INTERIORS

THE RETURN TO DINNER PARTIES: A SENSIBLE, LOW-STRESS GUIDE

Entertaining made easy.

June 1, 2021

Are you getting ready to host or attend a dinner party soon? Good, because the dinner party Renaissance is upon us. If you’re doing it right, hosting a dinner party should not just look easy; it should also be easy, as well as delicious, engaging, affirming and fun for everyone. Here’s how to make elegant hosting a breeze and brush up on the art of feeding friends in your home after an enforced year-long dinner party drought.

Think of it as a refresher course on making guests feel comfortable, safe, sated and like the very best versions of themselves.

Discover tips on small talk and why there’s no shame in a helping hand if you’re somewhat lacking in culinary skills or would just rather spend less time in the kitchen. Plus: a recipe for effortless entertaining, Niçoise style. Just add rosé and a few people you’ve missed looking at across a table. Remember, a dinner party is a safe space for the freewheeling exchange of ideas, where differences can be loudly debated and impromptu dancing is welcomed – unlike a restaurant. After all, a dinner party is, like “recess for adults”—a blessed break from the pressures, consumerism and information blitz of the outside world. We hope to convince more people to host dinner parties. Without them society would surely crumble. Read more, ‘Tricks of the Trade: Throwing A Large Dinner Party.’

The good news? As vaccines roll out and case counts dwindle – we can begin to restore civility. One dinner party at a time.

Many of us are eager to reconnect, but we’re simultaneously unsure of the health risks and a little rusty at entertaining—or even at dealing with other humans. Fear not. Where Covid guidelines end, the new rules for dinner parties begin. Gathering your guests around a well-set table fosters intimacy and robust conversation. So, invite some people over. 

You must have a table – either actual of for hosts with limited space, symbolic, (a coffee table with floor pillows), to force the entire group to converse together. Image via @aerin

THE DINNER PARTY ENVIRONMENT

A child’s birthday party, a drinks party, a wedding with 150 guests pounding the dance floor, all of these can be fine affairs. But none have the special civilizing power of the dinner party, which requires, first of all, a specific kind of environment. Read more, ‘Dinner Party Rules and Etiquette At A Party.’

SET THE TABLE

You must have one. Either actual or, for hosts with limited space, symbolic – a coffee table with floor pillows. The table’s purpose is to force the entire group of guests to converse together. Therefore, guests must actually be seated around it while dining. This also means a true dinner party should consist of no greater than 12 people total. This is the maximum number you can conceivably squeeze around the table and still share a single conversation. Read more, ‘How To Set A Stunning Table.’

As we emerge from our Covid cocoons, 12 people also happens to be about as many people as you’ll be able to mentally and emotionally handle.

DINNER PARTIES ARE A/V FREE ZONES

Enough with the phones. All audiovisual electronic equipment within 15 metres of a dinner party must be switched off or stowed away, except for the minimum gear necessary to play music. The goal is to keep visual distractions to a minimum, so the focus is on the humans sitting in front of you. We know: As we contemplate a post-Covid world, it’s unsettling to think about communicating with someone without a screen and/or mute button between you. But remember: TikTok videos are just real moments rearranged to induce humour and insight. The same thing can be done using words and your actual life. It’s called telling a good story. Read more, “How To Throw A Very Successful Dinner Party.”

There is nothing wrong with shop-bought food – so long as it is stunning. Your local patisserie will help you entertain in style. Image via @camillecharriere

EMBRACE THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Pre-Covid, the best dinner parties took place indoors, for the sake of privacy and to preserve your relationship with the next-door neighbours. Also, bugs are annoying. Now health experts say vaccinated people can safely gather indoors in small groups. Research findings say if everyone at your dinner party is vaccinated, then no restrictions. Enjoy it as you did in the old days. But there’s not universal consensus on this stuff from experts. So for now, throw a dinner party outside, for the most welcoming, one-size-fits-all solution. Read more, ‘An Entertaining Plan to Maximise Mingling.’

