Seating guests is an art, and not just at fashion shows.
At restaurant gatherings and dinner parties, "it's one of the most important things," says Celeste Fierro, senior vice president of ONE Group, which has 21 restaurants and bars in the U.S. and U.K. "How you seat your guests creates the energy and the vibe for the whole dinner."
How You Know Her: Celeste Fierro, Restaurateur
Senior vice president of ONE Group, which has 21 restaurants and bars in the U.S. and U.K.
Restaurants include STK and Asellina in New York City and Bagatelle in Los Angeles.
Formerly an event planner, she launched her restaurant career when she opened ONE in New York City's Meatpacking District in 2004.
Ms. Fierro, who throws work or social dinners frequently, says she starts thinking about seating when deciding whom to invite. "When a host has so many different groups of friends, they need to think about which groups would truly mesh together well," says Ms. Fierro, who splits her time between homes in New York City and Los Angeles.
Ms. Fierro believes 12 to 14 guests is the largest number you should have at a dinner table. "If you have 20 guests, people get lost," she says. "Half the table will end up not knowing the other half of the table because they won't get around to talking to them."
She avoids seating people who know each other very well next to each other, as this may lead to them catching up only with each other all night. Instead, her goal is to make her guests "feel comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time," she says. Ms. Fierro tries to pair up guests who don't know each other well or at all but might benefit from or enjoy meeting each other. "I like pairing fashion people with people who love clothes, or maybe if we have a person who wants to open a new restaurant, I'll put him next to a banker so they can talk about doing a venture together," she says.
Guests seated next to each other should have something in common, whether it is a hobby or home state, to spark conversation at the beginning. (Ms. Fierro typically introduces seatmates to each other at casual cocktails before dinner.) While she says she enjoys intellectual conversation at the table, she's wary of heated debates. "This is another tricky balance that one has to strike—finding your moderate-minded friends that love stimulated discussions, but will not become overly frustrated if there is an opposing thought."
Ms. Fierro makes a point of separating couples so the partners focus more on talking to other people. She tries to put members of a couple at least three seats apart, which is "close enough for them to make eye contact but still interact with other people at the table."
However, she makes an exception to the rule of separating couples if the couple is a "power team—very interactive and can engage the whole table by talking and bringing everyone together, getting them involved."
She tries to seat "high-energy, really outgoing people" in the middle of the table, which she says sparks "conversation that will flow throughout the whole table." She usually seats these people across from each other so their conversations are more likely to emanate and draw in others.
Ms. Fierro then puts herself and her co-host at the ends of the table, placing herself at the seat closest to the kitchen so it isn't intrusive when she has to get up to clear plates or fetch more wine. She also makes sure to seat guests who perhaps require more attention, such as those who ask a lot of questions or have quirky personalities, close to her to "keep them under control or help out if they need anything, so someone else doesn't have to baby-sit them."
When it comes to setting the table, Ms. Fierro believes place cards are essential. "It's more professional, a nice touch, and you avoid that awkward, 'Where am I going?' moment," she says.
Also, if she is co-hosting a dinner, she makes sure to brief her partner before guests arrive on the personalities involved—"who's coming, what their hobbies are—just to give them a heads-up in case they have to jump in and create conversation."
If there ends up being a lull, Ms. Fierro tries to start a conversation about what all her guests have in common: their meal.
At the end of the day, Ms. Fierro wants her dinner parties to help her guests meet new people and build relationships.
"Dare to be bold with your decisions and really push people's comfort zones," she says. "They may be a little awkward about it at first but I guarantee they will leave the dinner party feeling more enlightened and maybe even with a new friend or business idea."
Corrections & Amplifications
Celeste Fierro is senior vice president of ONE Group. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said she was co-founder as well.