Recipe for Success: "I like to have sit-down dinner parties with several courses. It's a treat for my guests to waited on -- no one my age does that anymore. I always try to invite new people into my group of friends. It makes for good conversation, then guests settle in and hang out."
Recipe for Disaster: "Don't serve something you've never made before. I tried to branch out and make roasted red pepper soup once, but I put too many peppers in the blender and the lid flew off. People were walking through the door and I was wiping soup off the walls."
"When I was looking for a house, one of the criteria was a dining room big enough for my 9-foot-long table -- I can seat 10 people comfortably though the room is only 11 by 14 feet," says Heather.
"As for the chandelier, the bigger the better. The more arms that spread out in a room, the better the light," she says. "I put this one on a dimmer switch."
"Everything I own is mismatched," says Heather. "I have a passion for collecting anything that's used for entertaining."
To act as a placecard, she stamped leger paper with a guest's name for each setting.
Since Heather's table is extra long, she likes to make several arrangements that all of her guests can enjoy while seated. She created this fuss-free arrangement with items from the grocer's vegetable section. The vases are wrapped in the same ledger paper she used to create place cards.
For her dinner parties, Heather likes to do the cooking. "My signature dish is vichyssoise," she says. "I make it the day before, put it in julep cups on a tray, and keep it in the fridge all night. When guests walk in, I had them a cup and a spoon and everone has their first course standing up."
Recipe for Success: "My best parties last a long time. I like it when guests can sit around the table and talk for hours. I always use place cards -- knowing where they're going puts people at ease. It also helps to hand them something, like a drink, as soon as they walk in the door."
Recipe for Disaster: "Don't take on a major project the day of the party. On the morning of our New Year's Eve party, my husband and I built a buffet and skirted it for the dining room. It looked great, but we were exhausted by the time guests arrived."
"I like a 'rich and poor' mix in my decor," says Fran. "The table was at my family's hunting camp. (My dad was horrified when I put it in the dining room.) My place settings are a mix of crude pottery and Kmart china. I always spring for linens. You can fake the china and everything else, but people can feel the quality of the linens."
Fran suggests using place cards for every seated dinner to put your guests at ease and offer them some direction. Simple card stock trimmed with pinking shears or scrapbooking scissors and afixed with ribbon will do the trick.
"I like to get several stems of one type of flower from the grocery store," says Fran. "I like a mass of one thing clumped together." For these arrangements, she used about four bunches of green mums and covered a simple container with a scrap of fabric and ribbon.
"The chairs were my first flea market purchase when I lived in New York. They cost $100 delivered," says Fran. "I splurged and covered them in Lulu DK outdoor fabric; if something spills it's OK. My slipcovers are like glorified pillow cases that fit the chairs snuggly."
"The bench was my grandmother's. It was so uncomfortable that my husband and I would flip a coin to see who had to sit there, so I added six pillows -- enough to spell out our last name," says Fran.
Recipe for Success: "My interiors are a bit predictable because I prefer traditional things. So when I entertain, I like to shake things up. I'll use what I have -- like my wedding china -- but I'll mix it with something irreverent, like colorful plastic chargers or flatware."
Recipe for Disaster: "When we have guests I don't put my husband in charge of the grill. He gets caught up in conversation and -- it never fails -- I'm left serving charred steaks."
"I like to mix styles," says Beaty. "There's only one thing in my dining room that's really worth anything -- the sconces. My husband bought them for our anniversary at one of my favorite places in New Orleans, Ann Koerner Antiques on Magazine Street. I like their contrast with the less formal lattice mirror."
The centerpiece is a group of six potted orchids bought at a home improvement store and and placed in a large silver bowl. At the end of the evening, there is a plant for each guest to take home.
"My secret weapon is after-dinner drinks," says Beaty. "They keep the conversation going. One of my favorites is a family recipe for Milk Punch. My husband loves to serve martinis -- he stuffs the olives with blue cheese."