Dinner Party

Photo: Alison Gootee

Rarely does a day go by when friends don't gather around playwright and actress Heather Raffo's beautiful wood table, which she calls "the heart of our home. " Raffo, 44, loves to host dinner parties with her husband, an avid chef. "The only problem is that we barely own a matching plate," she says. "I can't think of one time when the table was actually 'set.'"O asked event designer Jung Lee to help Raffo showcase her colorful dishware and napkins without making the table look like a yard sale. Then we wrangled a few more experts to weigh in on the intangibles that make any gathering memorable, from a casual weeknight dinner to a major holiday feast.

Set a Lovelier Table
Lee designed a table that's sophisticated, bursting with colorful personality—and easy to copy. Here's how:

1. A neutral backdrop
Lee used a simple gray runner to show off Raffo's wood table. Then she added off-white plates to highlight Raffo's husband's delicious food better than more colorful dishware.

2. Pops of color
Lee used a few of Raffo's Moroccan-inspired bowls as serving ware. Then she placed Raffo's bright, mismatched napkins directly on the plates for a casual, festive look.

3. Double-duty decorations
In place of a large floral centerpiece (which is costly and takes up space), Lee decorated the table with wine and water jugs, which relieve the host of having to play waiter. She also placed a few small buds in some of Raffo's old wineglasses.
Pump Up

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Pump Up Your Jams
Katie Staub, the genius behind retailer Anthropologie's hip-swinging music, has created a versatile playlist for O readers on the free streaming service Spotify that will take you from Saturday night to your Monday-morning commute:

Phone at party

Photo: Alison Gootee

Mind Your Manners
We all know to chew with our mouths closed, but is it or is it not necessary to wait until the host sits down to begin eating? We asked etiquette consultant Jodi R.R. Smith:

1. Is it ever okay to pull out an iPhone?
"If you must text or call someone, excuse yourself and go into the hall. You may Google something that will enhance the conversation, but not more than once every couple of hours."

2. How does one gracefully exit a conversation?
"If you're talking to someone but overhear more interesting chatter, include the person you're already speaking to by saying , 'Did you hear what Ann just said?' Then ask Ann to bring you both up to speed."

3. Can you eat if the hostess insists on it, even if she is not yet seated?
"You're allowed to take a nibble or two, but don't start gobbling or you'll be ready for the next course by the time she pulls up her chair."
Good Snacks

Photo: Alison Gootee

Refine Your Crude Cruites
Swap that sad pile of baby carrots for a tasty veggie platter that will please everyone from the gluten and dairy averse to your dieting sister. Start with "one or two vegetables that people are used to, like zucchini or cucumber," says Faith Durand, coauthor of the forthcoming The Kitchn Cookbook. Next, "add a few grown-up choices, like fennel, radish or broccolini." Durand serves this sophisticated spread with a simple white bean dip: Just puree half a can of cannellini with the zest and juice of one lemon and season with salt and black pepper.
Thank yous

Photo: Alison Gootee

Give (Better) Thanks
Kelly Williams Brown, author of Adulting, has devised a formula for handwritten notes based on the gracious missives she once saw pinned to a sorority-house bulletin board. "Start with the word you," she says, "because everyone likes to hear about themselves. Then talk about what the person did. Save your "thank you" for the end. In other words, "Dear Heather, You are an amazing cook. Not only was your salmon outrageously delicious, but your home is just beautiful. Arthur and I can't stop talking about how much fun we had. Thank you so much for inviting us."
Change Your ChitChat

Photo: Ryan McVay/iStock/Thinkstock

Change Your Chitchat
In social situations, many of us resort to prattling on about the wonderful/horrible weather. But O editor at large Gayle King could carry on a riveting conversation with a potted plant. Her secrets:

1. "I love to trade details about news stories I'm fixated on. During the Donald Sterling mess, I was off to the races telling everyone I talked to the latest thing I'd read."

2. "A compliment is a safe choice—but I always follow it up with a question. "I love those gorgeous heels! Can you actually walk in them?"

3. "In an elevator, go for humor. 'Aren't we glad we all bathed today?' lightens the mood."

Photo: Cavan Images/Taxi/Getty Images

Shoot for Better Party Photos
Wedding photographer Aaron Delesie—he shot John Legend's nuptials—is a master of the artful, flattering snapshot. "Most people look best in slight profile," he says, "with the camera elevated slightly above their eyeline." Have your subjects stand up straight and lift their arms away from their sides, he adds—and snap dozens of candids before and after the "official" shot.