Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Autumn Black-Tie Dinner at Darlington House, Part II: The Countdown

Following my earlier post, A Black-Tie Dinner at Darlington House, Part I: Planning the Party, I am posting the day-by-day countdown to the Big Day, so that you, Dear Reader, can understand what goes into throwing what we call a "full dudgeon" dinner party at Darlington House.  As I wrote in Part I, it takes a lot of effort to make such dinner parties appear effortless.  In our case, we started planning our dinner party a full two months ahead of time and enlisted the assistance of more than half a dozen service providers to help us pull it off.  This was the most formal dinner party we have thrown so far at Darlington, but considering how much fun we had at it I suspect that we will be throwing more formal parties going forward.

The reminder cards we sent out one month before the party

Here's the countdown:

September 11
We decide to invite Boy's college friend Jasper Lambert and his girlfriend Francesca Montmore to spend the weekend of November 13th with us at Darlington House.  We are overjoyed that they accept.

September 18
Boy and I agree that it would be fun to throw a black-tie dinner party for ten in honor of Jasper and Francesca's visit; we come up with guest list of fun and festive friends.

September 19
I contact our Most Beloved Caterers and find, much to our relief and joy, that they are available to cater the dinner.

The flowers bundled for the trip from the city,
safely arrived at Darlington House

September 25
We telephone guests to extend verbal invitations, and let them know that we'll be dressing for dinner in evening clothes; we are excited to learn that all are available and that they accept our invitations.

October 2
Boy and I stop in at the nearby Farmers' Market, where our Most Beloved Caterers (a husband-and-wife team) have a stand at which they sell prepared foods on Saturday mornings, and discuss with the wife the basic concept for the evening: swell food, artfully prepared, beautifully presented.  She's on board and enthusiastic, and she says they are already discussing ideas for the menu ("Think fois gras!") and the staffing.  Her husband's training at Le Cirque will come in handy.

Back at Darlington House, we pull out our dinner jackets to see if they fit any longer.  They don't.

October 4
Reggie goes to Dempsey & Carroll in Manhattan and buys "reminder" cards to mail to our guests ahead of the party, confirming the date and time.

Boy conditioning but a few of the
twelve dozen roses we bought for the party

October 5
We start fretting about what to wear, since our dinner jackets don't fit any longer.  Dare I go vintage, I wonder?

October 10
Our handyman, Rich, along with his sidekick Tony, spends the day polishing the brass fire tools and andirons for Darlington's public rooms.

October 13
We mail the reminder cards to our guests, exactly one month ahead of the party.

Four dozen tulips, ready for conditioning

October 15
Reggie looks into vintage options for his dinner jacket and trousers, then decides it is all too much.  Rethinks.

October 18
Boy drops his dinner jacket off with his tailor for adjustments.  He buys new formal-wear trousers at Tom Ford in a moment of abject extravagance.

October 27
Reggie buys a new tuxedo.  He figures if Boy can justify a pair of trousers from Tom Ford, he can justify a new tuxedo.  But Reggie decides to buy an inexpensive one since he's on a weight-loss campaign and doesn't want to invest in an expensive set of formal wear at this stage of his slenderization efforts.

Both leaves, ready to be added to the table

October 30
At Darlington House, we select which silver to use. We leave instructions for Karyn to start polishing it.

October 31
We meet with our Most Beloved Caterers at Darlington House, where we spend an hour or so discussing the menu, the staffing, and guest list.  We agree on the menu and on staffing.

Boy and I review and select the table linens, china, and glassware we will use.  Reggie checks to see that the waiters' jackets that we have on hand for serving staff are in good order.

November 5
We fly to Pittsburgh for the weekend with our friends James and Calista Littlefield.  In years past we might have been concerned that spending the weekend before a party away from Darlington was foolish, but we know we're in good hands with our Most Beloved Caterer.  We've got it all under control.  We've done this before.

The table dressed with cloths
Oh, and look, there's Pompey!

November 9
Boy buys four dozen candles for us to burn during the party.

We exchange e-mails and phone calls with our Most Beloved Caterer to confirm the final details.

November 10
We pick up our formal wear.  It fits!

Boy speaks with our Most Favored Wine Merchant in the country, plans with him what wines and liquors we will serve, and places order.

Concurrent with the activity at Darlington House leading up to the party, a parallel path of activity is being pursued by our Most Beloved Caterers, as they source, test, and prepare the food for the party, and also organize the staff.

The table fully set, except for flowers

November 11
Boy buys a pair of velvet Belgians to wear at the party during an afternoon pilgrimage to the Belgian Shoes store in Manhattan with fellow bloggers Privilege and Maximinimus.  We have a delightful dinner afterwards with them (and Privilege's charming daughter) at L'Absinthe to celebrate Privilege's purchase of her first pair of Belgians that afternoon, a right of passage for many of us.

Reggie decides that if Boy is going to wear velvet slippers to the dinner party, he will be damned if he doesn't wear his Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers with the red devils embroidered on them.

