How To Tablescape For A Dinner Party, According To Restaurateurs & Stylists

By Madeleine Crutchley
Lessons from two top chefs and a seasoned stylist will make decorating this party season feel easy. Table styled by Kendyl Middelbeek. Photo / Babiche Martens

A thoughtfully decorated table isn’t about fuss — it’s about creating a sense of connection and care. Just in time for party season, chefs from top Auckland restaurants and a seasoned stylist share their lessons for tablescaping.

Tablescaping, a slightly flamboyant portmanteau of table and landscaping, refers to the careful

This attention to detail, for table settings and interior design more widely, is an attribute present in some of the top dining rooms in the country. Restaurants host guests every evening, seeking to make dinner feel like a special occasion. Carefully curated decor is an inherently important part of this experience.

Two new restaurants in Tāmaki Makaurau, both recently listed in Viva’s Top 50 Auckland Restaurants 2023, have carefully considered the visual elements of their dining rooms.

Forest, which shifted locations earlier this year, moved from a (very) cosy space on Upper Symonds St to a much roomier location on Dominion Rd. Plabita Florence, chef and owner of the popular plant-based establishment, collaborated with friends, and keen customers, Hannah Broatch and Mason Rattray, of Hatch Workshop, to forge a distinct look in the fresh location.

“We wanted it to feel really homely, always warm, always inviting. I didn’t want it to feel stuffy or pretentious at all because that’s not me,” says the chef.

Similarly, Dan Freeman, the chef and co-owner of the “100 per cent not authentic” taco spot Ragtag, worked with friend and designer Matt South to curate a pleasant, welcoming space in the snug Westmere neighbourhood restaurant — which meant finding “nooks and crannies” to put things in.

“It’s definitely functionality over design, but Matt’s very good at what he does. We made it all useable, but it’s pretty squeezed in. That’s one of the perils of having a tiny buzzy restaurant but, also, it always feels buzzing.”

To create a sense of style and charm in the small space, the restaurant makes use of unique dishes, finding personality in the plates (which diners uncover with each nibble of their chosen meal).

Seasoned stylist Fiona Hughes, who recently worked with Henry and Debby Onesemo to shape a unique space for their fine dining restaurant Tala, is also a keen dinner party host. For Fiona, thoughtful decoration of a table is a necessity in supporting a special evening.

“For me, it’s about creating memories and making people feel comfortable enough to share. I’m opening my home and sharing with them. It’s all about creating a good time around the table, and food is the thing that sticks us all together, inevitably.”

The chefs and stylists, experienced in throwing memorable dinner parties (of sorts), reflect on their own experiences of hosting — sharing the lessons they’ve learned about shaping a welcoming space.

Chef Plabita seeks a sense of play in Forest’s decor, reflecting the creative and distinct approach of the restaurant’s vegetarian dishes. Photo / Forest
Chef Plabita seeks a sense of play in Forest’s decor, reflecting the creative and distinct approach of the restaurant’s vegetarian dishes. Photo / Forest

Create Something Unique

When imagining the new space for Forest, Plabita wanted something totally different to the original bright and airy restaurant.

The dining room is splashed with vibrant but earthy colours. The ornate pressed tin ceilings are suitably stamped with floral detailing and the upper part of the walls are painted a grassy green. The walls in the front room are a warming cream (one has received an artful scrawl of crayon) while the backroom bathes diners in a deep purple and sunlight through an open door to the garden. Each table is arranged with tiny makeshift vases and flowers.

It’s a far cry from the original “landlord white” paint that Plabita inherited. The chef says these choices were about communicating a thoughtful sense of care towards customers and making the space feel original.

“I didn’t want it to feel like a fit-out. I want to feel like you look around and you know that somebody has picked these things, and it feels human.”

Dan also looked to the decor in Ragtag, to communicate the ethos of the restaurant and play with the theming.

For example, plenty of the plates are sourced secondhand, from the Salvation Army or Hospice (those iconic Arcoroc fish plates, also served up at wine bar Flor, Bar Magda and Latin restaurant Tempero, are among the thrifty picks) or gifted from Daniel’s parents’ cafe. Among the more uniform pieces, there are sturdy American diner plates, which Dan crammed into suitcases on a trip back from the US.

“There are other elements that are really, you know, ‘ragtag’, pieced together from what we could get ... It’s a little more fun, it’s nice to see people serve on things you don’t see everywhere else.”

