Entertaining

The Best Size and Shape for a Dining Table (& 7 We Love!)

October 29, 2015

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. 

tabletop design

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: 

1. How you entertain (and how you feel) informs your table's shape.

[ ] 0 [¨¨¨¨] <> (¨¨¨) O

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.

table size
Anna Watson Carl's yellow table. 

"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!"

 

2. The size of your table does not entirely determine its capacity.

 table

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."

 

3.  The best tables are not ordinary. 


Chloe Redmond Warner's dining room table. 

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. 

If this feels like a lot to take in, we agree, so we found some tables for sale in the shapes mentioned above—all of which we love: 

RECTANGULAR

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. 

brad's table food52  brad's table for food52

 

Parsons Dining TableRestoration Hardware
The style of this table, which originated in 1930s Paris, was way ahead of its time; realized in teak it's perfect for outdoors or in. 

parsons tabl  the parsons table in teak

 

Dylan Dining TableCB2
Available in 80" and 53" lengths (which will seat 8 and 6, respectively "if you must") this modern design is distinguished by hand-welded steel legs.

dylan dining  dylan dining

 

Kendall Custom Dining Table - 66" - Marble TopEQ3
The things we would do to have a marble-topped dining table... This one from Canadian maker EQ3 is a showstopper.

eq3

 

ROUND, OVAL & EXPANDABLE

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.

Blank Canvas Dining Table 

 

Light Walnut Mid Century Dining Table with Leaf, Furnish Green (vintage)
With an included leaf extension, this well-kept vintage table will extend from round to oval-shaped—but there's only one!

furnish green 

 

Table Series Extension Tables, by Fritz Hansen
This is Brad's favorite table—not pointy like a surfboard and not a true rectangle—but long and oval. 

fritz hansen

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.

9 Comments

Marie December 25, 2016
I looked for my dining table for years. I entertain a lot. My must haves are recessed legs so you can squeeze in more people and use different chairs without anyone's knees hitting a table leg. To me the table needs to facilitate people connecting which means seating people close together. I want rounded corners so no one hurts themself. I want a sturdy, narrow table with lots of leaves, rounded corners and pedestal legs. Very hard to find.
 
Barb December 22, 2015
I have a 90" round pedestal table from the 1930’s with 12-10” leaves. We have a set of 8 chairs for the table in the round and then a variety of straight back chairs around the house to accommodate more. Our table works wonderfully for the two of us and can accommodate up to 25 or so when company comes. It also works well as a buffet table when all the cousins gather.
 
Lisa C. November 5, 2015
I would add that leg placement is critical. Squeezing people in is cozy until your legs are straddling a table leg or your knee is hitting stylish looking bracing. I vote for pedestal legs for that reason in the dining room
 
savorthis November 5, 2015
We build lots of custom dining tables primarily with local hardwood trees we mill into slabs. We've made everything from a square table (an inch taller than normal to accommodate a tall couple) to a 12.5' claro walnut private chef's table with a steel "river" down the center. The best part of that process is finding out what each unique need (want) is and being able to fulfill it both in good design and function. <br /><br />More than anything I love the feel of a wood slab table and that every tree we cut open will have its own distinct grain and figure and story. A good dining table is something you can invest in knowing it will age gracefully, withstand years of use and be passed along.
 
Tucker &. November 4, 2015
The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is a treasure trove of great finds. Many years ago, and I mean many, I snagged a beautiful round table (48") with 3 leaves turning it into a significant oval that seats 10 comfortably, 12 intimately. Did I say the leaves have there own hand hewn case to hold them. The price was spot on, and I wouldn't trade it for the world even if the squeeze is sometimes tight. :-)
 
kitpollard November 4, 2015
I love my dining room table with all my heart. It's a 70-inch round, perfect for 4 people on a regular night, but it has hidden panels, so it opens to a larger round that comfortably seats 10 and squeezes up to 13. It's wood - Danish, 1960s. I found it in a shop that specializes in mid-century furniture - when I saw it, my heart actually started beating faster. That was 7 years ago and I am still obsessed with it.
 
Leslie S. November 4, 2015
I love this!!
 
amysarah October 29, 2015
Good piece. A couple of things I'd add - a critical variable for size, especially in a tight space, is clearance around the table - i.e., between table and wall. Rule of thumb is 36" to comfortably get in/out of a chair, but I've done it with 30" in small apts. Also, re squeezing extra places at the table - an inset leg (top overhangs) vs a leg right at the edge allows more tolerance. Lastly, I love chairs with arms too, but they definitely occupy more space. If that's an issue, with a rectangular table arm chairs at the ends, arm-less on the sides is a good compromise.
 
amysarah October 29, 2015
I meant, minimum 36"/30"clearance. (Where's that edit button?)