Let's talk about tables: Most homes have at least a few—wobbly decorative side tables, too-low-to-eat-on coffee tables—but hopefully you've got something worth pulling a chair up to (if not, we know a guy—or you can go ahead and jump to our table guide).
Dining room tables, which can be small like a café table (stay strong, studio-dwellers!) or enormous if you're lucky enough to have room for an old farm table, are most likely the table you use for entertaining. If you've only got one table where you eat, that's the one.
It was Amanda Hesser who first raised this important question—What makes for a perfect dining room table?—and started digging up answers by polling Ruth Reichl when she came for dinner. Never one to avoid a hard question, Ruth gave us some things to chew on, and we asked around—inquiring with Anna Watson Carl (writer of a blog and cookbook inspired by her dining room table), Brad Sherman (who designed the tables in our Shop), Chloe Warner Redmond (an interior designer and one of the Guest Curators for our Registry), Jono Pandolfi (maker of our modern dinnerware), Haley Sonneland (who throws all of our office parties), and, of course, Amanda—to fill in the gaps.
We learned a lot, but especially these 3 things:
Please enjoy the above diagram, which illustrates the fact that between two ends of the dining table spectrum (rectangular and circular), there are many shapes, each designed to fit a desired number of people as close together as is (comfortably) possible while still looking really great when empty.
Let's begin with the obvious: "Nothing against round tables, but I personally love the way rectangular, farm-style dining tables look," says Anna Watson Carl, who entertains regularly at hers even in a small apartment. Many would agree: How often do you see anything else in peoples' homes?
That tendency towards rectangular tables might be informed by how many people entertain, as our Director of PR and Events Haley Sonneland points out: "Certainly you can do family-style serving around a circular table, but I find that you would need a bionic arm to reach across the middle" to get a platter of chicken from its faraway resting place. Not only is passing around a rectangular table comfortable, it's also "easy for folks on both sides to reach dishes." Brad Sherman, who designed the tables in our office, backs this up with numbers, saying "Ninety-one inches long is the sweet spot—it doesn't feel too large for 8 people, nor too small for 10—and I wouldn't go wider than 38" across." We can attest that the tables he built us are incredibly comfortable for dinner parties.
"I like oval tables best, because the rounded ends seem more welcoming and flexible," says Amanda Hesser, who is known for having strong feelings about dinner parties in general, especially about her seating chart, "and because no one is ever cut off at the end and no one in the middle is too far away from the person across from them." We love the hominess of this reasoning, which bears in mind that by being cornerless, an oval table gets people closer to each other for easier conversing. (Nevermind that Amanda actually has a rectangular table at home, as "the only problem with an oval table is that they don't come with leaves and I have to say that leaves are handy.")
But leave it to Ruth Reichl to take a desire for closeness and turn it on its head: She prefers a round dining table. “There’s something wonderful and embracing about that shape," she told us, "it’s what your arms do when you hug someone!" There is something to say about how seating in a circle puts every attendee in view; as Jono Pandolfi, the designer of our new Food52 dinnerware line, puts it, "I like big tables—round tables, with low arrangements. You need to be able to see everyone seated."
Still, as Brad reminded me, round-table lovers do seem to be the minority despite the openness of the shape. "If you want to sit 10 people, a circle is great—but you'd be shouting to talk to someone across the way!"
We also learned that Ruth likes to pack her guests in—and Amanda Hesser agrees: "Like Ruth, I favor crowded tables to vacant ones. You should bump elbows." Not only does this maximize conversation, it also means that you can probably squeeze in a few more guests than your table is meant to seat—an important thing for people (me) with small apartments to remember. Don't have room? Invite them anyway!
The same can go for a tabletop. "As far as how densely you set the table, I say do whatever the meal requires," Jono goes on, "It's all about the ritual, so if you have serving pieces that you like to use for special purposes, go to town. (But practicality is good too; leave room for things to be passed around.)" On the other end of the spectrum, some people like a little more room. "I love chairs with arms!," says Chloe Warner Redmond, who in her role as an interior designer is not afraid to use them around a dining table.
For the most flexible hosts, a table that can easily double in size (or divide by two) is a very good thing. "As for size, it really depends on your space," Anna Watson Carl says, "I love the fact that my yellow table has leaves, so we can either keep it small (to seat 6) or expand it to fit 10 (or even 12) people for larger gatherings. Currently we have it sized to fit 8 people, which is kind of the perfect number for a dinner party, in my opinion. It's a big enough number to feel festive, but intimate enough that people can actually really talk."
Amanda's rectangular table is similarly flexible, with two leaves that can be added in if the invite list is long: "While I did say I prefer an oval table, I do love this table. It's been very good to us, both every day and for parties."
Some of the best tables do not come in obvious shapes and sizes. The first dining table I ever fell in love with was actually a square, with room to seat 2 or 3 people on each side; it was on clearance at the design house I worked for, and I would have bought it except I was moving to New York (in a suitcase). But just think: multiple people on each side, with corners between so they could all see each other.
Similarly, Amanda Hesser's wide rectangular table has "ends wide enough to seat two people and very rounded corners," which sounds appealingly cozy and anything but typical, and Brad's dream table does a similar thing:
There is this table I have an absolute crush on. It’s called the eliptical table by Fritz Hansen and it’s the perfect shape—not surfboard, rectangle, or circle. It has softer corners, so you can even put two people at the end, and it also makes a tight space like an apartment just easier to flow around. That’s my favorite, and I don’t ever see anything else like that shape. You see the Saarinen surfboard tables all the time but it’s hard to sit at the pointy ends.
Solid White Oak & Rusted Steel Farm Table & Bench, by Brad Sherman for Food52
The start of something beautiful, this modern farm table is built to last—on steel legs—and age with time, like an antique.
Blank Canvas Dining Table, by Dot & Bo
With legs that jut out from the inside (so they don't get in the way of your feet), this round table is just under 50" across—so you can fit a crowd without shouting.
What does your dream dining room table look like?
Photos by Bobbi Lin , Anna Watson Carl, Mark Weinberg, Chloe Warner Redmond, and James Ransom, respectively. All merchant images by respective stores.