Are you creative? Are you selfish? Are you lazy? We decode your dinner. Three Courses on a Thursday night (with port and cheese to follow). You don’t have a job. You expect thank-you letters. You don’t really mean ‘dinner’, you just mean ‘party’. Food isn’t served till 11 pm. Oh, haven’t you made a lot of effort! The reality is that your guests will be furious and drunk and tired before the main course, and will probably never accept another invitation from you. Some entertaining styles can invoke a straight shooter, while others may suggest you are uptight and lack imagination.
Oh, and today’s table setting can make an evening —or completely derail it. Since the way we welcome people into our homes speaks so loudly these days, it’s important to consider what you’re saying.
Serving food hours after guests arrive? Be warned, this approach to ‘eating’ will quickly alienate at least 50 percent of your friends. The reality is that your friends will call you selfish behind your back and not be in a hurry to return. Guests must leave by 10 pm. You’ve got packed lunches to make in the morning. Can everyone bring a course, please? Thanks, Lazy.
Not enough dishes to serve everyone. The worst dinner is the kind that shows you didn’t pay enough attention to your guests.
A dinner party is, like a “recess for adults”—a blessed break from the pressures, consumerism and information blitz of the outside world. Gathering your guests around a well-set table fosters intimacy and robust conversation.
British dinner parties are very democratic. People are expected to sit down and enjoy a meal. We think that makes them feel at home. It’s not like in New York, where you expect people to come for 20 minutes and then leave. Often at New York dinners, people will say, “I’m having the first course and then I’m leaving,” and it’s over by 9:30pm. Hollywood is such an industry town, so the parties tend to be industry-led. Few of them are personal. We think that’s a big difference in the kind of dinner parties we prefer. We want them to be more intimate; not an event. You don’t want dinner parties to feel corporate or have any sort of pecking order. Here’s what we recommend when trying to project a positive image.
In Australia, dinner parties are usually a pact to have a good time together. Food is far less important than the atmosphere.
What Makes a Dinner Outdated? A Stressed Host.
Food, drink, friends, good conversation — a dinner party is, in the end, a simple and enduring combination of ingredients, made unique by what hosts and guests infuse the evening with. To help you achieve a more flawless and fun-filled gathering, here’s what we recommend when trying to project a positive image and a set of guidelines with everything you need to know about throwing your best dinner party.
We recommend the basics when trying to project a positive image: white china, sparkling glassware, and weighty cutlery that feels good in the hand.
With classics, history has done the work for you. It has lasted throughout time, so you already know it works. And what is it that makes a classic, a classic? It became a classic because it works no matter who you are.
Be ready when your guests arrive. A study published in the ‘Journal of Research in Personality’ suggests that timeliness is an accurate assessment of positive character traits. The study found punctual people were more conscientious and agreeable; being early was connected to neuroticism, and those who are chronically late tended to be more laid-back.
What You Wear
Your choice of clothes sets the tone for the night. A suit can signal old-fashioned inflexibility. The sloppy, dishevelled look never sends a good message. A clean, self-envisioned style can work wonders. So can floaty silk trousers with a loose top (the uniform of experienced entertainers). It’s comfortable, and practical, and whatever your guests wear, you won’t make them feel over or underdressed.
The Dinner Party Environment
A birthday party, a pool party, an ’80s-teen-movie-style bash with a hundred people pounding Pringles and beer: 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. Set the table. You must have one. Either actual or, for hosts with limited space, symbolic (e.g., a blanket on the living room floor).
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.
The Guest List
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. And as we emerge from our Covid cocoons, it also happens to be about as many people as you’ll be able to mentally and emotionally handle. A hot tip- tone down a stiff seating arrangement with wild meadow flowers or abundant arrangements of fruit.
The guest list is as important as what you serve.
Six doesn’t give you a diverse enough group. Not all should be friends – no excitement. And not all should be strangers – too corporate, and you want to avoid a pecking order. And remember the ultimate test of a fabulous dinner party is how much time elapses before anyone has to say, ‘So, what do you do?’
Setting the table
Setting the table is like dressing yourself. Look for quality, understated elegance, and character. Try teaming the plates with textural rattan placemats and napkins in washed natural linen. Choose sparkling glassware and you can’t go past her silver-plated cutlery, You can update your base set every couple of seasons with timeless vases. If you do a table that’s a little irreverent and whimsical, it sets the mood. You’re saying, ‘Let’s go for it’.
All matching tablecloths, napkins, coasters, and placemats are dinner party poison. They scream I have no taste.
Avoid Dinnerware Logos
You don’t need to broadcast wealth in order to let your guests feel welcome and loved. Accessories will be key to your success, so start with critical eye candy: candelabras. With its bevelled base and crystal lampshade, you don’t have to do much more than position it on the table.
