ENTERTAINING: HOST + GUEST — THE DINNER PARTY — POSTMODERN ETIQUETTE
What happened to the dinner party? When did the dinner party become embarrassingly unfashionable?
–HT, New York, New York
Entertaining used to be all the rage until it became pretentious. These aren't the Dinner Parties Years of the eighties and nineties -- something that used to happen. Look at dining rooms. The dining room is more apt to be the home office of a start-up or den of a struggling writer. Lately, whenever I've been lucky enough to be asked for drinks or dinner it makes me feel really special to be invited out. There were times when I thought nothing of making a curry or chili on a Saturday to entertain thirty of forty people that evening, but, then as a working mother, entertaining three children on Saturdays was all I could manage.In keeping with the season and climate, narrow the style of your dinner or cocktail party down to informal, more formal, or formal. Let's choose the less formal:
Don't be intimidated by the popularity
of sophisticated TV chefs, and ...
- you don't need a holiday to entertain friends sharing platters over plated courses.
- Dinner for four, six or eight becomes easier with practice--the more times you handle the drill, the easier it gets.
- For Holiday Cocktails, put out a ham with a variety of cheeses, breads and crackers and they'll all come--happy to snack off of festive paper plates!
- When a guest offers to bring something, say, "Yes, please!"
- If not a salad or dessert, then they know to bring a decent bottle of wine or a six-pack of craft-beer.
- To host a party, you don't need a huge budget, just a slow-cooker for that bolognese sauce, chicken curry or turkey chili.
- Google a good recipe and be sure you make enough for leftovers the next day. And remember: Doubling or tripling that recipe can be tricky when adding salt and spices, so hold back and season to taste in stages.
Personal note: Sometimes I long for those days when as a newly wed I made a Beef Bourguignon (stew) or a butterfly leg of lamb for six or eight guests. But I've discovered that one really doesn't have to follow a complicated French recipe, because everyone is sooooo damn happy to be entertained by friends.
- When inviting up to eight guests call or text your invitation in advance and when they respond, "YES! YES!"
- Follow up with the time and a mention of what you'll be serving, as someone will be either allergic to seafood, or doesn't eat meat, gluten, sugar, dairy, etc. Then you'll know to add a veggie casserole to your menu.
- You needn't drastically alter your menu, because picky eaters know to snack ahead of time--and are adept at pushing their food around the plate to make it look as though they've enjoyed the food.
- Informal/Casual: no ties (dress code) or tablecloth (tabletop); drinks and canapes/snacks (cocktails) followed by a two to three courses buffet style -- perhaps seated in the kitchen -- dinner of lasagne or risotto, salad, bread and large paper napkins. Make the formality somewhere between a kitchen supper and a seated dinner.
- But when there's a guest's birthday, engagement, or promotion to toast, for dessert serve cake and champagne or Prosecco in old-fashioned, mismatched champagne glasses (from your local thrift shop) or flute glasses from Anthropologie.
TIPS FOR HOSTINGInvite the person during a phone conversation or by text when organizing a dinner party, because you want every guest to
- feel really special. That's your number one job as a host, and don't forget it (even if you hugely dislike your brother's girlfriend). Every guest is important and if a guest is bringing a date, you want to know the date's name, and a tidbit about them that will make it easy for you to introduce him or her and seat them beside a sympatico guest.
- Give the invitee a deadline as to when to get back to you with a 'yes' or a 'no,' and how many to expect (just the invitee or will there be 2 of you total?), because there may well be someone else you'd like to invite (but don't say that). You don't want no-shows, especially since you'll be setting the table ahead of time. Say, "Can you, please, let me know by Friday the 10th, if you can come for dinner on the 20th?"
- Make it clear that you're cooking dinner and will be expecting them to show up-- and you're not just ordering take out when they decide to show up.
- Depending upon how soon out your invitation for dinner was extended, follow up your phone call or text with a reminder a couple of days ahead of time: "Looking forward to having you both (or you and George) for dinner Saturday night, please come at 7:30." You might add, "we're having a roast." In other words, let them know it is not burgers on the grille for when they show up (unless, of course, you will be grilling).
- When you know the guest is really really fussy about what s/he drinks and eats, suggest they bring a beverage, and do ask about food allergies.
TIPS FOR GUESTS
- Regret, by declining the invitation: When an invitation doesn't feel special enough for you: don't accept, because you'll probably end up as a no-show, if a better invitation comes along (and that's really rude); or regret if you know you'll be really really late, because you're attending another event first (which is equally rude when the cook is timing dinner).
- Get back to the host in a timely fashion with a call or text with your YES or NO within 48 hours.
