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They Make It Look So Easy

The Clifton Inn in Charlottesville evolved from a cozy bed-and-breakfast to an upscale inn and restaurant.
The Clifton Inn in Charlottesville evolved from a cozy bed-and-breakfast to an upscale inn and restaurant. (By Philip Beaurline)
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By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007; Page H01

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.

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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?

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