What do you think makes the awesomest casual brunch/dinner party?
September 17, 2014 5:21 PM   Subscribe

I've moved to a new place and need to meet some friends. I'm thinking of hosting some casual brunch/dinner parties to help fix this. Problem: I suck at dinner parties. How can I fix this?

I've given dinner parties in the past, but they've always stressed me out a lot, and they never had the fun casual vibe that other dinner parties I've been to have. I'd love to become the master of the casual, fun, warm, stress-free dinner (or brunch) party. Note -- I have some okay cooking skills, a big table, and not a ton of money (so I can't just impress by buying lobster, etc.)

What are your tips? What have you loved about these things you've been to? Food? Drinks? Prep tips? Music? Pep talks? Anything!
posted by caoimhe to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
and they never had the fun casual vibe that other dinner parties I've been to have.

Can you elaborate on how you've set these up in the past?
posted by DarlingBri at 5:31 PM on September 17, 2014

Friday night meatballs is what you're looking for, I think.
posted by instamatic at 5:38 PM on September 17, 2014 [13 favorites]

People hanging out in the kitchen is the _best_. If you can figure out how to make that happen, you'll probably make some friends.
posted by amtho at 5:44 PM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've had great success with make-your-own-pizza nights.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:46 PM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Fewer seats than people --> promotes mingling?
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:46 PM on September 17, 2014

Brunch is more easily casual than dinner IMO. Choose a date and invite friends. Tell them a time and ask them to bring something to contribute (pastries, bagels, fruit, OJ, whatever). That way you're not responsible for all the food, and I feel like that immediately makes it a bit more relaxed. Make the brunch buffet style - just lay food on the big table with a big stack of plates and cutlery. Make sure there are seating areas away from the table. Have some alcohol available, and drink one yourself to help relax. Give yourself a low key task to be doing when people arrive, like opening wine, or giving a tour of your new place. This prevents you from standing nervously near the food! Grab some food yourself, and go sit down with someone away from the table - this sets the expectation that people can just help themselves and sit down, and you don't have to be an active host who is hovering and fretting.
posted by Joh at 5:50 PM on September 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

Make something easy to eat and stress free to make. Order pizzas, no one minds! Or have a pot luck. Bucket of chicken is everyone's favorite.

Have an entertainment planned. Cards Against Humanity. Dr. Who marathon. Eurovision. Whatever, something people will enjoy.

If you're relaxed and having fun, everyone else will too.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:52 PM on September 17, 2014

make your own tacos! cheap and fun and people can bring all the other stuff- drinks, desserts etc
posted by the twistinside at 6:01 PM on September 17, 2014

I have a friend who hosted soup night every Monday. Soup is relatively easy and cheap and scales up well. He would either buy bread or make no knead bread and make some kind of dessert. We were all students so everyone chipped in $5. Basically, it was genius.
posted by carolr at 6:11 PM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Smitten Kitchen addresses this exact concern with baked cinnamon French toast and its boozier cousin.
posted by teremala at 6:12 PM on September 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

We are big on brunch at our house, and I completely agree with Joh about it being easily casual. What we usually do is provide a couple of protein-y dishes (frittata, sausage, bacon, something like that), and ask everyone else to bring something.

Make it easy for people to serve themselves, as Joh also said, and have coffee and coffee fixings out and easily available.

Also, make mimosas. Mimosas make everything more casual and easy.

I feel like the key to doing this sort of thing successfully is being able to enjoy yourself. No need to hover. Let your guests serve themselves unless you really like doing that sort of thing (often, there'll be someone who ends up making drinks or slicing quiche or whatever, because they're just that type). Focus on making friends. And maybe have Apples to Apples handy if things get too slow/quiet.
posted by hought20 at 6:29 PM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm willing to bet that most if not all dinner parties are stressful to plan and prepare for. It's takes skill to pretend like you're not stressed out while you're trying to cook for six people.
posted by deathpanels at 6:37 PM on September 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

"I've given dinner parties in the past, but they've always stressed me out a lot, and they never had the fun casual vibe that other dinner parties I've been to have."

You don't need to be the host with the most. Make some food and provide wine.
posted by vapidave at 6:53 PM on September 17, 2014

Hi. Fellow stress-out-host(ess) here. Some things I have learned to make things less awkward:

Choose one or two dishes that you do really, really well. They don't have to be fancy. But if there is something that you have nailed and tastes yummy - do that dish. The biggest hits I have made in the past year have been a citrus-based crab salad with pretzel rolls and roasted red potatoes.

