Curry with a bunch of friends in jeans and heavy sweaters.
A spaghetti dinner for fifteen.
A BBQ, with kids splashing in the background, or running wild around the garden.
A cup of tea and a slice of cake.
But every once in a while, it is fun to unearth the wedding china, polish the silver, iron the linen table cloth, and throw an honest to goodness Dinner Party.
Here are my Top Twelve thoughts on the subject.
1. Start With A Cocktail
A cocktail sets a promising tone. It breaks the ice. It prompts discussions about who will be driving. It puts everyone on notice: This is going to be a good night.
My favorite is The Sidecar. Sugar the rim of the glass and garnish with a lemon wheel.
The key is to have everything you need (appropriate glassware; ice in bucket; a pitcher of said cocktail, pre-mixed for quick serving; a shaker nearby; and garnishes prepared) on a single tray, ready and waiting before your guests arrive.
Mixing drinks is an fun, easy job, perfect for delegating to the non-cooking host/hostess, or any willing guest who walks through the door.
If a cocktail sounds like too much work, I've never known anyone to turn down champagne, which is always a festive start to the evening.
2. Two Courses, Not Three
I am a big fan of serving only two courses - main and dessert - at the table. Here's why:
Potent cocktails + flimsy nibbles = inebriation. The idea is help your guests gear up for an entertaining night - not get snozzled before they reach the table. Rather than hold back the real food, skip the appetizer/starter and pass around a variety of substantial hors d'oeuvres instead. I always prefer "lots of tastes" to a single dish.
Less time at the table means more opportunity to mingle. If my brief existence as a diplomatic spouse taught me anything, it is that three courses (or, in some cases - groan - seven) seated next to the same two dinner partners can feel like an eternity if you get a dud. Not that your hostess would invite, or even know, anyone who was less than fascinating. But having a few good conversations under their belts before they reach the table means that your guests' enjoyment of the night does not rest solely on their luck in the seating stakes.
Two courses is much lighter duty. I don't know about you, but I simply don't have enough crockery to server three courses without some serious dishwashing in between, and I can think of better ways to enjoy the evening.
Once the main hits the table, I am practically off kitchen duty. Dessert is always easy and only requires, at most, some last minute assembly. With the main taken care of, I can sit down at the table completely relaxed, not worrying about the next course.
This is really my husband's rule, not mine, but since he is such a stickler, it is always applied in our house. Guests are always seated boy/girl/boy/girl, and couples are never, ever seater next to one another. If anyone complains about this, remind them that they already live together, and this way will give them more to talk about in the car on the way home.
Besides, if they desperately need to be together, they can always reunite over coffee and after dinner drinks, which take place away from the table, in the living room. This also gives guests another chance to mingle, if they like, or continue conversations they were enjoying during dessert, one on one. The choice is theirs.
Have you ever walked in to a restaurant where there was no music playing?
It feels empty. Flat. Dull.
This is not what you want at your Dinner Party.
Back in the day, I had mixes for each phase of the evening: disco-y dance stuff for drinks; lively-but-wordless for dinner; and more mellow stuff for coffee - unless, of course, it was one of those evenings when things just kept spinning faster, in which case the pace of the after-dinner music left the cocktail soundtrack in the dust.
These days, we tend to fire up the iPod and select "Shuffle Songs" - an all-night roll of the dice, as you are just as likely to hear Bobby Short as you are Oasis, John Denver, or even Martin Luther King (the "I Have A Dream" speech is a perennial favorite), but the fun is in the surprise.
The point is, there must be music. Some people may play the spoons, but there is nothing musical about the sound of forks and knives clinking together.
5. Menu Planning: Something Old, Something New
Other than the evening itself, planning the menu is my favorite part of hosting a Dinner Party.
Every cookbook comes off the shelf. Hours are spent leafing through recipe after recipe. Lists of possibilities are made. Combinations are tried on, discarded, chopped and changed, and, eventually, settled upon. Bliss.
But, for all my fantasizing about all the many dishes I might make, there are a few guidelines to which I always adhere:
1. Never, never, never attempt an all-new menu. Was I emphatic enough? Never.
It is way too stressful. A lot goes into having a Dinner Party. The last thing you want is to get wigged out by a bunch of untested recipes that may or may not turn out, while your friends are paying $15 an hour for a babysitter so that they can eat at your table. Additional pressure is not needed.
Much better to mix it up with some tried and true crowd-pleasers and a couple of new experiments.
