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The Art of Dining ~A Modern Dilemma: Style vs. Convenience By Laura Dowling
n an 18th century Old Town row house overlooking the docks and warehouses of the old seaport of Alexandria, a group of friends gathers for a celebration. In the grand salon, furnished with period antiques, paintings, and objets d’art, guests are welcomed with flutes of champagne presented on English silver salvers. While they exchange news and mingle in this gracious setting, the host slips away to put the finishing touches to a dinner of many courses, including foie gras, langoustine, and filet of sole in champagne-chanterelle sauce. After drinks, the group moves to the dining room. The opulent table, laid with 18th century porcelain, antique French linens, finely chased silver, amethyst Baccarat crystal, and a dozen miniature bouquets, elicits cries of delight and appreciation from the group. As the host takes his seat at the head of the table, the guests pay tribute to his efforts, raising their glasses of 1990 Château Margaux in a celebratory toast, launching a brilliant evening. In theory, we admire and aspire to the “art of dining,” a romanticized ideal often evoked in literature and film, characterized by a beautiful setting, a lavishly decorated table, a delectable meal, and witty repartee. In our fantasies, we conjure up images of the place, the occasion, and most importantly, how we feel as participants in a spectacular event that unfolds with elaborate rituals, intricate manners and an elegant repast. At its best, refined dining elevates our civility and celebrates our relationships, bringing people together for many of life’s most important events. According to the19th century French author, Charles Pierre Monselet, “the most pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table.” Yet, despite our best intentions, we often succumb to the pressures of contemporary life, focusing more on speed and convenience than on the experience of dining in style. In the frenzy of work, errands, traffic and the many tasks of everyday life, the “art of dining” in the home is relegated to wishful thinking and becomes an infrequent occasion. Faced with the prospect of formal entertaining – the cooking, the cleaning and the Herculean effort it entails – a typical host descends into a state of panic and anxiety. Overwhelmed, the host settles on the familiar, utilizing the everyday dishes and silver that are dishwasher safe. Or, he or she calls in a cavalry of caterers to the rescue. In either case, the vintage service pieces, good porcelain and silver lie untouched in the sideboard. Even collectors are not immune to this dilemma. On the one hand, we covet and acquire the artifacts of gracious living and fine dining, from hand-painted porcelain and silver flatware to glittering crystal glasses and antique table linens. There is tremendous appeal in the implements of the table, these highly personal items that connect us to cherished celebrations, family tradition, and the customs and inimitable quality of the past. As artistic objects, the accoutrements of fine dining have great value and merit. We inherently recognize and appreciate their artistry when compared to their contemporary counterparts: the delicate turn of an 18th century goblet, the feel and weight of gleaming antique silver, the opulence of gilded porcelain, and the warm glow of a candle-lit chandelier. All of these pieces represent the aesthetic and heritage of earlier periods, and serve to create a unique ambience of savoir vivre. The irony, however, is that while we acquire and appreciate the accessories of fine dining, we balk at the fuss and upkeep required – the polishing, waxing, pressing, hand-washing, folding, stacking, etc. – and expend this intense level of effort only on the rarest of occasions. As a result, they are usually consigned to storage, hidden in boxes, or placed behind glass, to be enjoyed visually but not functionally. There is a solution to this dilemma. The key to using these wonderful pieces is to create a personal vision for the art of dining, recognizing that it is not an all or nothing proposition. One can set a beautiful table for an elaborate – or simple – meal, utilizing a mix of modern and antique pieces and by inventing contemporary uses for antiques. A highly decorated antique serving dish becomes a dramatic focal point when paired with simple rustic pottery, for example. Vintage salt cellars, commissioned into service as posy holders, would create charming floral embellishments at each place setting. A collection of silver trays can be cleverly re-purposed as chargers, adding sparkle to a candle-lit table. Many antique pieces make distinctive containers for fruit or flowers, including Victorian soup tureens, Chinese foot-baths, and Wedgwood porcelain urns. In reality, the possibilities are endless when it comes to mixing the modern with the antique at the table. And it is most interesting when antiques are used in new and unique ways. So, what is the ultimate meaning of the “art of dining?” However you choose to set your table, the key points to remember are to create a leisurely ambience, exude a spirit of generosity, and creatively use as many of your prized pieces as please your eye. It is this kind of gracious approach that sets the stage for relaxation and inspiration, providing a dining experience your guests will enjoy, remember, and wish to repeat. This photographic essay illustrates the art of elegant dining in Old Town Alexandria and the Virginia Hunt Country. We hope that these images, ranging from simple and spontaneous to grand and opulent, will inspire you to re-examine your cherished “objets de table” and use them to create your own distinctive “art of dining.” Laura Dowling is Principal of Intérieurs et Fleurs in Old Town Alexandria and Photographs by Richard Robinson Instructeur Associé of L’Ecole des Fleurs, Paris. Flower arrangements by Laura Dowling (www.lauradowling.com) Rakish Rococo For a special dinner party, Neptune rises from his palace of coral and shells on the ocean floor to preside over an elaborate seafood feast. This rare Derby figure on a base of shellwork, manufactured in England circa 1765, strikes a commanding pose and provides inspiration for the jaunty floral bouquet of seashells, roses, and orchids. A New York classical marble-topped sideboard, circa 1815, topped by Regency Sheffield plate wine coolers and an 18th century tea urn, create an urbane backdrop, while a large ancestral portrait, depicting the owner’s puckish great-great-great-great grandfather, surveys the scene with an amused glance.
