How To Throw The Perfect Dinner Party
Like other extreme sports, hosting need not end in bodily harm – if you follow our expert’s advice
Most men like to tell themselves that they are a good host, and the fantasy of an evening spent as an omnipotent social ringmaster has always been an attractive one. In our mind’s eye, we see ourselves as generous and gregarious, discretely popping another cork while at the same time sweeping away the remains of a triumphant four-course dinner, to the patter of warm applause. As the candles flicker out our guests drift towards the door, sleepily contented but also charged with a powerful respect for our hosting skills and, by extension, us as a man.
Sadly, this scenario is as far from reality as our intoxicated quips are from Sir Noël Coward’s. Hosting successful dinner parties is actually a really tough gig, tricksy on all sorts of different levels. And as with most things men want to be good at – from sex to sport to public speaking – all it really requires is confidence, experience, preparation and more common sense than you probably realise.
To make things easier, we have asked some of the most accomplished dinner party hosts we know – men such as Mr Kevin Sharkey (who is, among other things, an executive creative director at Martha Stewart Living), Mr Elad Yifrach (party host and founder of luxury interior products brand L’Objet) and Mr Patrick Janelle (a designer, co-founder of The Liquor Cabinet and also the director of Manhattan’s dinner party club Spring Street Social Society) – for their own golden rules. So plan the menu, press the napkins and put the fizz in to chill. It’s going to be OK.
The guest list
While you might think it would be “fun” to invite a load of people who have never met before, avoid the temptation. If your friends really want to spend their free time sharing personal space with a load of people they don’t know, they can ride the tube whenever they like. So for their sake, try to make sure that everybody knows at least one other person. Think of it like a recipe – add spice a little at a time.
Within 30 seconds of a guest being welcomed at the door, they should be offered a drink. Consider serving a pre-dinner signature cocktail – with a name bespoke to the evening – but don’t insist on being the barman. Instead, create a small bar area where people can help themselves, taking care to include a few alcohol-free options. You don’t want to force your guests into admitting they are newly pregnant or doing the 12 Steps.
Fire-up any background music before the first guests arrive and try not to be either too clever or too cute with your song selection. Most relaxed, instrumental music will serve you perfectly well, just nothing so ambient it makes your party feel like a meditation retreat. Make sure to keep the sound system controls out of sight. There’s always one guest who, after a few drinks, decides that they’re a DJ. Sometimes they are actually a DJ, which is even worse.
A dinner party is not the time to experiment with new recipes. You need to be able to cook this meal forward and backwards blindfolded, like a US Navy SEAL field-stripping his assault rifle, even if that Navy SEAL has also somehow managed to drink three glasses of wine in the space of 45 minutes. Familiarise yourself with the culinary practice of mise en place, which is basically French for “prep as much of the meal in advance as possible so you can spend more time bitching about mutual acquaintances with your guests”. Check guests’ complicated dietary requirements well in advance, and make a mental note never to invite the fussy ones for dinner ever again.
The seating plan
If you’re hosting a small number of people it’s easiest to enjoy a little break from rampant control freakery and just let them sit where they like. More than six, however, and a little bit of social engineering can help. You know which of your guests can be boisterous and which might need gently prising out of their shells, so position the loudmouths across from you and put the milder ones next to you so you can conduct the orchestra.
Harsh overhead lighting flatters neither food nor faces, so fit a dimmer switch – you can fit a dimmer switch right? – and make good use of candles, especially at the dinner table. Just make sure to keep scented candles for the bathroom only, otherwise the aroma of your fragrant fish tagine could end up smothered by lavender or sweet pine.
The little details
Some things just matter more than others, so try to keep a sense of perspective in the run-up to a dinner party and focus on the stuff that could actually torpedo your reputation as a host. You don’t have enough matching crockery? You couldn’t find the right kind of Kalamata olives? Big deal! Not having any ice for drinks, on the other hand, could spell steak knife seppuku.
There’s little more disheartening than bringing a bottle to a dinner party, handing it to your host, and then seeing him stick it in the cupboard under the stairs when he thinks your back is turned. If someone is thoughtful enough to bring a bottle, open it. Remember that dinner party you went to where there was too much wine? No? Exactly! And if you feel moved to hand out gifts come the end of the night, consider bulk-buying some vintage Penguin Classics paperbacks from a charity shop. They don’t cost much, everyone gets something different, and books make you seem smart. Pop them on everyone’s chair to get things off on a “I’m the best host ever” sort of note.
It’s one of Sir Isaac Newton’s natural laws that something will definitely go wrong at a dinner party. But as host you have a solemn responsibility to just style it out: remember, if you get uptight about a spilt glass of red wine, then everybody is going to get uptight about it. So if you’ve over-cooked your asparagus or forgot to let the lamb sit, don’t beg your guests for forgiveness. In fact, don’t even acknowledge it. Everyone will be happier that way.
When you want to draw the night to a close without having to do a lot of ostentatious yawning, or putting guests in choke-holds, reach for the bottle of champagne you’ve kept on ice for just this occasion and propose a farewell toast. It’s classier than shots and in one smooth piece of theatre you’ve signalled the end of festivities while patting everyone on the back. Once they’re gone, you can finish whatever’s left of the fizz while you scowl at that red wine stain. You probably deserve it.