The art of setting a beautiful table is all about knowing your guests and setting a welcoming mood
By Noah Salt • Photographs by Amy Freeman
Without apology, Laura Griffin is a force of nature and woman with a storied past — which explains why she’s so brilliant at designing and hosting anything that involves the task of pleasing guests, especially memorable dinner parties.
The daughter of a former Cone Mills vice-president and fashion designer, she grew up in Greensboro and set off on a career in nursing before she and first husband Robert Pearse opened a legendary white-tablecloth restaurant called Robert’s in Friendly Center’s Forum VI (now Signature Place). The couple went on to create a popular low-budget eatery at Elam and Walker called the Smokin’ Dog that specialized in gourmet sandwiches and vegetarian fare, before migrating out to Guilford College and opening The Revival Grill, a beloved and innovative restaurant that occupied a cubby hole in Quaker Square for more than a decade. After this, Laura helped design and launch three award-winning wineries around the state.
These days, Laura and her second husband Mike own historic Chinaberry Guest Farm and Barn in the village of Wallburg, a spectacularly restored vacation rental that sleeps up to eight people.
With 26 years of designer hosting and catering behind her, we thought it might be useful to drop by the farm and have a chat with the indefatigable hostess about the approaching holiday season, hoping to pick up some pearls of wisdom about how to set a memorable holiday table.
Here are a few useful pointers we picked up during an hour with Laura in the barn:
“The key to a great dinner party is to mix and match interesting people who will enjoy getting to know others over good food and wine. I love to invite guests who may not know each other but who share certain interests in a subject. The other night we had a party for eight in the barn that involved a local builder, two top interior designers and a couple who worked on Broadway for years. The conversation was nonstop.”
“A good dinner party is a chance to tell a story about who you are as well, to create a memorable setting where your guests feel both comfortable and intrigued by the design of the table, especially at the holidays.”
Aesthetics are everything: “Themes are important but beauty is maybe even more so. The best themes tend to reflect whatever has captured the interest of the host at that moment, something you are passionate about. It could be Christmas . . . or local history! Not long ago I hosted a party with a George Washington theme because I’d learned he traveled the road by our farm on his famous Southern tour. I decorated with lots of Washington figurines. The guests loved it.”
There’s no need to spend a lot of money, Laura says, “Use what you have, what you have collected. I personally love to set a beautiful table with antique pieces and vintage china and other items I’ve collected from many years of travel and work. Beautiful old plates and silverware have such character —authenticity and their own stories! It’s also quite economical if you collect, as I have done, over time — picked up beautiful pieces of silverware, for instance, here or there. You’d be surprised by what you can find at second-hand and consignment stores. The Triad area has loads of them. If you have a little extra to spend, you can splurge on flowers and other appropriate decorations.”
Then there’s hospitality: “Most of all, a memorable dinner party or a holiday gathering is about creating a feeling of welcome and comfort. Obviously, the food is important. But you also want your guests to relax and have fun, to enjoy making new friends or spending time with old ones. And when they leave, you hope they take away happy feelings.”
Just for fun, we wondered, given her many years of catering and hosting, what kind of table Laura and Mike set for friends and family at the holidays.
“Actually,” she allows with her quicksilver laugh, “we’re pretty low-key these days. Between us, we have six children who are grown up and learning what it’s like to be out working in the world! Extended family and even grandchildren now come. We light lots of fires and have delicious stews, comfort food that feels like home. That feeling,” she emphasizes, “is so important anytime, but especially the holidays.” h
Learn more about China Berry Farm and Guest Barn at www.vrbo.com.