If you lean towards labor intensive dishes, chose something you can prepare ahead of time. At our last holiday gathering, I made a pot of beef bourguignon the day before, put it the crockpot on low the day of, set a bowl of noodles next to it and let our guests have at.

As others have suggested, make it buffet style. Put out dishes, glasses and utensils in advance. Make a stack of bright linen napkins. Quit worrying about the everything matching, eclectic is fun.

Keep the appetizers simple (unless killer appetizers are your thing).

Kitchens end up as gathering places for a reason. Don't be afraid to delegate, ask for and accept help.

Wine makes everything less scary.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 6:57 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

One more thing: breakfast is never the wrong thing to eat at dinner.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 6:57 PM on September 17, 2014

My friends moved across the country, and they made friends with a monthly soup night. Two soups, one vegetarian, in two slow cookers with some crusty bread on the side. Period. Wine and beer. This has been very successful for them.
posted by Malla at 6:58 PM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Brunch is the best because a lot of things can be prepped in advance then heated and served.

Strata (or strada) is an egg casserole you can assemble the night before. You can lay out strips of bacon on a tray the night before as well. Assemble a basket of fruit (orange, apple, banana are cheap). Day of the party, turn on the oven, put your pre-assembled food in, put out a fruit basket, make coffee, done. The big mess is cleaned up the night before and you won't get yourself sweaty working the oven.

I agree with hought20 on asking friends to bring something and also mimosas. I second Joh on buffet style. I will go further and suggest paper plates and plastic cutlery (real glasses and mugs though please).

I don't stress out providing food for a party, but I do stress out about getting everything cleaned for a party! Ideally, you need a two person party team - one to clean and one to cook. Serve only food that you have mastered and can make yummy in your sleep. Have a nice party.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:59 PM on September 17, 2014

I have several friends who seem to have mastered the idea of effortless entertaining. This past Monday they hosted a family happy hour.

The kids got frozen pizzas. One family brought drinks, I brought desserts. On the table, the host had meatloaf sliders with carmelized onions, assorted breads with a mix of (fancy and not so fancy) meats and cheeses, room temp grilled veggies. We sat down, ate and chatted for two hours, helped tidy up and headed home by 8:30. It was fantastic.
posted by IndigoOnTheGo at 7:04 PM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Rather than an all-out "dinner party," which to me implies multiple dishes that all need to be served hot at the same time by the host (read: stress), what about a themed casual potluck? I've had good luck with spreads and breads, which requires fairly little of contributors, happens to have this handy earlier thread suggesting recipes, and encourages lots of casual mingling. A beer tasting with good snacks/appetizers, as structured (with scorecards and checks against the ratings on Beer Advocate) or informal ("this one tastes good!") as you want to make it, could also be fun.

If you really want to make everything yourself, go with something comfort food-y rather than super fancy (mac & cheese, soup, chili, lasagna, etc. instead of lobster). This will get you more than halfway toward the casual, warm, fun vibe, and the stress you'll avoid by cooking something easier will get you the rest of the way. Bonus: comfort foods tend to go really well with bread and salad.
posted by rebekah at 7:05 PM on September 17, 2014

I hear you...same thing with me! I have a really tiny house, and now that we are all getting a bit more staid, just drinking a lot and laughing doesn't seem to be enough, especially with new people. :)

To start off, why not have a TGIF cocktail party with little pizzas or nibbles and wine and beer? Then people know they are not committing to an entire evening. And you can be less stressed. The best parties I've gone to is where the hosts are relaxed, so that must be the key.
posted by PJSibling at 7:24 PM on September 17, 2014

I'm not much of a drinker, but I'd never turn down a good Bloody Mary on a nice weekend morning or afternoon. I know that's going to be a chill and relaxing day. Even better if you add fresh clams (in the Bloody Mary or separately!)
posted by Room 641-A at 7:43 PM on September 17, 2014

Here's my absolutely incredible path to easy-peasy parties: I bought a 3-crock crock pot.

Seriously, I have had so many easy parties because of this. I can make chili, meatballs (from a bag) and some chicken by dumping things into each crock. Sometimes it's lava cake, soup, and mac and cheese. Sometimes, it's mulled cider, beef stew, and stewed apples.

