In general the way to get mutliple tables data onto a layout is through relationships the actual displaying of the data can take a number of forms.
What you describe is how I tend to do things sometimes.
I create a table of global (ie search) fields
I relate all the tables of data I want to display on a single layout to this global table
I then create a layout based on this global table.
I then use a combination of portals and or simply related fields to display all the various table information I want.
I set the Global fields to be drop downs radio buttons popups check boxes etc so that changing them updates my portal or related fields being displayed
You can then display information from tables that have no relationships to each other.
The tabs are just to conserve space and organize stuff.
Portals can be placed on tabs as well.
A couple of things to remember about portals.
They can be easily used for data entry creating new records via the relationship.
They dont just have to look like a mini-table view. You can expand the portal row size and stack and rearrange the fields however you like.
Adding a scrollbar to the portal allows you to use a lower or even single row count portal in a smaller space.
You can get very creative with your portal displays by using combinations of relationships (often to global fields) and portal filters (The if and case statements can really expand the portal display and filtering capabilities)