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Whether you are entertaining friends for a summer party or just planning dinner for the family, set up a lovely food service to make the meal extra special. Believe it or not, it’s remarkable easy to pull together a beautiful and dramatic service display in minutes. Here’s how …

Start with a Great Backdrop

One of the best spots to create a dynamite food service display in seconds is on your dining room buffet. Sadly, buffets are one of the most under-utilized pieces of furniture in our homes. I think that’s because we usually don’t have them tricked up and at the ready when we want to entertain, so setting them up seems like a huge hassle we don’t want to take on.

To remedy this problem, why not make staging your buffet one of your summer decorating projects? Begin by scrutinizing the wall behind the buffet. Can it use some great artwork? In my dining room, I have a sensational painting hanging behind my buffet that is so big it almost spans the buffet’s width. Its presence alone ramps up the look of the whole presentation, I think.

Try flanking either side of the buffet with matching lamps. Forget those wimpy buffet lamps of old and go for a larger, taller, unique pair that makes a statement. If your room has tall ceilings, like mine does, don’t be afraid to pick lamps that stretch toward the ceiling, like I did in my dining room.

Once these design cornerstones are in place, add a few dramatic accents you can leave on your buffet year-round, then spice up with seasonal décor as you like. For instance, you could include a gorgeous English footbath or hurricane or serving bowl in the foreground of your buffet display, then use this fetching container to hold seasonal treasures, like seashells in the summer and gourds in the fall. Could it get any simpler? Or, try this: Set the buffet as if you’re going to have a party that day, like I did in the photo above, taken during my Spring Open House. Use intriguing serving pieces to create an attractive display you can leave in place. Then, when you want to entertain, you just need to wash up the dishes and you’re already ready to go.  How easy is that?

Surprise Guest with an Unusual Serving Site

I really enjoy coming up with unconventional spots to serve food and drinks when I entertain.  It’s fun to see guests’ faces light up with delight when they are treated to an unexpected surprise. Since June is my absolute favorite month for entertaining outdoors, through the years I’ve done a lot of experimenting with ways to display appetizers, drinks and dinner on my screened porch and courtyard.

In the photo above, taken during my Spring Open House, I put an all-purpose black iron urn at the foot of the steps that lead from my porch to my courtyard, then topped it with a silver three-tiered server. The coffee service, displayed on the different levels of the server, suddenly went from looking like a functional necessity to artwork that brightened up this corner. Think about how you can do something similar in your home – put appetizers or drinks in a spot no one would suspect, turning it into a visually arresting display in the process.

When I entertain inside, especially if I’m having a big group that won’t fit at my dining room table, I like to create stations around my home where I can place drinks and appetizers, leaving my buffet open to serve the main course. One fun spot for a beverage service is on a small table placed in front of your hearth.

Invest in Versatile Serving Pieces

I think there are two keys to stress-free entertaining. One is to practice. The more you entertain, the easier it becomes because you find your own style and rhythm. The other key is to have the right serving tools at your fingertips. Through the years, I’ve collected the serving pieces I need to pull together a party in a snap – I just open my china hutch and find the right tools for the job.

If you don’t already have an assortment of serving pieces, I’d encourage you to start collecting them right away. Let friends and family know what kinds of pieces you’re looking for – chances are, they will be happy to have some ideas for birthday or holiday gifts.

Here is my list of must-have serving pieces when I entertain (you will find most of them in an instant at Nell Hill’s Online):

  • Multi-tiered servers. Whether they are tiered servers or multi-leveled plate stands, serving pieces that allow you to elevate your food selections are the key to creating a display packed with drama.
  • Cake plates. If you want to make anything look special, serve it on a cake plate. For even more drama, stack two or three cake plates on top of each other.
  • Platters. Whether they are filled with savory food or holding your silverware bundles, beautiful platters add to the elegance of your presentation.
  • Silver trays. I’m gaga over silver trays because they make everything look elegant. Use them to serve food, hold plates or corral glasses on the bar. They serve a million and one purposes and you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them.
  • Apothecary jars and hurricanes. These essential decorating tools are not only great accents for your displays, they can be used to help serve your meals as well.
  • Beverage urns and pitchers. I often keep a glass urn with a spigot on my dining room buffet to serve water, punch or tea. When I’m not entertaining, I fill it with treasures, like gourds.
  • Serving bowls. For added drama, put a serving bowl or two atop a cake plate or another riser.

Create a Dramatic Display with Visual Variety

Height adds drama, so I always set up serving areas using tools that allow me to take advantage of the vertical space in a room. On my courtyard, the sky was literally the limit, so for my Spring Open House, I created a drink service display using one of my favorite new accents: this metal planter that’s fitted with several leaf-shaped tiers. For this display, I rested wine glasses and an ice bucket on the leaves. I used a silver gallery tray to hold the wine. The live topiary next to the tray and the maidenhair fern in the tiered planter add to the garden ambiance of this outdoor bar, as does this beautiful figurine.

When you are selecting your serving pieces and accents for a display, pull together a mix of heights, styles and mediums. I love to pair elegant pieces with those that are more rustic, like the metal server and the crystal ice bucket in the display pictured here.