Hors d'oeuvres are good for this: two new and two old. That way, if something bombs, no one is going to have to choke down an entire plate of it and there's plenty of other nibbles to choose from.
Dessert is another safe haven for experimentation. Even if something goes haywire with your technique, chances are the result will still be delicious. Sugar, eggs, butter - how wrong could you go? And, for a sure fire success, everyone loves chocolate. Especially if you chose to experiment with the main, follow it up with chocolate (preferably something warm and gooey) and all will right.
2. The cheese course. Oh, how I love a cheese course. It's the ultimate freebie. All you have to do is choose well, take the cheese out the fridge in plenty of time to let it ripen, and enjoy. And if you are not sure what to chose, placing yourself in the hands of a reliable cheesemonger is sure to yield tasty results.
3. If trying to figure out what goes with what leaves you feeling flumaxed, choose a theme: Italian, Asian, Indian, Retro. Having an anchor makes selecting complimentary hors d'oeuvres, mains and desserts so much easier.
Why not take the guess work out and be guided by the experts? If it gives you confidence, all the better.
4. Food requirements. It is not always easy to turn on a dime and cater for surprise vegetarians or folks with allergies. Take the surprise out of the equation and ask about food requirements when you issue the invitation.
6. Use Your Best
The wedding china that rarely sees the light of day, the crystal that sits on the shelf, the linen tablecloth you'd hate to spill red wine on - why have it if you never enjoy it?
I won't lie - it's a nightmare cleaning up when most of the dishes, silverware, and glasses need to be washed by hand, but sitting down to a beautifully laid table is worth it. And, as much as I dred dealing with the post-party wreckage, once I can bring myself to stand at the sink, I also savour it. What is better than turning the evening over and over in your mind, while you wash, rinse and dry? Especially if you have help. I love a good post-mortem.
There must be flowers - or some other decorative arrangement of candles, branches, anything - on the table. Full-stop. Nothing so tall that people have to crane their necks to see one another, just a little something to make it special. Because it is.
8. Division Of Labor
It would be mad to try and do everything singlehandedly. Luckily, CB and I have complimentary skills. I can cook, mix drinks and make coffee. He can do everything else. I'd love to say that this breakdown applies only to Dinner Parties, but it pretty well captures our entire marriage.
When it comes to Dinner Parties, he is responsible for organizing the wine and beer, tidying up (ie shoving things out of sight), ironing the table linen, arranging the flowers, setting the table, greeting the guests and serving the drinks.
After many joint undertakings, our areas of responsibility are understood, but we still have a quick pre-game chat to avoid any unpleasant surprises. The last thing your guests want to walk in on is a A Scene. Avoid conflict by issuing explicit instructions (note to self: do so politely).
Have a vase handy. If you are lucky, some kind person will bring you flowers; it is much nicer to receive them knowing that you do not need to drop everything else to search for a vessel.
10. Start On Empty
Always start the night with an empty dishwasher and empty bin. It will make life so much easier, whether you "clean as you go" or leave it all for later, after waving the final guest goodbye.
11. Get Yourself Ready First
Tellingly, I left this "first" for next-to-last.
This is a case of "Do as I say, not as I do". Many is the time I have greeted punctual guests in bare feet and a dirty apron. At my last dinner, the first guest to arrive offered assistance and was promptly asked to hand over her lip gloss for some emergency, on-the-fly make-up-ing. Don't let this happen to you.
12. It's About Fun, Not Perfection
A smile, a genuine and enthusiastic welcome, a cocktail or two, some food, and a host(ess) who is enjoying him/herself. That is all it really takes for a great night.
I offer this case in point:
When I first met CB, he invited me to two separate Dinner Parties, that he was hosting, in a single week.
I was impressed.
And then I experienced his menu, which turned out to be the same on both occasions: miso soup, penne with red jar sauce, and vanilla ice cream with passion fruit syrup, from a can.
This was disgusting, but enlightening, because by the end of the second Dinner Party, I knew two things:
1. he was clearly dating me for my kitchen skills; and
2. he was the best host I'd ever encountered.
Not only did everyone accept his invitations despite general knowledge of his nausea-inducing culinary repertoire, but, once arrived, his guests could barely bring themselves to leave and rarely did so before the wee hours of the morning. This phenomena is best illustrated using the following equation:
Warmth + Confidence + Enthusiasm² = Good Times For All
Vast quantities of alcohol may have also played a role.
And on that note, I offer a belated and public Valentine:
To CB, My Partner In Life And Crime,
You are The Host With The Most.
And you are still showing me the best time any girl ever had.