Fiona says these approaches, leaning into a sense of playfulness and piecing a range of styles together, can make a table feel special.

“There are some incredible artisans out at the moment, doing some beautiful stuff. To chuck that in with family heirlooms can make a nice juxtaposition between modern and vintage — it’s always quite fresh and beautiful.”

The stylist also suggests sourcing pieces from a wide range of places can make a meal feel more storied too.

“I think that’s cool for the holidays, you know, ‘These are Nana’s champagne flutes that were a wedding present.’ It’s a nice little bit of nostalgia and heritage to bring through to your dining.”

Looking to seasonal fare can help to ground an event in the present moment. Photo / Babiche Martens
Looking to seasonal fare can help to ground an event in the present moment. Photo / Babiche Martens

Decorate (And Cook) Seasonally

Fiona looks to set each dinner party celebration firmly in the moment, grounding the cuisine, decoration and plating in the present season.

“For me personally, at home when I’m entertaining, I will usually base it around the seasons, or what is currently happening in my garden. I always make sure I’m cooking food that’s really current and in season. The [table settings] always align with the food I’m cooking.”

This is also a huge part of Plabita’s ethos at Forest, as the menu changes weekly to accommodate new-season fruit and vegetables. The stacked jars of preserves and leafy decor throughout the restaurant change accordingly too. This makes the space feel lived in and earthy, while still pointing back to the main star of the show — the food.

Serve Something To Share

An essential for the table, especially for a big dinner party, is a shared serving or visual. Fiona says there is one staple that has never failed to delight at a gathering.

“Important for me is always a decent antique breadboard, piled with bread, either baguettes or sliced sourdough — like, breaking bread with people.”

The stylist also suggests that handing out drinks from a specific station, with both alcohol-free and more spirited options, can help to drive conversation between diners. This might include a big ice bucket with sparkling varieties or a space where guests mix and garnish their own drinks together.

A scattering of candles across a table can also create a lovely fixture for a shared table. Dan says this is a simple way to transform the cosy Ragtag space from day to night.

“We’ve also got dimmable lights and things like that. We like to light candles at night - they look very nice and bring an atmosphere.”

The fish tostadas are served on a swimmy fish dish, for a bit of fun, at Ragtag. Photo / Babiche Martens
The fish tostadas are served on a swimmy fish dish, for a bit of fun, at Ragtag. Photo / Babiche Martens

Plate To Match

In imagining the Dominion Rd space for Forest, Plabita wanted to ensure the design and decor made sense for the food (having felt restricted in the previous Eden Terrace spot).

“That was one of the biggest limitations of that space, and I wanted to get the space to match what I wanted to do with the food. A lot of the same things should be reflected, like there’s playfulness and vibrance.”

At Ragtag, Dan also works creatively to find commonalities with the plates. The fish dishes, satisfyingly, are served on kitschy, fishy varieties. The plating and garnish on the plate itself are also fully considered and a little cheffy.

“We obviously want things to look complete on a plate, so we want to have two or three elements, but we normally finish them with something that’s trimmed from the dish — like if there’s tomato we’ll dehydrate the skin, turn it into a powder and dust that on the top. It adds to that busyness on the plate. We want everything to be a bit mismatched and a little bit unique.”

Fiona suggests an out-of-the-box technique for matching some furnishings to your chosen flowers or dishes.

“[This] is a little hack I always use, when I’m planning an event. I’ll whip out to a fabric store and get either some 100 per cent cotton or linen and tear that up into a square. It’s quite nice to get something a bit different from what you might buy in a homeware store.”

Plabita’s supply of flowers for Forest is close to home. Photo / Babiche Martens
Plabita’s supply of flowers for Forest is close to home. Photo / Babiche Martens

Find & Forage

Part of the real enjoyment of sitting in Forest is admiring the smattering of flowers and greenery within, popped into oddly shaped vases or fixed to the walls. Although they look precise and pretty, Plabita explains they’re not an expensive addition to the space.

“My mum is a dog walker and she forages (slash steals) from around the place. They’re always different and sometimes I’ll even forage something from what she brings [for the kitchen]. I love it when it’s free, not because I’m getting a bargain, but [because] it takes the effort to do it. It’s so easy and so unique.”

Fiona also makes use of this trick when setting up those seasonal dinner parties.

“The table will align itself with whatever centrepiece or arrangement I’ve foraged from the garden.”

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