November 12
We wake up at 6:30 a.m. rather blurry eyed after our evening out (that somehow wound up at the Waldorf Hotel for a night cap) and drive the Rover to the flower district in Manhattan, where we buy loads of roses and tulips to decorate the drawing room, dining room, and guest rooms.

We drive to Darlington, and Boy starts conditioning the flowers in buckets in our flower arranging room.

After helping Boy add two leaves to the dining room table and covering it with the table cloths, Reggie leaves him behind to set it while he runs to the nearby town to stop by our Most Favored Wine Merchant, where he adds a few more bottles to the order and loads the whole lot into the car.  He then stops by a number of other comestible purveyors in town to stock up on food and treats for our House Party weekend.

Jasper and Francesca arrive in time for supper.  The rest gets blurry.

The table fully dressed with flowers

November 13 -- the Big Day!
Rich and Tony arrive bright and early in the morning and spend the day raking and sweeping the grounds surrounding Darlington House.  When they are finished, the property is immaculate and manicured to perfection.

Boy spends the better part of the morning placing forty candles in the dining room's and drawing room's candle holders.  He spends much of the afternoon cutting and arranging the flowers in the vases selected for the party, after which he fills the oil lanterns that will line our driveway and walkways, which will be lighted for our guests' arrival.  Reggie spends the better part of the day organizing and fluffing the house, making sure that everything is in tip-top shape for the party.

5:30 pm -- Our Most Beloved Caterer husband-and-wife team arrive with their ace servers, Sam and Melissa.  They go right to work setting up and preparing for the party.  Pompey is in heaven because he adores our Most Beloved Caterers and the treats they slip him from time to time.

6:00 pm -- With cocktails in hand, Boy and Reggie--along with our guests Jasper and Francesca--retire to our respective rooms to dress for dinner.

7:00 pm -- Our guests start arriving, looking elegant in their lovely evening clothes; cocktails and hors d'œuvres are served in Darlington's drawing room.

8:00 pm -- The staff lights the dining room candles, and we are called to dinner.

The dining room was entirely lit by candles

The Menu

Passed during cocktails:
  • Skewers of sesame-crusted salmon with caviar
  • Mini philo-dough bird's nests filled with squash and pancetta
  • Bite-sized grilled cheese sandwich triangles
At table:
  • "Millionaire's Salad" of seared fois gras and lobster claw on a bed of frisee with pomegranate seed dressing, served with a crisp Sancerre
  • Sliced seared duck breast with onion confit and roasted lady apple, accompanied by buttery parsnip puree and an assortment of miniature vegetables, served with a lusty Cote du Rhone
  • Opera cake towers served with maple creme Anglaise, served with Champagne
  • Chocolates and candied ginger
After the plates were cleared, everybody
brought out their iPhones and took pictures

After dinner, the party retired to the drawing room for more champagne, chocolates, and conversation.  Needless to say, the evening was a smash hit!  Boy and I had a marvelous time, and we suspect that our guests did too.  How couldn't we?  It was Heaven.

And everyone looked marvelous in their elegant evening clothes, and people said over and over how happy they were to have an excuse to get dressed up for the occasion.  So grownup.  It made it especially festive.

The dining table, the next morning

We are very fortunate to have the support, help, and assistance of a number of highly qualified, dedicated, professional service providers, without whom such a dinner would not be possible.  In particular, we are indebted to our Most Beloved Caterers, an extremely talented team that has helped us throw many parties, ranging from small luncheons for half a dozen to large cocktail parties for seventy-five, and also dinner parties and brunches.  It is safe to say that we couldn't do it without them, and we are grateful that we have developed such a marvelous, collaborative, and friendly relationship with them over the years.  I am working on a profile of them that I hope to post at some point in the not-too-distant future. 

So, there you have it: our formal, black-tie, Darlington House dinner party.  I hope you enjoyed it.  I certainly did!

All photographs by Boy Fenwick


  1. "How couldn't we? It was Heaven."

    I have to agree and I wasn't even there :-)

    Your party looked tasteful, elegant, timeless, effortless (although it clearly wasn't) and best of all, fun. The menu was to.die.for.

    Thank you so much for sharing your evening with us.

  2. Spectacular. Just spectacular. I know well the pleasure of your and Boy's company. I can imagine you carry the same bonhomie and joie de vivre to any locale. The beauty of Darlington House must only enhance. I look forward to our next soiree, in California, where we tend to call our places things like Vista del Mar. And now I believe I have used all the French words I can think of. And some Spanish too. It was something in the photos, I swear...

  3. Lovely, lovely, lovely! It is so nice to see such a tastefully done dinner. The candlelight and formal dress add such a beautiful finish to the event. I am so glad that the evening was such a success. (You may have even inspired me to do a little holiday entertaining!)

  4. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Absolutely stunning! I'm speechless. These are the types of dinners that I relish and know my "adult" friends do too. Our tastes in table settings is very similar. Do I spy Yeoward goblets and the timeless gilt ring of
    old Paris Porcelain? Thank you for sharing such beauty with us.