- Accept or decline promptly: When Accepting: state who, exactly, you're accepting for: "Janet will be out of town on business, so it'll just be me flying solo," or "I'm bringing my latest crush Hugo, if that's alright." Add a tidbit about Hugo, so your host knows something about him that might be of interest to the assemblage of guests. A good guest just doesn't randomly bring their own guest without clearing it with the host ahead of time -- even if your plus one is a dog.
- Verify the time you're expected.
- When you're running late, phone ahead, which will allow the host to hold dinner for your arrival, or simply insist that the host starts serving dinner without you.
- Ahead of time, offer to bring a beverage or a "dish" meaning a dessert or a hummus and chips for the cocktail hour. However, if you've offered to buy or make the dessert, you better not forget your obligation.
- Don't fret about a HOSTESS GIFT, bring a good bottle of wine or six-pack of craft-beer.
- Be a self-sustaining guest. Find out where to leave your coat tucking your phone into a pocket or simply turn it off. Ask what you can do to help out, or offer to: Help pass smacks, make drinks, light the candles, put on the music, clear the table or fill the wine glasses.
- Most importantly, introduce yourself to every guest that you don't already know.
- When there is a guest you don't like, make a beeline for him or her first and get it over with. Once you've been polite, you're not duty-bound to talk to that person beyond that.
Hosting a Postmodern Dinner Party -- that's a super-casual dinner ...
Host Dos and Don'ts
Do phone or text potential guests at least ten days ahead of time (time permitting) to invite your core group.
Do prep in advance so you can spend time with your guests.
Do use a slow-cooker for slow-roasted meat or stew ahead of time.
Don't serve individual chicken breasts.
Do serve a fun salad (in winter Boston lettuce with bites of pink grapefruit) and one veggie.
Don't serve meat with two veggies.
Do stock up on extra booze.
Don't expect everyone will drink only a half a bottle of wine each.
Do serve olives, nuts, chips + salsa or hummus during the cocktail hour.
Don't offer crackers or chips large enough to double-dip or you'll create bacteria hysteria.
Do suggest a festive signature drink upon their arrival (Campari+soda, Aperol+Prosecco (or splash of soda), with a sliver of orange.
Do pass dark coffee and chocolate when not serving dessert.
Do use a playlist of jazz or soul and be sure music is playing when the first guest arrives.
Do have fun assigning the *seating with impromptu place cards (after mapping it out on a piece of paper ahead of time) to avoid a muddle when there are eight or more to be seated. Guests feel especially special when they see their name at a place setting.
Do not usher your guests out before midnight.
Do suggest smoking in a designated area--such as the back porch.
*Seating guests well is as important as it is tricky. If seating boy-girl-boy-girl works, that's fine, if you can arrange it so men aren't directly seated across from each other and women aren't seated directly across from each other. But if that doesn't work (such as when seating eight), at least don't seat couples together. Couples seated as singles will be more lively if they're not seated with the person they see all the time.
Guest Dos + Don'ts
Do not ask who else is invited. It's extremely rude. Be surprised.
Do accept or decline an invitation immediately.
Don't arrive at the appointed time, but exactly 15 minutes later because your host is getting dressed.
Don't bring a bottle of wine that costs less than $15.
Do turn off your phone.
Don't offer to help and wander off.
Do hold your tongue and don't offer cooking tips: too many cooks, too many cooks to blame.
Do talk politics, sex and death.
Don't talk family, houses, apartments and cars.
Do talk to the person on your right and left equally.
Do show your appreciation with a phone call, or send an email or text, before noon the next day (just kidding).
Don't Instagram the host's guests or dinner table without consent.
Don't bring flowers that need a vase or wine that needs decanting.
Do leave your emotional baggage at the door: bickering couples need not accept.
Savvy, relaxed, generous hosting has and always will be The Thing we still value highest when socializing -- the warm and delightful atmosphere of an evening savoring good food and participating in fun conversation.
- Every guest is special and no one should feel trapped by good manners.
- Cooking for family and friends is about as personal as it gets.
At the end of the evening, ultimately nobody will care about the cooking -- the menu was a mere frame work for social interaction, like a play staged in three acts. So if you became stressed out cooking something you'd never cooked before -- let it go. Don't be too ambitious. Your guests might remember that they drank too much and laughed too loudly, but if the meal wasn't perfect, who cares?
A wonderful dinner party is about sharing food in a relaxed environment with no protocol or rules. It's about being informal and generous hospitality. Today's parties most often consist of feasting off of shared large platters of food that are spread over the table.
The age of the napkin ring is over.
Formal, classic dinners are over,
but casual cooking for friends
shows us a new set of dilemmas.
Don't want to cook dinner? There's always the option of just cocktails with cheese and crackers. Stay tuned.