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Rosemary and Thyme Time seems to stand still in this dreamy dining room, enveloped in floor to ceiling windows and streaming sunlight on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The painted Virginia furniture sets a rustic tone, but the mood is decidedly cool and contemporary given the use of striking jade-colored plates and timeless 20th century pressed glass stemware. A casual bouquet of summer daisies in a rosemary-covered vase adds fragrance and style to this charming country room.
Eclectic Empire Both the dishes and cachepots reflect the bold shapes and classic motifs that characterize the Empire period, creating the dominant theme for this lively setting. Two dinner services of Old Paris and Sèvres porcelain, one yellow and one tangerine, manufactured in France in the 1820s to 1840s, are creatively paired with a varied collection of silver trays on a 17th century Dutch table, and combined with antique French linen napkins that serendipitously feature the owner’s monogram. The warm setting is lighted by classical silver candlesticks and an 18th century Dutch chandelier.
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China Trade Local historians claim that blue and white Canton china served as ballast in the ships that arrived in the busy colonial seaport of Alexandria. Here, however, the 19th century Chinese export dishes cheer a sunroom overlooking the garden. Dappled sunlight reflects on the playful juxtaposition between the antique china and casual, contemporary napkins, denoting the light-hearted mood of the guests as they sit down to a simple lunch of pasta primavera, asparagus and fruit accompanied by a flinty Sauvignon blanc.
Crème de la Crème In this 19th century country cottage in the heart of Virginia’s Hunt Country, a late 18th century Virginia banquet table surrounded by painted New England chairs is set for an autumn feast, featuring circa 1800 Wedgwood creamware. The guests await a savory squash soup from the late harvest of the owners’ garden as a starter to the celebratory meal. A French nouveau Beaujolais fills the antique glasses, a vintage even fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson could approve.
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Summer in the City Refuge from the oppressive heat and humidity of the typical Washington summer is found in this formal, yet friendly dining room. The table setting perfectly marries the casual with the elegant, drawing on the homeowner’s collection of antique French silver, Federal style silver water pitcher, and cheerful 20th century yellow-rimmed floral dishes. The lavish bouquet of calla lilies and gladiolas echoes the floral motif of the dishes, bursting forth from an antique Chinese foot-bath, which is inventively brought to the table as a grand centerpiece. Fresh-picked mint from the city garden is muddled into the traditional Southern mint julep to start the summer celebration. En Plein Air A sophisticated poolside picnic combines inherited amethyst glass goblets with late 19th century Minton china depicting rustic Scottish scenes. These painted scenes mirror the actual garden views, a spectacular progression of “rooms,” created in the informal English tradition, overlooking the Virginia countryside. The cool green and white of the centerpieces blend with the blue/green depths of the pool, guaranteeing a relaxed and leisurely meal. A bronze boar’s head fountain, sculpted by one of the owners, adds a whimsical note to this serene setting.
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Halfway There In the 19th century, the tiny community of Halfway, Virginia, served as a stage coach stop for travelers midway between The Plains and Middleburg. The modern traveler will linger on the porch of this green and white cottage, furnished with an inviting collection of country chairs and tables, with a dry martini in hand. The sweet scent of summer roses further heightens the intoxicating mood.
Thé Classique Under the thoughtful gaze of philosophers Cicero and Seneca, (and the more pugnacious stare of Emperor Napoleon), guests in this grand salon will partake of late afternoon refreshments served from a Paris porcelain tea and coffee service with transfer-printed decoration after Fables de la Fontaine by the firm of Stone, Coquerel et Le Gros. The set features a cafetière, a théière, a waste bowl, a sucrier, and appropriately shaped coffee cans and tea cups.
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Home Cooking Given the fact that this 1804 Old Town house housed a former biscuit baking company, it is hardly surprising that the homeowner’s life revolves around the kitchen. The 18th century tavern table is set for an impromptu Saturday night supper with friends, featuring mixed and matched place settings of English Ironstone in a brown transfer pattern and bird-in-ivy motif. Guests will converse over a hearty onion soup, field green salad, and a crusty home-made loaf of bread, complemented by a robust Côte de Nuits wine from Burgundy.
Country Morning Breakfast in a rustic kitchen rewards the early riser with hotcakes, biscuits, and bacon served on a farm table surrounded by bent hickory chairs from Waterford, Loudoun County, Virginia, circa 1840. The early 19th century Delaware pie safe conceals the apple pie that is intended for lunch.
La Vie en Rose On occasion, even the most dedicated collector has the good fortune to inherit wonderful antiques like this fabulous set of 1880 hand-painted Haviland dishes from Limoges, France. The table is centered by a mirrored plateau that reflects the candlelight from a rare, double tier brass chandelier, and provides a perch for the flowers, an opulent bouquet of coxcomb, roses, and berries. In one of the oldest houses in Alexandria, bursting with beautiful and rare antiques, guests are invited to sit in early 19th century fancy chairs surrounding a Hepplewhite table, and will soon enthusiastically toast their host using vintage goblets.
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