Your glassware is another easy way to make a big impact without a lot of fuss—though keep in mind that it’s better to be fun with water glasses and keep wine glasses simple.
You are a dinner party host, not a wedding planner – keep it simple.
Dinner Parties are A/V Free Zones
Enough with the phones. All audiovisual electronic equipment within 20 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.
Three courses of things filled with cream and eggs. It’s overkill and will have your guests going home with indigestion, thinking you’re old-fashioned. Avoid complicated food – for you or your guests. Never more than one course with cream. It’s dinner party poison. Be aware of how much food most people can comfortably eat. A modest amount is enough, it looks better, and you can reassure them with the sight of seconds nearby. If they leave half a plate uneaten, it’s their decision, be sensitive. Yelling ‘Eat, Eat” buttonholes you as the Italian mother. Your guest may just want to sleep all night without three kilos of food working its way slowly and uncomfortably through their system.
Don’t give them indigestion!
Dinner Party Food and Drink
Many fundamentals of dinner party dining remain unchanged from pre-Covid times: Your food must be abundant, it must be eaten around a table and it must not make people sick or dead. Other aspects have shifted. And we’re not just talking about mezcal doubling as hand sanitizer.
A Few Notes on the Menu:
Everyone has food sensitivities these days. Make it easy and tell gluten-free folk what is and what isn’t. Tell vegans what’s safe and what is not. This is just an optional step to be kind for those guests. Try to make everyone feel as welcome as possible.
Go for dishes that can be slow-cooked the day before and simply reheated and assembled. Avoid dishes that will take the focus off your guests.
Opt for simple accompaniments, too, such as a fennel salad, broccolini or olive oil-poached potatoes.
For a romantic vibe, instead of lighting up your house with too-blue bulbs, think warmth. Many people unknowingly buy LED lights without considering the temperature of the bulbs. White blue-hued LED lights not only create a cold feeling, but they are also often hard on the eyes. Too early: Everyone will arrive frazzled from the rush hour!
Don’t Try Too Hard
Simplicity and informality are much more stylish. Presentation is everything. Use a low centerpiece. Lovely generous napkins send a powerful message.
Sometimes it’s more sophisticated to have less. Just make it look good.
Don’t Hit the Ground
Pre-Covid we suggested hosts kick off a party with generous cocktails, 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 catch an Uber without falling asleep on the back seat.
But 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.
Before, our slogan was “Hit The Ground Drinking.” Now? It’s “Don’t Hit The Ground.” If you really need a tipple, try mixing and matching: a standard glass of wine with dinner and, after, an herbal nonalcoholic digestif. However you choose to play it, it will be great news for you and your significant other because after being cooped up together for more than a year, it’s probably best to avoid losing your filters in public.
Go (Tinned) Fishing:
Once upon a time, our go-to recommendation for hosts was to serve “Stunt meat,” i.e., a big dramatic piece of animal protein that looks impressive but is actually dead easy to cook. But with the rise in cost of living, a new protein source has emerged as a star during the pandemic, and it’s even simpler to prepare: tinned fish. Not for the main course, obviously. But as a starter, canned fish has a lot to recommend it. The packaging is often colourful and cosmopolitan. The treats inside—cockles, smoked mussels, oil-packed sardines with a hint of chile heat—are scrumptious on a cracker with a squirt of lemon. And many are so loaded with healthy fats, they might even offset the coronary damage you’ve sustained from all the stunt meat you consumed at previous dinner parties. (Might.)
Use What You Have!
Too many people think they can solve their entertaining woes by throwing money at it. You don’t need a state-of-the-art flower arrangement or caviar on ice. In fact, entertaining on a shoestring is when imagination plays host and the real fun begins. Grab whatever you have in the garden. Rosemary plucked from the herb garden in rough stalks.
Or even whatever is on sale at the grocery store: from eggplants, to apples, to lettuce. We call it ‘salad decor’. Grab a bunch of frilly lettuce and that is your centrepiece. 100% success rate.
Every guest we have ever entertained has copied the idea! When you let go of trying to buy more of what you don’t really need, it frees up oceans of energy to make a difference with what you have.
The World Needs Lots of Dinner Parties. As Many as Possible. Immediately.
When it comes to throwing dinner parties, we all aspire to be a little bit French. That Gallic capacity to toss together a feast and keep the wine and conversation flowing, all while looking fabulous and utterly unflapped. Turns out, these skills can be learned. Just serve food that is low-key elegant, built to please a crowd, always with useful context provided.
Go for fun, last-minute, come over for dinner! Nights. Just add rosé and a few people you’ve missed.