Ambience at Home: How Personal Touches Make Meals Special
By Sue Lau | Palatable Pastime
When asked by Bon Appetit and Epicurious to come up with a few ideas about how personal service can make a difference while dining out or at home, as a part of their Out of the Kitchen series, I had more than a few, but to simplify, for the home cook, have pared these down to a few easy things you can do to make your dining experiences memorable.
All of us have special memories of dining, either at the classy restaurant on that very special occasion or at home among family and friends. I find it is the importance of personal touches that set these meals apart.
Where I live, an elderly Asian couple owns an older restaurant, essentially a dive of a take-out place. And while this little Chop Suey house lacks the finery of a four star restaurant, still it manages to make meals memorable. How? The hostess makes a point of remembering the customers so they know they are appreciated and always welcomed. So out of the norm is it, that it is all the buzz on local food news.
Another restaurant, upscale and candlelit, serves up the ambience with champagne and elegance, tablecloths and well-dressed staff. And while the tabs might end up in two different zip codes, the end result is the same: a meal that will stay with the diner, perhaps for years to come.
One doesn’t need champagne and caviar to set the mood, or even drop lots of cash on an expensive meal. And with the holidays approaching, one of the major worries over and above the menu at home will be how our guests enjoy themselves, and if the meal will be one they cherish and treasure.
True, a grandmother’s over-indulgent and well set table with family china and crystal stemware set amid a dizzying amount of home-cooked foods will not fail to impress. Who can ever resist the old-fashioned goodness of a huge Thanksgiving meal, where even if we take small bites, everyone becomes drowsy with satiation afterward, trying to shake off the over-eating while watching the football game in a throng of family and friends?
Excess of decor and excess of food all can be gigantic in their stature, but even a simple meal, such as burgers or pizza, prepared casually, can be quite the memorable meal if it is made fun. It is not always the china the sets the ambiance, it can be set as well on a paper plate.
Taking a few attentive extra steps to insure your guest feel welcomed and that you want to go the extra mile, make sure their needs are met, and offer them a little lagniappe, or unexpected pleasure, can make the memory of a happy meal stay with them for years to come.
So how can we make guests feel like a VIP in the home setting?
- Make sure everything is well planned. Make plans for the dinner well in advance, so you have time to take care of the essential details and not feel rushed or leave something important out.
- Choose the guest list with the guests in mind. No one is going to be happy if Uncle Jim sits next to Aunt Clara even though everyone knows they have been feuding for years. In fact, perhaps it is best to not invite them to the same event, unless you have to. And if you do, seat them well apart and keep them distracted from each other with good conversation.
- Find out before you plan your menu if your guests have special needs, such as low sugar, gluten free, or vegetarian. No meal will be memorable if a guest cannot eat it. They will feel unwelcome at a meal that wasn’t planned with them in mind, and you as host will feel bad as well, after going to such trouble in the kitchen to prepare a good meal. As well, an extra step in the positive direction is to ask if there is something a guest would like, to be made special for them. Not everyone will admit to it, but you can always be stealthy and ask around.
- Make it fun by incorporating a theme for your dinner, or by creating fun table settings and place cards. This lets your guests know you want them to have a good time, and a personalized place card tells them in no uncertain terms that they have a welcome seat at your table. And place cards need not be fancy- you can do calligraphy if you are talented, but if your skills lie elsewhere (as mine do) then you can simply print out a name card on paper using a cute or stylish font on your computer. And clip art can be found at many websites that offer it for free use. Even a cleverly wrapped favor of candies, mints or cookies can make your guests feel the extra love.
- Make a list when you do your shopping for decor or ingredients so nothing is missed, leaving everything stress-free and no runs at the last minute for a forgotten item.
- Have fun and get the bulk of the work out of the way before your guests arrive so you can enjoy your guests and dinner along with happy company. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. After all, you are a guest at your table as well, and your feelings do count!
- Have a happy meal and fun autumn and winter holidays from everyone here at Palatable Pastime whether you are having a football pot luck dinner, costumed Halloween party, family Thanksgiving feast or festive Christmas or Hanukkah dinner.
Find more food articles at Out of the Kitchen
Want to meet purveyors who are making a difference with their customers? Check out BonAppetit.com’s “Out of the Kitchen”, an ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. See how hyper-local food markets operate and how their focus on quality and service keep customers coming back for more.
Disclaimer: I have been compensated to write and create this post. All opinions within are my own and the photography reflects those thoughts and ideas. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer, provider or party in question.