Laid-back and Lovely

Water Street Shop Community Dinner
Excelsior’s Water Street Shop Owners Share Tips and Tricks They’ve Learned from Throwing Laid-back (Yet Beautiful) Community Dinners

Shop owners from Excelsior’s Water Street gather for family-style potlucks that are highly Instagram-able but totally focused on the moment.

They break bread, dream about the future and each bring what they’ve got—in every possible way. Heading into the holiday party season, the Excelsior entrepreneurs who host what they call “community suppers” share their recommendations for planning your own casual yet luxurious gatherings.

“There’s something so holy about breaking bread together. Sharing a meal feels so … familial,” says Erin Duininck. She’s a mom of two and lifelong maker who’s created the Golden Rule Collective brand and its intentional spaces entirely around community, beauty, simplicity and empowerment.

In summer 2016, Duininck and her shop neighbors Dee Dee and Chloe Lappen, of Gray Home + Lifestyle, and a few other close friends were lingering on Gray’s front porch after their shops closed for the night. In tune with rumbling stomachs and an open calendar, a quick run to Kowalski’s led to a sprawling dinner eaten al fresco in the dimming summer light. There was wine flowing, and though it came together totally spur of the moment, the gathering was a beautiful thing to behold. (These are some of Excelsior’s top entrepreneurs, with an eye for design and shops full of beautiful accessories, after all). Community. Beauty. Simplicity. Empowerment.

“I’ve never seen anything like the Excelsior community,” Duininck says, noting the intentional lack of national brands and faceless chain stores downtown. Because of that, perhaps, the growing downtown has attracted shop owners and makers who mutually bring what they’ve got. That night on the porch, a tangible meal came together. And in many ways, it mirrored and celebrated the hard work and communal nature of the local businesses.

“We knew we wanted to do it again, but actually plan it,” says Lappen. She explains that “community dinners” now happen potluck-style, several times a year—with the core team inviting entrepreneur friends new and old. Bill Damberg from Brightwater has been there. When Ace General Store opened between Golden Rule and Gray, owners Alex and Dan Cordell got an invite. Last December, owner Eli Wollenzien hosted the group at his Red Sauce Rebellion before it opened to the public. There’s been Mollie Michura from the Glow Lounge and Wynne Reece of Reece Law & Creative Council. Photographer Tiffany Kokal often documents the gatherings and brings her own creative eye and ideas.

“We’re all trying to just raise the bar—together,” says Lappen. “These dinners have become a place to throw things out there and see what happens. We’re all offering ideas, dreams, thoughts—about how we can make this community even better.”

Get the Look
Though seasons, menus and guest lists shift with each event, Duininck and Lappen share some of the design and mood-setting principles that tend to remain constant. And though we can’t all be design mavens and creative business starters, these are great tricks for anyone to have in their back pocket as we head into the holiday—read: last-minute-dinner-party-throwing, hurry-company’s-coming—season.

“Super thrown together, but lovely” is the way Duininck describes the vibe. Food is high-quality, with variety in the flavors and textures, but nothing is too stuffy or over-thought.

“I always think about the colors of the food I’m bringing,” Duininck explains. Carrots in some form are a frequent addition to the table, for their striking color alone. Chutneys, compotes, homemade pestos and fresh-cut herbs add seasonal, earthy contrast. “I go for deep, beautiful colors because I want it all to pop and really look good together,” she says.

“We serve everything potluck- and family-style, which naturally takes up a lot of space on the table,” says Lappen. “I don’t like to add a lot—just some simple greenery. Less is more.”

Yeah, she’s a true minimalist. I’m a maximalist, whether I like it or not. I do have 30 good white plates to start with—but I like to add in different, luxurious layers,” says Duininck. She’s loving brass and blush candlesticks at the moment—loads of them—and keeps a stash of vintage wine glasses, fun napkins and contrasting dishcloths to swap in when the mood strikes.

“I do like to make sure there are different heights,” Lappen says. She’ll start with flat, natural wood charcuterie boards and then layer up bowls, decanters and simple coupes that glisten in the light. She finishes the look with taller pieces and seasonal greens. “We put candles everywhere! It’s kind of a funny process. We start experimenting until we achieve a cohesive look,” she says.

One thing they keep completely uncomplicated? The beverages. The dinners are often held in intimate spaces—sometimes outdoors—so wine is served instead of mixed drinks, which can have a lot of moving parts to them. Get a red, a white and some pretty pitchers of sparkling and still water—and everyone’s happy.

Relax. Set the stage so conversation can happen naturally and it’s  easy for guests to help themselves to another helping. “It’s been a really great celebration of friendship,” says Duininck.

Check out their Instagram for more photos: @waterstreetexcelsior