Party for 5 or 50
December 30, 2010 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever had an open house dinner party? How would I go about this?

Years ago, my husband and his friends used to have Saturday night spaghetti dinners. They were primarily for the local magicians and whatever other magicians were in town.

I would like to do something like this, but looser. Kind of have an open door policy for dinner once a week. That way, we'd stay in touch with our friends more often, and I'd be forced to keep the apartment clean on a regular basis.

How would I even go about this? Facebook announcement/invitation? Word of mouth? What pitfalls of this plan am I missing in my post-holiday glow?
posted by roomthreeseventeen to Food & Drink (7 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I had friends who did this in the summertime and it was one of my favorite things. Basically they'd pick a night and a timeframe. The deal was the grill would be fired up Wednesday at 6:30, you could bring something for the grill and a side dish and beer. They sent out an email reminder on Sunday and if they weren't doing it one week for some reason they'd send out a reminder for that. People were encouraged to bring friends.

They'd provide [I think] soft drinks, condiments, plates/cups/etc and a dessert. Stuff wrapped up early-ish because it was a weeknight. It was a rare day that they didn't wind up with more food/drink than they'd provided. It was nice because there was always a little extra so someone who came at the last minute or couldn't shop could show up and have a beer and a hot dog. They developed it into a science, when they were there, how they'd set up.

Some weeks, rarely, I was the only one there. Sometimes there were 20 people. It can get a little crazy if it's overfull or there aren't enough chairs. Getting people to leave at normal leaving time might take some nudging. Making sure that guests don't walk into your kitchen and walk out after having drunk all your booze and eaten your snacks is worth looking out for [most of the activity happened on the back porch so it wasn't a "help yourself" situation so much at this one]. Enlist a few friends to help clean up. Make sure you're clear about whether children/pets/friends are or are not welcome. People will usually be fine with either but it's better to know up front. Make sure you're clear about veggie/non-veggie options [there was a part of the grill they tried to keep clean for veggie folks but hardcore vegetarians might not have been okay with that] and accommodations. If it's a drinky crowd, keep half an eye out for who has been drinking and who, if anyone, is driving home. If it's experimental you might want to make it regular but not frequent [or for a trial basis "hey we're hosting magic nights in Jan - March].

I found my friends' get-togethers a great way to meet new folks and it was nice to have a regular thing to look forward to.
posted by jessamyn at 2:25 PM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh hells yeah!

For a while I lived in an art collective slash commune where we did a weekly dinner which took the form of a sort of salon (in the classic sense, not in the hair styling sense).

If you're truly open to anyone and everyone coming, a facebook event would be ideal. If you want to curate it more, with specific people included or not, then individual emails or phone calls would work.

Eventually informal first and second-hand invitations, like, "Hey, you should come to dinner this Thursday, Paul's going to read his new short story and Jen W. is making gnocchi from scratch!" will probably be how it works. That's where it was when I moved in - everyone knew that dinner happened on Thursday nights, and some weeks were bigger/more notorious than others.

One thing that worked well was to do theme nights - the one I remember best was the week we dedicated our dinner to dessert and only dessert. We got two or three courses in and then everyone went into a sugar coma. I'm not sure we even made it to the performance part of the evening. At the time the performers among us were irritated, but it's really funny in retrospect.

There are three pitfalls to having an informal open dinner once a week.

First, expect burnout. We rotated cooking detail among 15-ish people, and even then it was somewhat stressful. Some weeks you'd be like, "uggghhhh why do we do this?? I don't feel like throwing a dinner party for 30+ people, what am I gonna cook, this is so stupid..." And you only had to do it a few times a year.

Second and Thirdly, an open door policy means that some weeks you'll cook piles of food and nobody will come, whereas other weeks you'll have 50 people and everyone will be taking turns with the forks. It's really hard to plan a party when you have no idea when/if anyone is going to show up. Which is prone to happening if people know it's a weekly thing and if they don't come this time, there's always some other time.

Another potential pitfall - depending on where you live, I'm not sure I'd start this in January. Or at least I wouldn't start a weekly dinner open house in January and then get butt-hurt when nobody shows up. For some reason it's much harder to push people into social activity in January and February. Don't know if it's a post-holiday veg-out thing, or if people go into hibernation deeper into the winter, but our dinners always seemed much more sparsely populated in deep winter than they were in the spring and summer.

All in all, though, why not? Throw out an evite or a facebook event, cook a big mess of something cheap, simple, and easy to freeze if not enough people come. Have some entertainment on hand, whether it's boardgame night or performance art. If you do it for a month straight and nobody ever comes, scale it back or do something different (I'm also a fan of just casually inviting a friend or two for dinner when the mood strikes, even if it's not a special event).
posted by Sara C. at 2:33 PM on December 30, 2010

Best answer: Possible pitfall: Once a week sounds extremely frequent. It's a lot of work.
Suggestion: Do one, say on the first Saturday of the month (or whenever, but only the one announcement, date and start/finish time.) After this, send the next announcement/invitation as "First Saturday spaghetti open house, date time location hosts, etc. After a while, no announcement is necessary.

Possible pitfall: Who you'd like to come vs. who shows up. If you love everybody and don't care who shows up, then you'll be running a free dinner for people on their way someplace else before you know it.
Suggestion: Make it a little bit exclusive; invite those you really would like to come and tell them they can bring someone else who is interesting. Say only that it is "something like an open house." Praise and reward those who bring interesting people and cultivate the newcomers who add something. Even a hungry student can add something--mix up your people.