DINNER PARTY CONVERSATION

At a dinner party, the conversation is equally as important as the food and wine. Until now it has never been acceptable to veto the conversation. But in these troubled times, leave Covid, the world, and the economy at home. Everyone is sick and tired of hearing about how the country, and world, in general, is falling apart. Nothing else is out of bounds. We want to talk about where you’ve been since borders reopened, the best meal you’ve had at a recent restaurant visit, where you’re planning to go once travel gets reintroduced, who makes the best cocktails in town, or who’s moved house (countries) since lockdown. You get the gist.

Start with some light small talk and work your way up to discussing the meatier topics in life. Conversation: one of the great casualties of quarantine life, is the real point of a dinner party. Read more, ‘Entertaining For A Crowd.’

So by way of reminder, some rules of the road:

DON’T FORGET THE SMALL TALK

Despite its diminutive name, small talk serves a big purpose: It allows guests to get to know one another and take each other’s measure before tackling bigger topics.  It’s like stretching before hitting the gym. 

Small talk doesn’t have to be boring. Oddball, fun facts, weird low-stakes news stories, and recent scientific discoveries that don’t happen to involve coronavirus are fine ice-breaking topics. Read more, ‘Dinner Party Rules and Etiquette.’

DON’T FORGET THE BIG TALK, EITHER

Once you’ve warmed up with some small talk, you can move on to one of the most important parts of a dinner party: conversation about the big, meaningful things in life. 

State your best case, and when you find yourself repeating it over and over, change the topic to something everyone can agree on. 

DINNER PARTY FOOD AND DRINK

Many fundamentals of dinner party dining remain unchanged from pre-Covid times: Your food must be abundant, (don’t get a reputation as a mean host), it must be eaten around a table and it must not make people sick or give them indigestion. Don’t serve too much bread, particularly before the main course, as hungry guests will dive in and won’t appreciate the rest of the meal. Other aspects have shifted. And we’re not just talking about the addition of hand sanitizer in the bathroom.

The meal should be good but not complicated, either for you or your guests. Image via @camillecharriere 

A few notes on the menu:

DON’T HIT THE GROUND

Pre-Covid we suggested hosts kick off a party with strong spirits, then downshift to lower-octane drinks as the night progressed. This was so guests could leave clearheaded enough to drive, or at least able to get an Uber without losing their rating.  

But hey, it’s been a while since we as a society have gotten loose in public. So we suggest starting in low gear and staying there. There’s never been a better time to not drink alcohol. Read more, ‘Get The Party Started: How to be the Perfect Host.’

However you choose to play it, after being cooped up for more than a year, it’s probably best to avoid losing your filters in public.

MAKE THE MENU EASY

The meal should be good but not complicated for you or your guests. There is nothing wrong with ready-made food – so long as your shop-bought food is stunning. The French have been doing it for decades. Swing by the most interesting deli in your area to stock up on the finest meats, cheeses, pies, pastries and more (which make perfect additions to any dinner party spread), or take things to the next level with a fully catered menu, delivered straight to your home. From canapés to puddings, you really can’t go wrong, but standout dishes include stunning prawn, tomato and chilli linguine; and the feather-light yet indulgent apple cheesecake. Whether you’re having five friends round – your local caterer will help you do it in style.

Niçoise Salad (For a Crowd)

This is a “choose your own adventure” salad and the ideal meal for a crowd: It can all be prepped in advance, and instead of coming together in one big bowl, each component—beans, greens, potatoes—is dressed with the vinaigrette separately and then arranged on the plate ingredient by ingredient. It sounds fussy, but when you and your fellow diners are picking and choosing your preferred ingredients, it’s a lot of fun.

DINNER PARTY DAY AND TIME

Pre-Covid, we had all sorts of rules for when the ideal dinner party could take place. Sunday night? No way: Your guests will be stressing about work tomorrow. Monday night? Hell no: You’ll be busy trying to do all the stuff you thought you’d get done on Sunday. 6pm on Wednesday? Too early: Everyone will arrive frazzled from rush hour. But we find ourselves in a situation where the world needs lots of dinner parties. As many as possible. Immediately. So, for now, those rules are hereby suspended. Gather together and dine any day, at any time. Monday night? Go for it. Whatever. Just do it.

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