Tis’ the season for dinner parties! Oh how I adore throwing a perfect dinner party. The friends, the cooking, the cocktails, the table setting; I was born to throw dinner parties, but they are not as fun, easy and carefree as a good hostess makes them look. Here are my 8 steps to planning a spectacular dinner party, bon appétit and bonne chance!
1. Plan the Guest List
Determine how many people you would like to have over for your dinner party. Try to stick to even numbers and try to have an equal number of men and women. I use my seating availability as a guide, and since the biggest table I could fit in my small apartment is a “cozy”, four seat table from Ikea, I keep my dinner parties to four people. If you have the luxury of space for a less intimate dinner party, try to invite people who have differing hobbies, passions and opinions but similar underlying interests to make for lively dinner conversation.
2. Plan the Menu
This is by far the trickiest part of planning a dinner party, not only do you need to plan a menu that is cohesive and easy to prepare in a timely fashion, but you also need to be mindful of guests with special dietary concerns. You should only include dishes that you have prepared at least a couple of times before. Your food choices need to play well with the rest of the dishes you will be serving, not only in flavour, but also in colour and texture. A plate full of foods that are all the same colour, texture and flavour can be really boring, and quite frankly, nauseating. On the other hand, every dish should have some sort of linking element, for example, every dish, or every course, could include a particular family of herb, or it could be as simple as every dish being glorious in combination with your home brewed beer. Don’t forget to plan a menu that can be prepared efficiently; everything should come out at the same time (or at least still be warm) and you should not spend too much time in the kitchen away from your guests. Dessert would ideally be something homemade and prepared in advance. Alcohol should be plentiful and complement each course individually.
3. Invite Guests
Send out formal invitations, make phone calls or use that handy event feature on Google+. You can inform your guests of the menu in advance or you can keep it a surprise – I like to keep it a surprise! If you don’t have your friends’ allergies and aversions memorized, this is a good time to double check. Be sure to get RSVPs for larger guest lists.
4. Plan Seating
Traditional dinner party etiquette says that the hosts should sit at the heads of the table, with the man taking the captains chair or “power seat” which happens to be whichever seat is facing a door / window / something interesting / isn’t staring directly at a wall all evening. Then the guests are situated along the length of the table, alternating genders, with couples not beside each other but sitting across the table from one another. Old school etiquette books will say you should place people together who don’t know each other very well, because it’s fun to meet new people. I dream of a world where I have a choice of place card holders and stationary, but in reality, it’s kind of creepy to micromanage a four person dinner party so I just let my guests sit wherever they like, with whomever they like. And if your table is round, well then I guess you and your equally-respected knights are on your own, Arthur.
Set a budget and make a list. Try to shop as close to your dinner party as possible (never on the day) and look for the freshest ingredients. Pick your alcohol up at this time as well. Store everything properly when you get it home: keep appropriate fruits and vegetables out of the fridge and meat out of the freezer. Properly thaw anything bought frozen, like puff pastry, at the appropriate time.
6. Make Ahead / Prep
In the morning before your dinner party, prepare anything that can be done ahead of time. This could include, chopping vegetables, blanching vegetables, making a soup, marinating meat, preparing stuffing or assembling a casserole. Dessert should also be made now; you don’t want to miss the joke of the evening because you were off icing a cake.
Clean your house from top to bottom, get your husband to tap in those loose trim nails you have been catching your sweaters on (he’s been meaning to for months after all), refill burned-out tea lights, put away breakables, put out the bad gift you received from one of your guests last Christmas – especially if it is breakable – do any necessary furniture rearranging, empty ash trays and fill the cigarette dispenser (I miss the 60’s).
8. Set Table, Bar and Put out Hor D’oeuvres
Pick out your tablecloth, table runner or placemats. Decide whether you trust your guests enough to use the good china or if you will be using more “everyday” place settings; paper is never an option. Set the table with the proper dishes, flatware and glassware, according to the meal you have planned. Don’t forget the simply-folded cloth napkins; no swans please… maybe a pterodactyl. Stock your bar with the basics; I like to set out the glasses that I want my guests to use (Mitch Hanna has been on the plastic rule since he shattered the lid of my teapot). Set out the plates, napkins and utensils needed. Prepare your hor d’oeuvres before your guests arrive and bring them out when the first guest appears.