The best people aren't the ones who recognize fish forks. The best people may not even be able to reverse the waltz. The best people are born with an instinct for ambiance.
Here's what ambiance is: simple crystal candelsticks with the slimmest of tapers. One Fuji mum floating in a glass bowl. Or tiny violets in a handblown vase. Mozart, Chopin, Ravel. Irish linen and undyed silk. A lowwattage bulb in a handmade ceramic lamp. Oriental rugs. Matisse. Kimonos (only for the practiced). A champagne bucket. Good wine. Garden vegetables. Fresh herbs. Stilton cheese. Pink lamb. Milk veal. Armagnac. Heavy cream.
Here's what it's not: a twelve-armed candelabrum between the two of you. "Die Walkure" (unless you're planning to serve in a brass breastplate). Disco. Polyester. Munch. Too-floury cream sauce or gravy made with Kitchen Bouquet. Frozen shrimp. Two dozen carnations at face level. Chicken a la king. Shake 'n" Bake. Cream of mushroom soup and anything. Tuna melts. Miniature hot dogs. Imitation bacon bits. Poke sallet. Pig's feet. Flambe at the table (straight out of Mario's Ristorante Italiano and Deli.).
Ambiance is cocktails, first course and cognac. It's how you dress the dining room to enhance your meal. It's the backdrop for the play, the tie that makes the suit, the sexy shoes. Ambiance is what renders the burnt roast perfectly rare, and makes the stained couch immaculate. Ambiance is what convices you and your guest that the stars are out tonight, whether it's cloudy or bright and he only has eyes for you.
Ambiance is subtle, intimate, fragile. Although you can stretch it around a dozen dinner settings, it is by nature a dish 'a deux. Firelight and candlelight have such an immediately romantic impact precisely because they are limited lights, shrinking the room space down around the inhabitants. (Nowdays you can fake it with a turned-down rheostat, but that will not enfold you as closely - it will just make the entire room dim.)
Ambiance includes texture, scent, color and sound (leaving the food itself aside for the moment). White linen tablecloths are not only luminous in candlelight, they are langorous in a way flat, blunt placemats are not. Linen napkins caress where paper napkins crinkle. Heavy, rounded forks are more relaxing than bright and brittle, sharp-edged Swedish flatware. The scents of a dinner for two should be soft and soothing. No blatant florals allowed, no gardenias. Keep the whiskey in another room, or it will bruise the wine's bouquet. (After dinner, however, you can let the cognac expand.) And since aroma is part of the way flavor is pereceived, avoid strong perfumes or aftershaves.
Color should be restrained. Bright shades $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE $&)See COMPANY, H2, Col. are arousing but not relaxing; a little red goes a long way. Lavender is beautiful by candlelight, and so is a soft blue. No orange, no fuschia, no chartreuse (except in a liqueur glass). A man may wear black and white to great effect - in fact, the success of "Dracula" could be expected to revive the fashion - but he may not wear a multi-striped rugby shirt. A woman should wear very little makeup, if any.
Background music is a matter of taste, but classical music or jass are the most preferable because they have no words to distract your attention from the conversation.
The persuasive effect of a relaxed atmosphere is strong, but it can be sabotaged. For example, grease and greasy foods are not romantic. The presence of certain regrettable condiments - ketchup, bottled salad dressing, commercial steak sauce - on the table implies a lack of culinary self-confidence. Garlic or onion under the fingernails is surprisingly strident. Remember that certain green vegetables have a tendency to linger around the teeth.
Try not to load the table with too many dishes, glasses, etc. If your guest wants to concentrate on you, he shouldn't have to worry about putting his elbow in the asparagus.
Above all else, concentrate on feeling yourself the most desirable, assured, sophisticated and witty host in the world. After all, ambiance is just a mirror of your mood - the stuff of which dreams and great dinners are made. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption