I recently went to Charlotte to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Ralph by Ralph Lauren at Tabor, the men’s shop designed by Perry Poole. Tabor shares space with the equally cool SOCO Gallery and offers a masculine counterpoint to Laura Vinroot Poole’s Capitol and Poole Shop boutiques just down the street. It’s always a feast for the imagination to visit with the Pooles and walk through their creations, and the RRL dinner was especially memorable.
That had a lot to do with Sarah Wrenn, the event designer who has worked with both shops since 2014 to host parties with soul and style. Wrenn grew up in Charlotte and then spent seven years in London, where she studied contemporary art at Christie’s and was a creative director at Olivia Brinkley Events. “British civility took hold of me there and I don’t think I’ll ever let it go,” she says. Of working with Laura, Wrenn says, “Things are not always fancy, but they are always honest, real, and something that we are proud of. We both came from a lineage of women and men who loved to entertain and embraced the beautiful culture of the South.”
Wrenn’s touch was on display this evening. For starters, the dinner was on the porch at Tabor. Long live the open-air Southern porch party, especially in the fall.
And then, when Wrenn walked into the event brandishing a paper bag full of peach moonshine in mason jars, I knew I needed to chat with her about the secrets of hosting a great dinner party.
Here are five takeaways from our conversation to bring to your table:
> Use your silver. “I swear it is easier to polish silver that goes through the dishwasher than it is the silver that sits in a chest,” Wrenn says. “For this event we wanted to juxtapose the rustic nature of the RRL brand and how we entertain here in the South. So I used sterling silver bowls, sterling silver serving utensils, and my personal sterling silver flatware for the tables.”
> Find your signature, flower-wise. For many events, Wrenn teams up with floral designer John Lupton of Charlotte, who is a master at clustering, or “color blocking,” flowers of the same hue together. “The color blocking creates fullness and depth,” Wrenn says. “I have never seen too many flowers on the table in this way. For this dinner John color-blocked butterfly ranunculus, orange berry stems, the deep berry giant dahlias and peach garden roses. He never fails, ever.” And if Lupton is busy, Wrenn uses flowers from her yard—or a neighbor’s. “It pays to be kind to your neighbors.”
> Keep the flavors unfussy, welcoming, and as local as possible. And serve things family-style. “We decided to do a burger bar because it’s really lovely when your guests see food that they actually want to eat. We served beef, lamb, and veggie burgers, Carolina gold rice and White Acre peas with vinegar, roasted baby turnips from North Carolina, Brussels sprouts and rainbow carrots with an herb vinaigrette, fennel and apple slaw, a fall salad, and pickled green tomatoes. French fries were served at the table. I’m a big fan of family-style dinners because they elicit conversation and help break the ice with folks who don’t know each other well.”
> Use things that are real, not fake. “I always use a linen dinner napkin. I will not let a client order horrid poly blend napkins that are more annoying than helpful.”
> Make it meaningful. “My family Thanksgiving is a group effort, full show. My mother is one of four sisters and they are all, including my grandmother, great cooks. I think it’s important to make one thing that means something to you. It can be just one thing—a dinner biscuit or a cheese wafer is usually where I lean—but it can be flowers, as long as it has a story behind it. This all goes back to using your own pretty things, like me using my own silver for a party. They are an extension of you and it’s kind to share beauty with others. Being kind doesn’t cost a thing.”
And the origin of that peach moonshine? Wrenn has a secret source. But she’s not telling.