Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An Autumn Black-Tie Dinner at Darlington House, Part I: Planning the Party

This is the first of a two-part series that I am writing on what it takes to throw a  formal dinner party at Darlington House.  I am sharing it with you, Dear Reader, because I thought you might be interested to learn how we plan for such events, and what it requires to successfully carry off such a party--at least the way that we do them.  I hope you enjoy it.

It’s that time of year again, when we resume throwing formal dinner parties at Darlington House.  During warm weather we usually concentrate our entertaining on informal, intimate gatherings, often on our screened porch, either dinner for four or six, or maybe a dozen for cocktails.  But when the weather turns cool our sights move indoors, and we start to plan dinner and cocktail parties for more guests.  We also ratchet up the formality of our gatherings.

A typical formal dinner party at Darlington House

We didn't do a lot of entertaining this summer.  Not only were we were away a lot, but when we were at Darlington we mostly wanted to keep our time there low key, letting off steam from the busy week.  Ideally that meant at least one or two weekends a month when it was just the two of us for dinner on a Saturday night, the big entertaining evening in the county--at least among those of us with weekend houses there.

Ah, the glamorous life on the benefit circuit . . .

Another reason we didn’t entertain much this summer was that there were a lot of benefit parties to go to, since summer is the season when the county cranks up the frequency of parties supporting worthy causes.  And this summer there seemed to be dueling benefit cocktail and dinner parties almost every weekend where friends were on the committees, so we had to make an appearance from time to time.  Although Reggie enjoys getting out and about, several weekends in a row of benefit dinners is enough to make anyone want to stay home on a Saturday night, Reggie included.

Switching one's place card is frowned upon at Darlington House

I’m pleased, though, to report that this summer we actually got invited to a large, private cocktail garden party, thrown by one of the blogosphere’s most prolific lifestyle mavens.  And it was fun!  It was so nice to finally be invited to someone’s bash--and believe me this was a real bash--where we weren’t expected to write a check for the privilege of attending it . . . for a change.  I’d begun to wonder, does anyone throw big private parties any more?

It is generally accepted among polite society that
everyone looks better when dressed for dinner

Anyway, getting back to the subject at hand, back in September Boy invited his closest friend from college, Jasper Lambert, and his girlfriend, Francesca Montmore, to spend the weekend with us at Darlington House later this month.  Boy and I agreed that we should throw a dinner party in their honor during their visit, and that we would ask our guests to dress for the dinner, in black tie.  Not only did we want to celebrate the visit of our dear friends, but we coincidentally owed a number of other couples that had entertained us beautifully return invites (see Reggie’s Rules for Social Reciprocity, Parts I and II), and who we thought would be delightful additions to the party.  Fortunately they were free to join us.

Uh-oh, time to go home!

But Reggie notes that large, formal dinner parties don’t just happen: it takes effort to make such parties appear effortless.  Successful ones take a lot of planning, organization, and work to pull off.  And not just by the hosts, either, but also by the service providers that help make such things happen seamlessly.  For starters that includes our housekeeper, Karyn, and our all-around handyman, Rich, who are responsible for getting Darlington House looking its absolute best for such an event--it takes lots of tending and polishing to set the place a-gleaming.  And then, of course, there is the collaboration with and planning of every detail of the menu, presentation, and staffing with our most-beloved caterers, who were--much to our relief--able and willing to again take on such a commitment for us.

"Say, what wine can you recommend
to serve with
fois gras?"

As far as the setup goes, we've already selected which table cloth and napkins to use, and what china and silver we shall set the table with.  Boy has already bought the candles (we will light over forty of them that night).  We still need to choose the wines we will serve, and we'll need to pick up the chocolates and sweet meats for the table, for after dinner.  The day before the party Boy and I will make an early morning trip to the flower district in Manhattan to buy the flowers that Boy will then arrange the day of the party.

Some people might ask, "Reggie, I understand that you enjoy throwing parties, but why are you requiring your male guests to dress up in black tie, and the ladies to don dresses?  Isn't it an inconvenient bother for them?  What if your guests haven't got the necessary clothes?"  To which Reggie answers: "No, it is no bother at all!  I and my friends enjoy dressing for dinner.  Because, Dear Reader, Reggie and his friends are grown-ups, and we like dressing like adults.  Dressing for dinner makes the evening more festive and elegant."  Besides, most of the people Reggie knows already own suitable clothes for such an evening.  It is simply a matter of pulling them out and putting them on.

A well-run party requires a sufficient number of staff

I can assure you that Darlington will be a frenzy of activity leading up to the party, reaching a crescendo several hours beforehand when the caterer and the serving staff arrive.  Reggie slips away from the hubbub an hour or so before our guests are asked to arrive, in order to bathe and dress unhurriedly before the party.   He allows himself one drink while dressing.

Reggie recommends having a dozen white waiters jackets
on hand in different sizes for your servers to wear,

as we do at Darlington House

As I've written before, we enjoy the planning and execution of throwing a party and consider it to be good fun.  Reggie relishes the preparations for a swell party, all of which pleasantly culminate in the delightful feeling of satisfaction, pleasure, and anticipation he has when standing at Darlington House’s door, elegantly dressed and with a drink in his hand, waiting to greet his guests as they arrive for what will—he knows—be a lovely and memorable evening, indeed.

Next: Part II: The Countdown, in which I recount the day-by-day planning and preparations required to throw our party.

