Seasoned book club members know that it's not just the books that draw people back time after time. It's the eating and reading together – and also checking out the host's great house – that turns such a solitary activity into a social one. That's why we've enlisted three San Francisco restaurants, Park Chalet, Home, and Blue Plate, to help you out in the kitchen, plus a Pottery Barn stylist to help set the table. Our theme is classic American comfort food that's presented with wit and style. It's also fun to prepare and simple to host. We understand that it's not effort, but a sense of effortlessness that creates the sort of curl–up–on–the–couch atmosphere where great stories and conversations unfold. The formula is simple: a thought–provoking book, a thoughtful meal and friends willing to share both.
To put your book club in the food frame of mind, try pairing a book of food lit with your menu. An online search on food novels will surely contain classic favorites like Nora Ephron's hilarious romance Heartburn, Muriel Barberry's literary novel Gourmet Rhapsody, Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti mysteries in Venice, Italy, and anything by bad–boy celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Our comfort food menu includes mac n' cheese, tomato soup and ice cold beer each of which is a classic in its own right, but presented here with an updated twist. San Francisco restaurants Blue Plate, Park Chalet and Home each share their kitchen's prized mac n' cheese recipes. Tomato soup made with imported Italian San Marzano tinned tomatoes and chunky homemade croutons add delicious warmth. Instead of wine, we recommend a tasting of local craft beers. (See Recipes below.)
With a new breed of craft breweries like Santa Barbara's Telegraph Brewing Company featured here, the once humble beverage has been elevated to the status of fine wine. This brewery epitomizes the artisan beer–making philosophy of using local organic ingredients, brewing in small batches and hand crafting them according to the traditions of the region. Try experimenting with other historical styles like IPAs, English bitters, porters, Hefeweizens, saisons and Belgium triples to turn beer tasting and food pairing into a culinary exploration.
Timing depends on whether your group snacks throughout or talks first and eats later. In the first scenario, have all food ready by the time the doorbell rings. Otherwise, have your cheese sauce ready, your macaroni cooked and bread crumbs ready to sprinkle before the guests arrive. At the break, it'll take about 15 minutes to assemble the macaroni and cheese and toast the breadcrumb top in the oven. Enlist others to set out the warmed tomato soup and cold beer.
Keep the decorating low key to match the casual mood. Set up a self–serve station on a buffet or side table, including simple white ceramic bowls and plates, glass beer mugs and flatware. White stoneware casseroles and servicing dishes stamped with the words "Comfort Food" set the mood perfectly. Use woven chargers and trays as trivets. Serve bread or salad in rustic wood bowls with wood utensils. Colorful napkins and runners look particularly cheerful alongside the simple, natural materials. We matched a set of ticking stripes with a coordinating floral print set, and bundled them with fragrant sprigs of rosemary.
Keep ornamentation sparse in general for such occasions. One or two considered touches — like skillet–shaped salt and pepper cellars, a menu with handwritten recipes, and our downloadable invitation that looks like a bookmark — offer decoration with real purpose.
An insignia "Comfort Food" marks these generous stoneware baking dishes, reminding us to cook slowly, eat heartily and share the feast. Fill the large round and rectangular bakers with classic casseroles and soups, and serve individual bakers at each place setting. They travel straight from oven to table to dishwasher with a simplicity that promises to make them household staples.
Two little wooden serving spoons and a wooden tray accompany our miniature salt and pepper skillets, made of real cast iron. Conversation starters like these that are a clever take on everyday accessories brings new appreciation for household basics.
Few things bring atmosphere to the table like rustic wood bowls. Our Vintage Wood Bowls, Platter and Serving Set add a wine country feel whether they're filled with farmers' market greens or laden with breads and rolls.
Block Print Napkins of simple florals mix easily with stripes to infuse the table with subtle color. Pair them with basic white porcelain like our Great White Coupe Soup Bowls and Salad Plates from the comprehensive dinnerware set.
Let guests grab one of our bistro–style Café Glasses and pour their own beverages from our Ceramic Drink Dispenser, where iced teas, juices and agua frescas are all fair game. For beers, set out pint glasses or generous steins of our Bella Beer Mug next to the craft beer station where iced bottles big and small await.
Start your beer selection process with a web search of local craft breweries in your area. Brooklyn Brewery in New York, Dogfish Head in Delaware, Goose Island in Chicago, Rogue in Portland and Lagunitas and Speakeasy in Northern California are the more well–known craft breweries, but smaller and more specialized ones — like our featured Telegraph Brewing Company in Santa Barbara — are ripe for discovery. Visit neighborhood brewpubs, or contact a specialty beverage store for recommendations. Wine merchants, who are often craft beer lovers as well, can make good suggestions. Like wine, a selection of whites (pilseners and lagers), darks (porters and stouts) and something in between (ambers and ales) give a range of tastes. One of the pleasures of craft beer is the beauty of the packaging. For a party, instead of individual bottles, go for larger bottles. Half gallon growlers and tall bottles with hinged porcelain caps or champagne–like cork and wire tops add a communal feel to the drinking. Since today's craft brewers are viewed as creative artisans passionate about beer, read up on their personalities as well as their beers, and share the knowledge with guests.