For most settings, neutral plates are a smart investment. Whether you choose off-white plates from a restaurant supply store or have some custom made (I bought my plates and soup bowls from a local potter), plain dinnerware is a versatile choice. Cream-colored plates allow you to change bowls with the seasons. Black works for fall, red for winter, and turquoise for summer. Clear glassware withsimple, traditional shapes is adaptable enough to go formal or informal.
Achieve a classic look with new table linens or flea market cloths paired with mismatched china.
Pretty stemware looks elegant. If you're hosting a crowd, though, consider serving wine Italian-style in sturdy tumblers (or your favorite juice glasses) to reduce breakage.
Arrange produce rather than flowers for table decor. Immerse radishes in shallow glass vases or jam jars, and rhubarb in a taller vase. Stack oranges and lemons in a bowl with flowers tucked into the crevices (florist tubes keep flowers fresh).
Use colorful dish towels as napkins. Guests will have a generous swath of fabric to protect their laps, and you'll have a stash of towels after the party.
Choose accessories that celebrate the guest of honor. If she's an avid cook, make the centerpiece a bouquet of ribbon-wrapped wooden spoons that you'll send home as party favors. If she's into France, decorate with toile prints. Or if she's a spa queen, play soft New Age music, light lavender-scented candles, and use subtle white flower arrangements.