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Décor Advice for Southeast Asian Restaurants

Updated on February 25, 2013
Southeast Asian cuisine is as diverse and delicious as it is beautiful.
Southeast Asian cuisine is as diverse and delicious as it is beautiful. | Source

Southeast Asian cuisine is among my favorite—I doubt there is anything more delightful on a cold day than a huge bowl of pho or the appropriately named tom yum. But no matter how much you love phanaeng or léchon, it probably hasn’t occurred to you to host a major event in a Southeast Asian restaurant, or ask such a restaurant to cater your event. This is a big missed opportunity for a number of reasons. For one thing, Southeast Asian food is delicious—even if your guests are of the meat-and-potatoes persuasion, you will always be able to find a few blander alternatives. For another, a lot of these restaurants are family-owned, which means the recipes vary a bit, which means each new restaurant is an opportunity to try something different.

If you decide to go with Southeast Asian food, your décor should complement the theme. In this area, you can go traditional or you can do a bit of fusion décor. Despite the vibrancy of their dishes, most Southeast Asian restaurants go with basic white square tablecloths as they are easier to launder. If you aren’t entirely familiar with the culture or décor, you might need to do a bit of research before you begin decorating, but the effort is well-worth it. To get you started, I decided to go with three Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Keep in mind that the culture, food, and religion varies greatly even in small Southeast Asian countries, so my suggestions are by no means mandates.

The Philippines - Mabuhay!

Filipino food is an amalgam of other cultures, infused with the creativity of past and present Filipino chefs. The Philippines have been a hub of migratory, commercial, and colonial activity for centuries, and the wide diversity of its inhabitants has resulted in a distinctive, delicious cuisine. While certain items, like Lumpia, are clearly derived from Chinese cuisine, others reflect Austronesian or Latin roots. Of course, to you and your guests, its origins aren’t nearly as relevant as its flavors, which are reliably delicious. To complement the delicious Filipino food at your event, you’ll want to rent tablecloths that reflect the Filipino aesthetic and culture.

And this is the sort of thing that is easier said than done. Filipino textiles reflect every pattern from floral to plaid to religious iconography. Translating such talent and diversity to the table will require you to focus your look, at least at individual tables. As artists like Dex Fernandez show, people in the Philippines love bright colors and aren’t afraid to mix them, often to stunning effect. In like manner, if you decide to showcase square tablecloth rentals in differing colors, by all means do so. In other words, try to stick with one pattern per table, but do whatever you want with the color.

Filipino pottery is well-made, though it is probably too expensive to use as dinnerware. If you can find it at all, I recommend using it as a centerpiece, set atop your banquet tablecloths to differentiate flowers from the festive décor.

You can try the inverse as well—rent event tablecloths in sedate colors and decorate with festive elements like dancers’ headdresses and lanterns made from capiz oyster shells or abalone. You can still use the tapestries—simply hang them on the walls, with the permission of the venue, of course.

Thailand - Chok dee!

Thai culture traditionally assigns a certain color to each day of the week, a holdover from Hindu tradition, though the inhabitants of this country are primarily Theravāda Buddhists. You are by no means expected to decorate according to the color of the day, as your guests won’t understand the significance, but you can at least be aware of what they are in case you want to base your décor around a particular color. If you choose to go in this direction, the colors are, beginning with Sunday: red, yellow, pink, green, orange, azure, and purple. You can rent event tablecloths in these colors and look for complementary accessories.

Thailand is well-known for its embroidery; with its sequined elephants being among the most distinctively Thai designs. This art encompasses a wide range of patterns, with some as bold as the elephant and others more delicate and abstract. As a result, you can look for banquet tablecloths that reflect this aesthetic or look for authentic Thai embroidery. Since larger pieces are expensive, I like to place thin strips of embroidery down the center of the event tablecloth as table runners or place smaller squares around the center to add visual interest to the otherwise-flat, square tablecloth.

The art of sculpting reached new peaks in Southeast Asia, and Thai sculpture is immediately recognizable, particularly in their depictions of Buddha. However, in many cases, Thai restaurants already display such statues prominently, so you’ll want to look for something else to place on your tablecloths at your event. Again, elephants are always a good bet, as they are distinctively Thai in design, and though culturally significant, they are a common enough motif in Thai commercial art that you won’t feel that you are appropriating an important cultural artifact.

Likewise, the lotus is a common motif across Asian art, but it is also a beautiful flower and a popular food item. You can sub out statues for lotuses or water lilies floating in simple glass bowls, so long as they complement the banquet tablecloths you have selected. Note that these flowers dry out very quickly if they are not immersed in water, so be sure to have a florist who can provide fresh-cut flowers.

Vietnam - Một hai ba, yo!

Most of the Vietnamese cuisine you’ve eaten was probably heavily influenced by French culture. Even pho, which seems like the quintessential Vietnamese dish, is derived from pot au feu. Of course, China has been an even bigger influence on Vietnamese culture, as seen in its focus on traditional Chinese elements in cooking. Despite a history of attempted takeovers, Vietnam remains incredibly distinctive in both cuisine and culture. Unlike Thai food, which often combines as many ingredients as possible, and Filipino food, which is generally quite rich in flavor, Vietnamese food tends to focus on clean tastes, fresh ingredients, and visually separate ingredients. As a result, Vietnamese food looks particularly beautiful in presentations—fresh vibrant, with lots of green vegetable.

To complement the clean taste and appearance of Vietnamese food, I recommend a fairly sedate table. You can rent tablecloths in basic white, beige, or pastel colors. If you want to go bolder, red and yellow are good choices, as they are featured prominently throughout Vietnamese culture. As always, you can ask your venue or caterer for recommendations (in general, Vietnamese restaurants are run by knowledgeable persons who will be able to offer far better suggestions than I).

As for place settings, I’m rather fond of bamboo place mats. These warm beige rectangles will complement nearly any tablecloth color while serving as the perfect base for the dishes for condiments like chili sauce and pickled vegetables.

Your centerpieces can be anything, but if it’s an important event, you might want to enlist a carver. A trend in Vietnam is to carve watermelons and other melons into flowers—a task that takes no small amount of skill, but results in a positively beautiful design. Such a centerpiece will provide a fresh, sweet aroma while complementing tablecloth rentals in shades of green, red, and white (or pale orange if you prefer cantaloupe). Like all other aspects of event planning, it will take a bit more effort, but with gorgeous results that reflect the fine detail and distinctive beauty of Vietnamese artistry.

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