They Make It Look So Easy

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Emily and Mitch Willey know how to blend candlelight and good food into memorable gatherings. As innkeepers of Charlottesville's historic Clifton Inn for more than 20 years, they have spent a career focused on gracious entertaining. In their 200-year-old home in Old Town Alexandria, the Willeys host dinner parties frequently, cooking together and serving guests around a 14-foot Belgian monastery table made of pine.

The Willeys are all about making a beautiful evening look easy and casual, and they don't set their table days in advance. With holiday entertaining approaching, we sought them out to learn how they do it.

The Willeys have two daughters, Leah, 26, and Anna, 22. This year, Anna will not join her family for Thanksgiving because of work commitments in Los Angeles. But next week's turkey feast will go on as usual, with a smaller group.

The table will be set for eight with white scalloped matelasse place mats and oversize white French linen napkins. There will be large wine goblets: not fine crystal, but glassware that fits comfortably in the hand. The china will be white English Minton with a red border. The Willeys inherited 30 place settings from the inn when new china was brought in. The menu will be a familiar one. Accompanying the bird will be Emily's favorite wild rice casserole and the sweet potatoes with marshmallows favored by her daughters.

The family likes to have the turkey feast in the evening, taking the whole day to prepare the meal together. They have a tradition of inviting one family that dines early that day to come for cocktails at 6 p.m. Everyone toasts the holiday, then the guest family departs and the Willeys head into the candlelit dining room.

For a few years the family celebrated Thanksgiving at Clifton. But over the past two decades, it has grown from a cozy, six-room bed-and-breakfast to a Relais & Chateaux property with 18 luxurious rooms featuring Waterworks bath fixtures and wireless Internet access. Now the holiday dinner is booked up months in advance, and the Willeys eat at home.

Innkeeping has taught the Willeys a lot about hospitality and presentation. The inn's restaurant tables are set with straw place mats and turquoise chargers, and courses are served on white plates -- a different shape for each course. The Willeys often meet with the chef and staff to discuss how to present new dishes on the menu and set them off on the table.

The Willeys shared their ideas about how to give a successful dinner party.

What is the secret to great hospitality?

Mitch: The secret is to have a very casual approach to entertaining. If the hosts are relaxed and having fun, everyone else will, too. We make our somewhat formal house more welcoming by filling it with informality. We put our 14-foot dining room table on a diagonal. When people come in they relax and think, 'Okay, this isn't that stuffy. The table is a little off kilter.' We also often engage our guests in cooking in the kitchen. The right lighting is key.

Emily: I feel pretty strongly about the music throughout the evening. If you have something good playing, it greases the skids; it gets people talking and yet nobody is afraid of the silence.

What's your favorite way to entertain: sit-down dinner, buffet or cocktail party?

Mitch:"We prefer sit-down dinners. Everyone enjoys settling in and enjoying the food and conversation. But what we like to do halfway into the meal is switch places. We ask people to unfold their place card and flip it over; then they move around the table and find their new dinner partners. This way everyone meets more people."

Emily : Guests have to travel to their new place carrying their napkins and their wine and water glasses, but they don't seem to mind. I also feel strongly about a sit-down dinner, because people can settle in and have a much more substantial conversation than if you're at a cocktail party and up and around and moving all the time.

Do you still have your wedding china, and if so, do you mix it into your table settings?

Emily: No. We used it a lot when we were first married. But we only had eight place settings. We needed more pieces for our larger table.

Mitch: It was very formal English china with cobalt-blue-and-silver borders. We gave it away about 10 years ago to a nanny who loved it. We just didn't use it anymore.

What kind of linens do you like to use for holiday dinners?

Mitch : We use place mats. We like that look. The pine on the table has never seen a tablecloth on it.

What about dining chairs? What do you find most comfortable?

Emily: Chairs are really important. We often have these two chairs that are upholstered in taupe silk anchoring each end of the table. The rest are usually the 12 antique chairs that Mitch found in Vermont, originally from the William Howard Taft estate.

Mitch: The 19th-century antique chairs look pretty and have a patina to them, yet they are very comfortable. At the inn, we have different kinds of chairs in each dining room. The chef's table chairs were actually our first dining room chairs at home. We painted them white and had the seats upholstered in white ostrich-stamped leather.

How about setting the table in advance for holiday meals?

Emily: Are you kidding? We are lucky it's set before the guests arrive.

Mitch: Actually, our girls usually set it now in the afternoon. They know exactly what to do.

Your Dinner Party: Setting the Scene

More tips from the innkeepers:

Invite a crowd. Have people who know each other and people who don't. Mix age groups. It will make for more interesting dinner conversation.

Forget ironing. If you have a nice wood table, invest in some attractive woven straw mats or some matelasse place mats that require a minimum of upkeep.

Set up your music in advance. Start the evening with something lively, hip and fun. Then, for dining, switch to classical background music.

Keep centerpieces simple. The flowers should not distract from the food or the setting. And you should not have to remove a fancy, large arrangement from the center of the table so guests can see one another. Place several small, low vases in the middle, filling each with a cluster of peach roses or one pale green orchid.

Create party traditions. The Willeys have an annual Christmas party where everyone sings "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at the piano. It started as a hot-chocolate-and-cookies party for their daughters' friends 20 years ago. Now, they invite 150 friends for a major bash with oyster bars and red and green cosmos. Friends start lobbying to sing solos of their favorite parts of the song months in advance.

Jura Koncius

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