It's a matter of dump, set, and put out some serving stuff. It's taken all the stress out of parties for me.
posted by xingcat at 7:45 PM on September 17, 2014

My best birthday party was an appetizer potluck. Not a lot of food to make, and I found people actually brought some pretty cool food items when it's just appetizers. People graze at a fairly even pace during the evening instead of filling up. And if people have to leave early or arrive late, that's ok.
posted by lizbunny at 8:18 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Impressing people with lobster is pretty much the opposite of casual and fun. Do something that will be easy and affordable so you can relax.
posted by yohko at 9:10 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like the brunch idea. It's less stressful, more informal, more mixing and relaxing. I think having a wide variety of yummy foods, including foods friendly to various dietary restrictions, is the main thing. You can use Pandora or something to make a nice music mix (if you're not the DJ type).

I enjoy going to a brunch with semi-strangers more than a dinner, because I feel I can sort of wander off and do my own thing, or chat in a corner with someone interesting, or hide in the kitchen and wash dishes if I want to, and all those things are OK and fine.

I say, don't be afraid to give people jobs: some people (me) find that comforting. Last minute chopping, or setting out plates and stuff, builds a little camaraderie.
posted by latkes at 9:32 PM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I find the best dinner parties are ones where I play friend matchmaker. Basically, invite people who don't know each other, but who you think will get along. Say two people from one crowd and 3 or 4 from another. Make sure there's an extrovert or two in the bunch.

Also, plan a meal you can serve with minimal prep on the day of the party. Have all dishes, cutlery and glasses out before guests arrive. This will save you having to run to the kitchen every time a guest needs something. Instead, they'll be able to help themselves. Have a designated bar/drink/ coffee area so guest feel free to help themselves. Basically, you want your guests to be as autonomous as possible.

I also like to keep a conversation piece handy. An old yearbook, a picture album, a deck of Cards against humanity, etc. I place the item on the coffee table so guests feel free to look at it and use the item as a conversation starter.
posted by Milau at 9:33 PM on September 17, 2014

Cheese and Wine evening. People bring wine and cheese, you provide glasses, crackers and fruit.
posted by kjs4 at 12:15 AM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Smitten Kitchen gives a good guide on how to host brunch (and still sleep in)!
posted by hellopanda at 1:16 AM on September 18, 2014

I love hosting dinner parties, parties, events. What I usually do is provide a main dish or two, and a big bowl of sangria (also non-alcoholic punch, as of late. We're getting old!) Everyone else is encouraged to bring something to share.

I usually do, depending on the crowd expected, 1-2 desserts of various fanciness and skill, 1-2 main dishes that can be made and served in the slow cooker (chili, pulled pork) or a casserole type dish that can be made the day before and then just popped into the oven, (baked ziti, lasagna) plus whatever mix of frozen/ready made/pre-prepared stuff I can find to round it out (veggie tray, cheese platter, frozen appetizers from Trader Joe's, etc.).

It's been significantly less stressful, and everyone seems to enjoy it just as much (or perhaps more) than if I made everything from scratch myself. Eating with friends is the best part.
posted by PearlRose at 6:34 AM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you and the people you want to be friends with are into sports, have a group over to watch football on Sunday. The game provides entertainment, people who are not so much into it can chat and hang out. You can do a big crockpot of chili with a toppings bar; a table full of snacks, some beer, maybe a bloody mary bar? Super-casual, very easy and low pressure.
posted by Fig at 7:54 AM on September 18, 2014

I've given dinner parties in the past, but they've always stressed me out a lot, and they never had the fun casual vibe that other dinner parties I've been to have.

The host generally feels stressed, even while the guests are feeling a fun casual vibe. Maybe the hosts of those fun parties you went to were stressed. Maybe your guests found your parties perfectly fun and casual.

The key is to set expectations when you invite. If you say, "come over for pizza on paper plates," everyone who accepts your invitation will be thrilled to have pizza on paper plates. If you say, "you're invited to a dinner party," without more detail, especially if you've stressed yourself out making the most gorgeous e-vite ever, you might have some guests who are thrilled to have pizza on paper plates while others are disappointed it's not lobster on fine china.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:55 AM on September 18, 2014

Take advantage when people ask what they can bring and assign wine, an appetizer, a side dish, dessert. It takes some of the cooking and purchasing pressure off you, and makes everyone feel like they're contributing.
posted by gateau at 9:49 PM on September 18, 2014

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