Possible pitfall: Too much cooking and cleaning and the expense thereof.
Suggestion: Stick to your insanely popular one dish meal (spaghetti is a good example) with a few accompaniments; in New Orleans we'd do red beans and rice or jambalaya or crawfish in season, etc. Then people come for the food, ostensibly, but always stay to talk and party. Get the food under control so you can concentrate on the people.

Possible pitfall: Drinks.
Suggestion: Don't include people who only come to drink; serve perhaps one thing that goes with your meal and expect guests to pitch in with bottles for the bar, if any. Make sure there are also non-alcoholic drinks.

Possible pitfall: Judging the success or failure too soon.
Suggestion: let it grow of itself and it will become what people want. These things tend to serve a particular time and group and then, in time, people move on. Let it be what it wants to be and let it go when it's over.
posted by Anitanola at 2:41 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

We do this in my house. Friday nights are our version of Shabbat (though none of us is Jewish): a time to relax and enjoy ourselves at home with friends. We publicize it via Facebook (our house has its own Facebook profile), email, and word of mouth. After six months or so, people started asking if it was on. It helps that we have an active and sociable community of friends.

It's a potluck: we cook what we feel like cooking and people bring things. Somehow there's always enough (if not, pizza is just a phone call away), and it's always delicious.

Tips: have two or three other people who are committed to holding it with you. Check in each week about whether you're up for it or not. It's good to be fairly consistent so people come to expect it -- but it's also OK and necessary to take a week off every so often. You might want to do it every other week or once a month instead.

It's crucial that it not feel effortful or burdensome. Like I said, cook what you feel like cooking -- don't feel like you have to produce a whole meal. If there's just one dish, that's fine. If the house is a little messy, that's fine too. Don't run around waiting on people. We ask them to be at home, which means if you're thirsty, grab a glass and find something to drink.

Right before we eat, we hold hands around the table. We go around and say our names, and there's a chance for announcements -- someone is looking for a place to live, there's a good concert tomorrow night, does anyone have a chainsaw? And then we join in the Chow Mantra: a resounding YUMMMMMM!

One thing we learned the hard way is to make an announcement in the opening circle that helping with the dishes is the best way to thank us for our hospitality, and to ask that they get up and do the dishes at 10 p.m., after which they are welcome to keep hanging out. That way everyone doesn't leave before the cleanup, and we don't get left with a kitchen full of dirty dishes on Saturday morning.

Most important: enjoy it no matter how many people do or don't show up. We've had everywhere from zero to 30 people. Some of the sweetest times are with just one or two. Even the times (once or twice in a year and a half) when nobody showed were an unexpected respite. And each week's random assortment of friends -- who might not otherwise meet and hang out -- is an unexpected treat.

Sometimes we have an activity or a theme: we play games, or decorate the mantel for the holidays, or have a go-round (where each person in turn gets a chance to talk, while everyone else listens) about a particular topic. But usually we just do whatever.

One of the best parts for me is true unstructured hang-out time: after dinner, when we're just kind of sitting around, some people are doing crafts, maybe there's a fire... these lovely silences arise, where we just look at each other and smile, there's no pressure to entertain or be entertaining... It makes me realize how goal-oriented (go out to eat! see a movie! go to a club!) most of my other social time is.

On Fridays I've started taking off work around 4. The hours between 4 and 7 -- when I pick up the house, fluff the altars, start a pot of soup, take a bath, etc. have become one of my favorite times of the week.

And then people I like show up! With food! And I get to hang out with them -- without having to get dressed up and go anywhere! I think of it as "sending out for company." ;-)

May your open house dinners become as sweet and treasured a custom as ours.
posted by ottereroticist at 3:30 PM on December 30, 2010 [52 favorites]

We have a slightly tighter version of this among our friends. In general, there's about 10 or 12 people invited on a weekly basis, and maybe two-thirds of them show up. In general, people confirm whether or not they'll be coming in the big email chain we have about the dinners.

I don't know how open you want to be about this. My own personal preference is to have at least an informal RVSP, just so you've got a rough idea on how much food to cook. I'd also second or third getting other people to contribute hosting occasionally--holding a weekly party can be really stressful, and we stress out just doing it once a month or so.

If you do want to keep it more loose and open, potluck, potluck, potluck. Again, a running email chain is probably a good idea here, so you don't have ten people all bringing peach cobbler.
posted by thecaddy at 3:56 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

We have friends that do this, once a year. They have a buffet, always chili, with salads, breads, etc.. Drinks are kept in a tub with ice. It's low key and functional. And it's always a great time.
posted by 6:1 at 7:02 PM on December 30, 2010

My group of friends has done this as a regular thing for maybe 6 months at two different times in the last decade. What killed the tradition both times was the TV -- the first time we had a regular Sunday Night Dinner going, we all got into watching the first season of Desperate Housewives after dinner. Before long most people got bored with the show, while a few people didn't want to miss it, so everybody stopped coming. The second time we had regular dinners, the conversation and hanging out would inevitably turn into a handful of people playing Rock Band, and everybody else being bored because they didn't want to play and had to huddle in the kitchen because the living room was noisy and crowded with Rock-Band-ers.

I guess my point is this: if there's going to be an after-dinner activity, make it one that ALL of your friends enjoy, or else make it different every time. If y'all love RPGs or black-and-white movies or whatever, go ahead and do that after you eat. But if some folks aren't as into those activities, they will quickly lose interest in dinner night. Better to have unstructured conversation, or a wildly varying selection of activities each time, to keep people coming back. Personally if I ever try to build this kind of tradition again, there will be a hard-and-fast TV STAYS OFF rule.
posted by vytae at 11:57 AM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

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