Images from the following sources: Getty Images, Corbis Images, Zazzle.com, LIFE Archive, William Hamilton's "Anti-Social Register"


  1. Dear Reggie, In this age of casual dress, casual manners[ or indeed no manners at all],fast food, paper plates and houses without dining rooms, it is so refreshing to read of someone [namely you, dear Reggie] who is entertaining with style. A black tie dinner at Darlington House, what could be more perfect? I am sure that invitations would be cherished.

  2. I expect that your dinners are indeed memorable. There are members of my family who still "dress for dinner" in the manner illustrated above, but only, of course, because they are not the ones who prepared it themselves.

    Still, one should require certain sartorial standards, even at informal family meals. At the very least, it is a sign of respect for the designated cook. My grandfather, who worked on the railroads and often ended his day covered in soot, was fastidious about his appearance and always came to the dinner table in an immaculate white shirt and tie.

  3. *stands in front of mailbox wondering where her invitation has gotten to and inwardly cursing the infernal post office*

  4. Dressing for dinner is perfectly divine. It sets the tone for a lovely evening, in my humble opinion. And this is the perfect time of year for dinner parties. I must admit to doing the cooking myself, rather than caterers, but the best part, for me, is always the flowers. My heart beats faster every time I'm ushered into the colourful sanctuary of the cooler and see all those temptations lined up in their buckets.

    Happy planning, and I loved the photographs!

  5. I think this is the most excited I've been about a party I'm not attending - lol! Can't wait for the next installment.

    We're attending a (private) black tie dinner this coming weekend and one of my favorite parts is the drink while dressing.

  6. Reggie, I envy you friends who are willing to dress for dinner. Several of my closest friends understand the concept but simply will not. Fortunately, a colleague has an annual black tie house party and there are always benefit events. I do wish I could host a black tie dinner party without upsetting several of my friends - perhaps for my next milestone birthday.

    The general concept of dressing for dinner unfortunately requires a slower pace of life than most super casual, overscheduled families can manage. (Or are willing to manage.)

  7. Yes, but tell me Reggie Dear, at your intimate candlelight supper with all the best sort of people, will you be using your Royal Doulton china with the hand painted periwinkles?

  8. Dear Mr. Darling,

    I had not considered hosting a formal canine dinner party until viewing your humorous picture. Thank you for sharing that with us. I'll consult my two dogs as to their preferred guest list.

  9. What a delightful tutorial, thank you! I'd love to see Pompey in his formal attire...how dashing he must look!

    I look forward to part II!
    xo J~

  10. A dear friend hosts a "Pot Luck" Black tie, yes, an oxymoron of sorts -but such a wonderful way to gather without the pomp and circumstance. After our renovation, I do want to rally and ratchet things up with a formal party. I rather think our four legged friends would appreciate a table set for them to engage in lively banter.
    Looking forward to seeing how one prepares for a party of this nobility at Darlington House.
    (I have not forgotten about poor Pompey) Autumn onslaught here!
    Senior college apps and renovation....

  11. Reggie: I am 21 and cannot tell you how much I would love to attend events like this. I love dressing elegantly and being engaged in interesting, lively talk with old friends and new acquaintances. Sadly, at my age, as I'm sure you'd guess, when we go "all out", we mean "get dressed in your best, so you can get drunk in a dark club where no one will notice how well put-together you are and conversation will be non-existent". I do like to let loose and dance non-stop once in awhile, but elegant dinner parties are where I feel at home. Sometimes I feel like I skipped an entire stage of life. I can't wait until I am old enough to start holding/attending parties like your's. Life does get better as you get older.

  12. Hello Reggie...My friends are maddeningly casual I'm afraid. I do wish I could somehow persuade them that a formal dinner party is a wonderful idea. I've noticed that even at holiday gatherings no is making an effort anymore. So sad! To my mind, dressing up is all part of the fun. Ah well, I will have to content myself with reading about your forthcoming gala. I'm excited for part II!

    Oh, and the photos were all marvelous. I especially loved the dog images.


  13. All of our friends are quite casual -- and I just adore dressing up! What a wonderful treat to read about the preparations for your elegant "do" Please include your ideas for flower arranging -- I am so bad at figuring out which ones -- and which darn vase(s) -- to use! My DH actually had to remove one such attempt from the table -- it was FAR too tall! LOL! Many thanks for your brillant postings! And for Boy Fenwick's marvellous photos!

  14. What a wonderful party this will be! You and Boy are the hosts extraordinaire. Your guests are so lucky to be included.

  15. Hi Reginald,

    I am enjoying your many posts. lack tie is fab and white tie even more so! Keep up the good works! Keep Calm and Carry On!

    Dean Farris, Naples, Florida, NY, NY

  16. We should go to Sotheby's auction of Mrs. Astor's estate next week and bid on lot 195. take a look. I'll flip you for them!


    1. Roxie, m'dear: But yesterday afternoon I snuck away from the office and attended the Astor preview at Sotheby's. In the car driving up to Darlington House afterwards, I jokingly asked Boy if he thought we should bid on the livery and uniforms in the sale. He was amused by such a suggestion, and delighted, too. I am condiering posting about the sale at some point. The preview was gorgeous, with the goods displayed in room-like settings, and it all brought to mind that such a world is a fast-vanishing one. Thank you, Reggie


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