The secret ingredient for a memorable dinner with your family or friends may not be your menu, but the setting. Creating a cozy and comfortable atmosphere in your dining room can make a big difference in sparking conversation and making dining together as a family—or with friends—an entertaining and enjoyable experience.

Make sure your chairs are comfortable. If you want diners to linger over a good meal, choose the right seating. The chair height needs to work with your table—so be cautious when you are choosing chairs that are a different design from your table. The top of the seat pad should fall around 12 inches below the bottom of your tabletop for comfortable legroom for most guests. If space in your dining area is tight, ­remove chairs that have armrests to allow for more space around the table. 

Upholstered chairs are the most comfortable. If yours are not upholstered, add seat cushions. Tip: If you have young children or frequently host your grandchildren, choose easy, wipe-clean material for your seat cushions such as vegan leather. For a more luxe yet still practical look, choose synthetic, machine-washable velvet or micro suede seat cushions. 

Give your dining area its own personality. Even if you don’t have a separate dining room, you can find ways to make this space different and set the ­table off from the rest of the room. If space is tight, tuck the table into a corner with bench seating on one side for a more intimate feel. Consider using a strip of drop pendant lights over the c­enter of the table to help frame the space. Or paint an accent wall behind the table a different color to give that part of the room its own look. Why this matters: By separating the dining space from the rest of your home, you are creating an area that is associated with that one activity over others. When diners enter that space, their mind-set changes. This is especially important in open-concept homes where “rooms” are undefined.

Choose a round or oval table. If you are in the market for a new table, a round or oval dining room table is more conducive to group conversation. The curved shape helps you avoid the pitfall of ­diners on the extreme ends of the table having a hard time keeping up with the conversation. Opting for a curved edge also creates a softer space visually, which can help put everyone at ease. 

Note: If you have limited space, a pedestal table—one with a single central support—allows you to squeeze more chairs around it because you don’t have anyone straddling a table leg. Visually, it appears to be a lot less cluttered. An uncluttered dining space is important for the creation of a relaxed zone and a better conversational experience. 

Leave about three feet of room between dining chairs and the walls in the room, and make sure that there’s two-and-a-half feet between each guest at the table to avoid bumping elbows and creating a too-crowded feel.

Set up a sideboard. No one should have to get up from the table to run to the kitchen for more water or napkins. Set up a sideboard or bar cart for easy access to the things you need at every dinner (but don’t have room for on the table), including an extra pitcher of cold water, additional seasonings, extra bread or other items, so you don’t have to interrupt the conversation—and your good time—to keep the meal flowing. 

Use color to your advantage in the dining room. Red is often said to be a great color for dining rooms, as its ­vibrant hues can evoke hunger and even passion—which can mean better appetites and more animated and interesting conversations. That energy is why red is often a dominant color in fast-food restaurant decor. But because red is an intense color, not everyone wants red walls. You might prefer to use red more ­sparingly—just for accessories, for example. To get the best of both worlds, you could choose natural, calming tones such as blues and grays for the walls, but add touches of red in the table linens, artwork, rugs and other room accessories. 

Keep your table decor casual, even for fancy occasions. Overly fussy and structured centerpieces at a big family holiday can give your table a stiff feel. Instead, arrange a less formal, even mismatched, collection of candles, vases and other tabletop accessories down the center of a table to create a more homey, authentic look than what can be achieved with perfectly coordinated and perfectly placed pieces. Group decorative items in odd numbers, and play with their heights for a less imposing look. 

Mismatched dishes and table linens can help diners feel more at ease. No one is intimidated by the prospect of breaking great-grandma’s best china in a mismatched set. If over the years, you have lost pieces of a set to breakage, don’t think you can’t continue to use those dishes. Pair them with pieces from other sets, especially if they are in the same color family. 

Note: If you don’t already have a large dinner service, this theory allows you to buy single elements at a time and mix them in slowly. This can be an economical way to build a service, rather than investing in the full set all at once. 

Create a flexible lighting scheme. Lighting helps set the mood, so creating a scheme that allows you to dim the lights for a more intimate party—or brighten it up for a bigger celebration—is essential. Over the table, use a low-hanging pendant or chandelier instead of one big central light to create a more relaxed ambiance. If your table is very large, hang multiple lights but try to ensure that they are not too spread out or they could end up looking too small. Keep them confined to the central third of the table. Hang light fixtures about three feet above tabletop height, so they don’t get in the way of conversation. Wall sconces, a table lamp on the side bar or a floor lamp in the corner of the room (even if the room is small) give you the option to illuminate other areas of the room or even to turn the main ceiling lights off altogether.

Note: Plants can help create a soothing atmosphere for your dining room. You might consider adding a few potted herbs to your space. The scent of potted herbs can make the room smell wonderful without overpowering the aroma of the dishes you’ve cooked. In a small dining room, small potted plants can be a permanent centerpiece.

Minimize the noise level. Acoustics can play a big part in the success of a dining space. Incorporating fabrics is a tried-and-trusted trick to help muffle unwanted sounds—curtains tend to work much better than blinds for this. If you’re creating a contemporary space, consider single block-color floor to ceiling curtains—maybe even going across one entire wall—to maintain modernity. If your dining area is part of an open-plan space, a strategically placed piece of furniture—or even a cluster of large potted plants—can act as a sound barrier of sorts and create less echo. A room divider with built-in storage will aid this purpose better than a dividing screen and can offer an additional spot for both display and storage.