I think we can all agree by now that the most worthless space in a conventional house is the dining room. I have lived in seven houses, and in all of them, this was a sad and misused place, a room you walked through to dump schoolbooks and dog leashes and violin cases on your way to a real room. Finally, in my current house, we’ve eliminated it—through the invention of a little something I call the formal kitchen:
What is the difference between a regular old eat-in kitchen and a formal kitchen? It's slight—perhaps undetectable to the casual observer—and depends on a few key details that make it possible to transform the room where your mom made hot tomato soup for lunch on a rainy day into a glamorous dinner party-worthy destination.
Step One is flattering lighting. A chandelier on a dimmer does double duty; it can function as task lighting if your kids are at the table doing homework while you're cooking supper. Lower the wattage to a guest-flattering approximation of candlelight when company comes in.
And it is inevitable that guests will wander in. They do already—I've seen them in your kitchen as well as mine, hanging around the stove while we stir things. They look completely relaxed and happy, with their glasses of wine and vague offers to "help cook." Of course they want to be here, because it's where the action is.
There's historical precedent. Before the invention of the dining room, everybody from miles around came together to eat in the same room where the boar or whatever they were eating in those days was being roasted. While there are other things about the Middle Ages I wouldn't necessarily want to import to the 21st century (see: plague), the custom of coming together in a Great Hall had a lot going for it.
Here are some simple design details that I incorporated into a remodel a few months ago to create a formal kitchen:
I stopped separating "everyday" from "fancy." It's easier to entertain if you don't have to haul out the good china from deep storage. I learned by accident —when I was trying to travel light while moving back and forth across the country—that it's perfectly adequate to own a single set of dishes (white) and one set of flatware. I keep things simple by storing it all in kitchen drawers. Shown above: dinnerware from SF ceramicist Lea Ann Roddan (the pieces come in several colors, but Yellow Salt Glaze is particularly pretty). A dinner plate is $40, a small plate is $33, and an eight-inch saladier is $44. For more information, see Sue Fisher King.
My kitchen also has a deep drawer stocked with linens—and everything in the drawer gets used all the time. My Liberty Napkins (similar to patterns available for $37 apiece at Sue Fisher King) wash beautifully and the pattern will smooth things over if someone spills red wine on them.
Likewise, I use my one set of silverware—an ornate sterling silver pattern, passed down from my husband's grandparents—at every meal. There's nothing sturdier than sterling. As an alternative, a nice heavy silverplate flatware is Chambly's pattern, Baguette (Above); $295 for a five-piece setting at Sue Fisher King.
Above: Line your silverware drawer with soft felt that doesn't fray. Siematic storage drawers (Above) are lined with tarnish-resistant cloth; image via Elle Decor. NancySilver offers a range of flatware storage solutions, including treated silver cloth by the yard and drawer liner inserts in several different sizes.
Above: This vintage Persian rug, which I have had for at least 15 years, wears like iron (I say that as a dog owner). It also adds warmth and graciousness to a kitchen.
My Flatiron Table from Restoration Hardware has wheels, making it easy to push around (if I need to make room for more guests, for instance) or even outside onto the patio, for summer dinner parties. The 19th century style of the wooden Madeleine Side Chairs ($99 apiece from Restoration Hardware) elevate the room's ambitions. A hardwood floor makes a kitchen feel more connected to the rest of the house; it's also more forgiving than tile if guests drop a glass and muffles, rather than amplifying, sounds.
Above: With your sink on view, you have an excuse to store natural dish brushes in an Astier de Villatte Sobre Small Vase; $140 at Sue Fisher King. An extra deep sink hides dirty dishes and pots from guests' view during dinner. I decided to forgo the upper cabinets on this long wall to make the room seem more spacious and to emphasize the garden views visible from the windows.
Above: A natural linen dish cloth, like this one from Vaxbo Linen in Sweden, is pretty enough to leave lying around on the counter. I buy mine at Material Grace in Mill Valley, which stocks the entire line (the cloths are available in mood-enhancing shades like hot pink, lime green, bright yellow, as well as more neutral colors). When you've wrung every bit of utility out of the cloth, it can be buried in the yard (it's fully biodegradable, since it's natural linen).
I think you should ditch your dining room too, in favor of a formal kitchen. Do it today. If I sound bossy, it is only because I am so happy in my kitchen, and I want you to feel the same pure shock of joy every time you sit down to a meal. I want you to believe it's effortless to throw a dinner party and to think it's perfectly natural—routine, even— to have a bunch of your friends sitting around your kitchen table in age-erasing warm light, laughing and talking until the candles burn out.
As for my dining room? Ah, you mean my library. More on that later.
(N.B.: Agree or disagree? Has Michelle gone overboard…or have you ditched your dining room too? Tell us about it in the comment section below.)
For more of Michelle's kitchen, see "Rehab Diaries: Michelle's Mill Valley Kitchen Redo." To hear about how she almost ruined the marble backsplash over her stove, see "My Dirty Secret: How I Learned to Live With a Marble Backsplash."