Dining rooms have been in the doldrums for decades. Even Mary Berry has given up on hers. ‘Most of us, I think, live in the kitchen,’ she said recently.
She’s right. Plenty of us don’t have a dining room to give up on, me included. Plenty more have knocked down what once divided a dining room from a kitchen to create an airy, open-plan ‘living space’ where we do battle with avocados and everything else.
We might be obsessed with what we are and aren’t eating but we don’t stand on ceremony. Nigella Lawson admits she slurps noodles ‘hypnotically’ while watching TV on the sofa. ‘If it can be eaten out of a bowl, I’m very happy to eat while I watch,’ she said.
Dining rooms are all but dead, then, which is a shame because they invite conversation, allow for contemplation and can be just as cosy as a kitchen.
I have happy memories of my grandparents’ house where dishes were passed through a hatch in the wall and a different set of china used for each sitting. Morning coffee came in cottage-ware cups that looked like houses with little windows; a cooked lunch was served on chunky Portmeirion; a light supper on rather vivid green lettuce leaf plates. All of it in the dining room. These days it’s fashionable to eat every meal out of a bowl. That arbiter of middle-class taste, John Lewis, reports we’re losing interest in plates, while sales of bowls are going up.
At home, my sister and I petitioned hard to eat in front of the TV rather than at a table. The dining room was for Sunday lunch alone and its formality was intimidating, inviting mischief. This was a flashpoint for dispute. Now, of course, we love it. How nice it is to close the door on what’s been going on in the kitchen and leave the pudding puffing away in the oven behind you. Dirty dishes can keep to themselves and even the cook can relax (a bit). The dining room is a retreat. It’s not a thoroughfare or a table hurriedly cleared of unopened post, unfinished homework or a half-potted amaryllis. It has a sense of occasion. It’s a world away from that workhorse, the kitchen.
Isn’t life raucous enough? Wouldn’t it be better to sit down, concentrate on what we are eating and, like slender Samantha Cameron, give every bite a properly good chew?
The death of the dining room is a sign that our eating habits have also become slovenly. Many of us eat two or three meals a day al-desko. We grab breakfast ‘on the go’. Scoff a sandwich between emails. In the evening, we might watch while TV chefs create plate after exquisitely presented plate, but we’re balancing toast on our knees on the sofa. We’re grazers. Passing through the kitchen for a nibble of this or that. Sometimes skipping dinner in favour of a few ‘gorgeous little bits’ as my flatmate used to call them.
In his new book Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things, Stephen Bayley suggests that ‘most people learn the fundamentals of interior design from their experience of restaurants’. He goes on to note that ‘the food cart and the pop-up have replaced restaurants with fine napery, bucket chairs and deep-pile carpet’. If we no longer aspire to eat out in plush, formal surroundings, why would we bother at home? As Elizabeth David counselled back in the 1950s, the kitchen should be ‘the most comforting and comfortable room in the house’.
The idea of kitchen suppers, fashionable in the 1970s and still going strong, is all very well. But what happens when things start to go wrong and all your guests are on hand offering suggestions on how to thicken the sauce? What if you — horror — drop the casserole dish on the floor? You can’t very well scrape it up and hope for the best. Wouldn’t we all, occasionally, like to emerge from the kitchen like swans leaving the steam, sweat and panic in our wakes? Taking a chicken out of the oven while guests are at my kitchen table is not a dignified manoeuvre.
While kitchens must be glossy and functional, dining rooms can be full of flair. The designer William Yeoward is a fan of entertaining and master of the well-laid table. His most recent book, Blue and White and Other Stories, celebrates the art of dining. His tables are adorned with printed tablecloths, decorative crystal pineapples and wine glasses filled with cornflowers. ‘It is totally irresponsible to have uncomfortable dining chairs,’ he scolds. But what brave soul has upholstered chairs in the kitchen? William would have to bring a cushion round for supper at mine.
Interior designer Sophie Robinson believes that like bar carts and drinks cabinets, beleaguered dining rooms are due a renaissance. ‘They are a wonderful opportunity to be more playful.’ Small shoots are emerging… at the latest Grand Designs Live show there was a beautifully styled dining room inspired by a garden and decorated with ferns.
Robinson also reports that some cooks are putting their walls back up, shutting the door on open-plan living. When the demands of family life have subsided and you no longer need — nor want — to watch what your children are up to while you’re scrambling eggs, then having a few well-placed walls can be calming and cossetting.