How to Throw a Dinner Party Like a French Girl

Charleston-based photographer Lucy Cuneo plans an outdoor fête at her Grandmother's breathtaking villa in the South of France.

Charleston photographer Lucy Cuneo and florist Anne Bowen set the scene for a dinner party in the South of France.
Charleston photographer Lucy Cuneo and florist Anne Bowen set the scene for a dinner party in the South of France.
Photography: Lucy Cuneo

Ever since we first glimpsed Anne Hathaway's makeover sequence in The Princess Diaries, we've been patiently awaiting the appearance of our surprise European grandma. Well, Charleston photographer Lucy Cuneo actually has one. She may not be the Queen of Genovia, but her stunning hillside home in the South of France is castle enough for anyone.   

How to Throw a Dinner Party Like a French Girl

"My late Grandmother, Sharon Burgett (we called her Gaga), purchased this house on a rugged property in the hills overlooking the Bay of Saint Tropez," Cuneo explains. "She was captivated by the peace and comfort that balances the bustle of the coastline below." A consummate hostess and composer, Burgett's rambling dinner parties were often topped off with singing by the piano or dancing on the terrace. These days the family uses the home as a place for special celebrations and vacations. "It's somewhere to entertain and to bring treasured guests, to walk among the olive groves and to swim on a mountaintop," she says. Birthday parties and weddings fueled by local rosé often run long into the night, but Cuneo carries on her grandmother's gracious tradition of always having coffee, fresh baguettes, croissants, and jam ready in the morning. 

Cuneo's Grandmother's stone house sits on a hillside above Saint-Tropez.
Cuneo's Grandmother's stone house sits on a hillside above Saint-Tropez.
The rugged property is dotted with climbing roses, hydrangea, and olive trees.
The rugged property is dotted with climbing roses, hydrangea, and olive trees.

Entertaining here is unhurried, yet intuitive. "French design is the epitome of effortless chic. It will never give the appearance of being too stiff, or having tried too hard to achieve a specific look," says the photographer. Her advice to American hosts? "Have the confidence to embrace a lighter touch and focus more on the overall feel of a scene than the traditional details." Both the sense of comfortable ease and the discreet, personal details made a recent fête she arranged with florist Anne Bowen of Charleston Stems completely dreamy. Seated at a round table draped in scalloped white cloths, guests were transported to a seemingly timeless scene, in which cell phones and emails are forgotten in favor of easy conversation and casual passed dishes. "Regardless of relationship, everyone is invited to eat en famille" says Cuneo. 

The sunny stone terrace is the site of many an outdoor family gathering and wedding.
The sunny stone terrace is the site of many an outdoor family gathering and wedding.
How to Throw a Dinner Party Like a French Girl
For the centerpiece, flowers and greenery plucked from the property were mixed with blooms from a market in Nice.
For the centerpiece, flowers and greenery plucked from the property were mixed with blooms from a market in Nice.

The pair's dining setup spotlights mixed glassware, antique plates in different patterns—Burgett used the blue-and-white set for everyday—and a loose, billowy floral arrangement, partially foraged from the property. Climbing garden roses, lacecap hydrangea, agapanthus, plumbago, and lavender were plucked from the hillside, while a grove of olive trees dotted with varieties of eucalyptus and ivy provided the greens. "At the market in Nice, we purchased lisianthus, thistle, peonies, Queen Anne's lace, and nigella, all grown nearby," adds Cuneo. 

Of course, once your flowers are arranged and family-style plates are passed, Cuneo has just one more quintessentially French piece of advice: "Avoid taking anything too seriously. We let things unfold naturally without much planning. It’s all about relaxation and great company. If something goes wrong, laugh it off!"

For a casual dinner served en famille, Cuneo set the table with her grandmother&squot;s "everday" antique blue-and-white china and mixed glassware.
For a casual dinner served en famille, Cuneo set the table with her grandmother's "everday" antique blue-and-white china and mixed glassware.
How to Throw a Dinner Party Like a French Girl
Lucy's Six Tips for Francophile Entertaining
  • 1.  Make a habit of setting a beautiful, approachable table with lots of candles, whether you are dining alone, with friends, or in a large group.

  • 2.  Don’t worry too much about the structure of the evening—start late and go later! Welcome your guests as family.

  • 3.  Eat en plein air, make use of the natural environment whenever possible.

  • 4.  Pour delicious wine and use simple seasonal ingredients.

  • 5.  Facilitate conversation by placing people close together; a narrow table or a small round work well to include everybody.

  • 6. After dessert, it’s nice to put out a little bowl of candies or small fresh fruits for guests to nibble on well into the night.

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