Giving the Formal Dining Room Its Day

formal dining room with butler's pantry and wine bar

This formal dining room in the Wyndham Estate plan by Fischer & Frichtel includes a wine bar and butler’s pantry to make it easy to entertain and keep the room clean and cluttered free.

By Patricia L. Garcia

When San Francisco interior designer George Brazil styles a home, he makes every effort to give the formal dining room the attention that space deserves.

“Unfortunately, dining rooms seem to be getting smaller since most people don’t use them as often as they should,” says Brazil of SagreraBrazil Design, Inc. in San Francisco. “They end up being a staged room or an extra play room for the kids. It doesn’t have to be this way. When we design a dining room, we design it for daily use — family dinners, not just holidays.”

We agree with Brazil — formal dining rooms needn’t become long forgotten because casual living is the rule of the day. Here’s how to embrace your formal dining room so you can have your formal — and casual — cake and eat it too.

Drama, Drama, Drama

When it comes to formal dining rooms, bold is in.

“The formal dining room these days is all about drama and interest,” says Jessica Davis, owner and principal designer at JL Design in Nashville, Tenn. “Often one of the first areas you see in a home, this (space offers) an opportunity to accent the other areas of the house and draw the eye into an area that is set apart from the others with bold patterns and colors.”

Still unsure about making bold choices in your formal dining room? Don’t be, Brazil says. “Since the dining room is not used throughout the day, here is a place where you can be daring.” He suggests wallpaper and decorative paint treatments; using outdoor fabrics, greens and other vibrant color treatments and mixing pieces.

“Never go for the matching tables and chairs,” he says. “It’s more fun and approachable to see woods that don’t match and styles that complement each other. Same goes with fabric — the upholstery doesn’t have to be timid and match the drapery.”

The Heart of It All

No dining room would be complete without a dining table. If you have a formal dining room, it’s likely because you entertain – that means having a versatile table that can host small intimate meals, as well as large groups of guests

“It’s still standard to have a large dining room table that comes with inserts so you can expand into a larger table,” says Tracy Kay Griffin, expert designer at real estate investment company Express Homebuyers in Springfield, Va.

If you prefer a smaller table for everyday seating, Brazil suggests two small tables that can be pushed together for large gatherings. “Same goes for an expandable table: just because it can be expanded to seat 10 or 12, take out the leaves so a family of four or six can sit there comfortably.”

Other important pieces include a buffet, side boards and serving tables to provide storage for linens and serving pieces.

Let There Be Light

A well-lit dining room is versatile enough for formal dinner, Sunday brunch or casual weekday meals. One way to add drama is dramatic lighting piece. “Lighting is a huge component of the space,” says founder of Aidan Gray Home and interior designer Randall Weeks. “Chandeliers, sconces and even buffet lamps finish off a look in dining rooms. Lighting should always be on a dimmer switch to set the mood depending on the time of day.”

Weeks also says candles add ambiance to dining rooms, so don’t exempt those as a lighting option.

Another way to add more light (and perceived space) is to use a statement mirror or lots of smaller mirrors.

Entertaining Spaces

Because entertaining at home plays such a huge role in our daily lives, homebuilders are creating spaces that will make entertaining easier. In addition, keeping homes clean and clutter free is another aspect of owning a home. That’s why you’ll find spaces like wine and wet bars and butler’s pantries in or near dining rooms in newly constructed homes.

Patricia L. Garcia is content manager for

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