Bring a Theme to Life with Well Chosen Accents

Once you have your backdrop set on your buffet and have collected some versatile serving tools, you will be able to create a gorgeous food service in a snap. To inspire you, pick a theme and bring it to life, like I did on this side table in my dining room.  My theme was color inspired: blue and white. And, it was so, so easy to pull together. I created an attractive backdrop using inexpensive blue and white pottery and live plants.  The hurricane in the foreground added a flash of drama. When it was time to entertain, all I needed to insert were a few pretty serving pieces from my arsenal. I settled on a simple two-tiered server and a silver bowl, perfect for a hot dish. Snap! Done! So pretty and so simple.

Next Week … There is no place like a garden in June, is there? I’ll share some tips for making your outdoor space a restful retreat.

P.S. Don’t miss a bit of Nell Hill’s news – stay up to date on my favorite finds, new arrivals at the stores and all our special events by checking the Nell Hill’s Facebook page every day. You don’t have to have a Facebook page yourself to look in on the fun, but if you’re already on Facebook, “like” us today!

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19 Responses to “At Your Service”

  1. Lisa Fernandez Says:

    Love all the service have to haves. I also love the blue and white paper hanging balls. Love it. Beautiful Mary, as always.

  2. Jane Englund Says:

    Where do I find the blue & white paper hanging balls??

  3. Mary Carol Says:

    Hi Jane–The blue and white paper hanging lanterns are sold at our Briarcliff store location–come see us or call 877-746-4320.

  4. Bobbie Says:

    Thanks for the list of “must-haves.” The creative serving ideas & the use of blue and white are much appreciated.

  5. Janelle Says:

    Love the combination of blue and lime green, along with “rusty” white. Very cooling and refreshing!

  6. Patsy Says:

    Will you please post a photo of the bar you had set up in your living room for the open house? It made liquor bottles look like works of art!

  7. Stephanie Says:

    I love all the ideas! But I really would like to have the metal planter with the leave shapes that you used! Is that a personal find or do you have it in the store? I couldnt find it on the website….also the beautiful Cake Stand! Do you have that as well.
    Thanks so much!

  8. Suzi Says:

    Great informational and beautiful post. I am passing it on to our pastor’s wife who loves to open her home. She has all your books and used to frequent your store before moving too far away.

  9. Kent Says:

    Really like the Blue and white decor!!!!
    Where did you aquire the Blue and white paper lanterns?
    Thanks Kent

  10. Pam Rhodes Says:

    I have several of your books and love looking at them and reading them over and over! I wish I lived closer to your beautiful stores, because I would definitely shop there! But unfortunately,Alabama would be quite a drive to where your stores are! I noticed you still have your dining room painted navy blue…I love jewel tones! I think all the dark blues, burgundies,antique golds,and hunter greens are gorgeous!!!! But I have been told numerous times that those colors are out -dated! :-(
    Any suggestions how I can still have these in my home and not have it be too dated looking?
    Thank you so much, Pam

  11. Cissie Winters Says:

    Love your buffet and all of your ideas. Fascinated with print above your buffet, can you tell me anything about it, looks like a New Orleans print.

  12. Mary Carol Says:

    Hi Kent–The blue and white paper lanterns are sold at our Briarcliff store location. Come in and see us or we would be happy to ship—call 877-746-4320 at your covenience.

  13. Mary Carol Says:

    Hi Patsy—I flipped through my open house pictures and did not see a picture of my bar in my living room, however, I will try to post one for you in the near future. Stay posted on the facebook or uncoming blog.

  14. Mary Carol Says:

    Pam—Thank you for your question, because I am passionate about my answer. To me, navy blue will never go out of style, just mix with whites or creams in your woodwork to update. As far as I’m concerned certain things don’t go out of style, I would hate to think we would all look the same, it is a matter of updating to keep it fresh—whatever floats your boat!!!!

  15. Mary Carol Says:

    Stephanie—So pleased you saw some pieces you liked. Both items are from Nell Hill’s–the popular flower planter is on reorder at the moment. Call 877-746-4320 to put your name on a ‘pending list’ if you would like too. The cake plate featured in this blog is not in the stores at present, however, we do have some that are similar.

  16. Mary Carol Says:

    Hi Cissie–The piece of art you are referring to is an original piece of art from New Orleans. I too, love it and have owned it for a long time.

  17. Kathy from Independence Says:

    As to jewel tones–I love them too. I finally decided that they are not out of date but are timeless. Keeping them as the basis of your decor can be lovely–in the summer you can add a pops of lime green to give a fresh look. In the fall, those colors can work with rust, golds and greens in the different arragements. Blue and white are also timeless and I see Mary Carol using this all the time with lime or a yellow gold–which can also work with your jewel tones. Trying to keep up with the latest decorating trends can be both expensive and frustrating. Remember the “rusting” or the” mauving” of America—now it is the “graying” of America in favorite colors.
    Stick with what you love–I finally learned to do that. K

  18. Dolores Wright-Holton Says:

    Love your open houses and I’m so lucky to live near enough to
    visit often….The ferns are doing great–your spring open house
    was “awesome” as usual— Thanks for all your hard work
    D. Wright–Holton, Ks

  19. Mary Lott Says:

    Do you have the blue glasses shown in June’s blog in the store?

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