly you are engrossed. It happens but it detracts and distracts from a good meal and even if you are dining alone, I would suggest trying to give yourself the time away from the online world, to concentrate on enjoying your food and your environment.
Whilst we wait and hope for the world to allow us to dine freely with friends and family once more and to enjoy the dining experiences provided by the good restaurants of our region, it should be a comfort to treat ourselves well at home and to dine in style at every meal, give or take the odd pizza/film Friday night exception.