  5. Too fabulous! And hysterically narrated. Thank you. Reminds me of my childhood in Virginia. Especially the velvet slips the men plus en plus élégance vestimentaire.

  6. Whoosh! I think I passed out when I saw that stunning table and flowers. Those candelabra are really pure perfection. Totally and completely lovely and oh, so civilized. I hope the two of you have been invited elsewhere for Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

  7. Afternoon! A brillant dinner party posting -- sparkling with wit and brimming with charm! How simply wonderful!! Many thanks for sharing each preparation! May I ask the approximate height of the flower arrangements on the table, please? And any details of the conditioning process? Thanks for any help!

    No photos of the afore-mentioned slippers? LOL! Just teasing!

  8. Dear Reggie,

    Even though I expected no less from you and Boy, I am impressed, truly. Boy you did such a beautiful job with the flowers and I was delighted to see the new candelabra put to use.

    I have not been to one of these parties in ages, and boy do I miss them; but cant quite see myself getting my new friends here at the lake in black tie..but you never know..

    I was delighted, Reggie, you opted for the red devil slippers from my friends at Stubbs & Wootton. As you were narrating the story and Boy's shopping at Belgian Shoes I kept thinking, No! S& W. !! I will make sure I send the post to Percy, who will be delighted.

  9. What a treat! It must be a sign of maturing that at the tender age of 43 my idea is of a good time is exactly as you've described. There is nothing more beautiful than a dinner table twinkling with candlelight, good food and drink — and of course, great company! —Hope

  10. Perfectly elegant! I hope your mailbox is full of reciprocal invitations in 2011--you'll certainly know what to wear! Thanks so much for sharing your planning and menu, too!

  11. Sounds like a wonderful party. I can only aspire to be half as elegant.

  12. Perfect post about the perfect party! I only wish you had shown pictures of the food.


  13. Hello Reggie...I feel as though I've just had an extremely satisfying and elegant night out, all without leaving my chair. Boy's flower arrangements are absolutely breathtaking. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a lovelier table setting. Little Pompey must have been in heaven with all the extra goodies from the caterers. Thank you for sharing. I'm glad it was such a wonderful success!


  14. My heart nearly skipped a beat when I saw those phones on the table, but I am immensely relieved to hear that they were for photographic purposes only! The table looks stunning. (Less so to you I'm sure in the cold light of the following day; but a slow and gingerly pace gets the job done.) A lot of work by many, but worthwhile when you enjoy it.

  15. I agree with the columnist, my heart skipped a beat also when I saw the phones. Phew!

    I went to a dinner party once where the man next to me sat down and put the phone on the table. I wondered what this idiot was going to do if it rang. Well, it did, and guess what, he answered it. Tennis match for the next day. Incredible!

  16. Reggie, what a perfectly lovely evening done to absolute perfection! You and Boy should be very proud. And didn't Pompey do a good job with the table cloth!

    The flowers were amazing, the menu sounded delicious, and I enjoyed hearing every single detail from the attire chosen to the order in which you accomplished your various tasks. Thank you for inviting us along. I wish I could have been there in person. It was, no doubt, a most enjoyable evening!

  17. Elegantly and wittily felt one was there...

  18. Cannot believe that my invite was lost in the post. Utterly shocking

  19. Reggie,
    It looks like it was a truly wonderful party and I can see everything and everyone looked lovely. Thanks for all the scrumptious details!!!

    I was, however, a bit disappointed not to see Pompey in a bow-tie. Surely, he was not banished from the festivities?!

  20. That was such a delightful read...and as I sat eating my organic mac & cheese with tuna, peas & tomatoes, completely immersed in the whole dinner party process from start to finish, I felt divinely transported to a state of elegance and beauty that was like nothing I've ever experienced. It was as if I was there...thank you for inviting us all to share in such a special evening you. You both (and all your amazing helpers) did a spectacular job.
    xo J~

    btw- I too was hoping to see Pompey is all his finery...I'm sure he looked very dashing, as usual!

  21. heavens! RD. exhausted and exhilarated too. the flowers seem to top any food there might have been- am I crazy? I can just see you perched at the head of table with the devil at, No-on your feet and that duck breast just waiting your pleasure. Gaye

  22. Coming late to this post...but smashing time for kind of party.

  23. Such a soiree looks the epitome of class and taste (but then I would expect nothing less from you). I hope that your guests, whom you spoilt thoroughly, understand the 'rules of social reciprocity' with the festive season looming. :-) David.

  24. Absolutely divine. I can't understand why people don't have intimate black tie dinner parties anymore. We are planning one for New Years, hopefully in our new country house - Pond View.

  25. I'm throwing my first big party in our brownstone and can't decide if I should clear away chairs on the parlor level (triple parlor) or leave them for guests to sit. I'd still have a couch or two in the back parlor for those who want to recline. What do you think, Reggie?


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