Dinner Party - How do I make it a success?
February 5, 2019 11:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm hosting my first ever dinner party this weekend. It's for 10 people and I'm a good planner and a good cook. I've taken many tips from Ina Garten about how to host a good dinner party; I'll be doing an easy, make ahead appetizer with some home made but also store bought elements. I've got an easy but show stopping main course that won't require too much cooking in the moment and a dessert I can make the day before but....

What are your tips for creating an elegant but simple table?
Do you have any inexpensive ways I can create a nice dining experience.
I'm already spending a decent amount of money on the food, so I don't want to buy a lot of stuff for the table settings.
We also have cats who eat everything so I flowers are not an option.

What are your dinner party tips for a novice who really wants to impress her (very forgiving and low maintenance) friends!
posted by JenThePro to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
People are usually focused on the people and food, so I usually just rely on a few candles for "tablescape", assuming food and place settings will take up a lot of the table. The pillar kind are nice and not too expensive if you go for 3-5 of different heights (and they last a long time).

Drinks: If you're doing cocktails to start, mix up a jar/pitcher of one or two ahead of time to make it easier on you. Maybe have one of those low-key friends help by keeping on top of wine/water/drinks, so you can focus on food and have some fun. Putting a pitcher of water on the table can help.

Offering up herbal teas or decaf coffees or something with dessert can help lead to the relaxed chatting afterward, which is a nice way to bask in the glow of your successful dinner party.
posted by ldthomps at 12:14 PM on February 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think it's all about the lighting! A few candles for the table, and then experiment in the nights leading up to the party with the lighting in adjacent areas -- like, what combo of your kitchen/living room/den/entryway/whatever light(s) make a nice combo?

Also, having a music playlist already up and running in some way -- via your phone or ipod or stereo or whatever.

Lastly, some prettification of your bathroom + putting away all your personal stuff (or getting it out of sight as much as possible).

Voila! Fancy party!
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:16 PM on February 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Cloth napkins (World Market, Target, HomeGoods) kick it up a notch.

Have nibbles available as the guests arrive. Fancy nuts in a fancy bowl is good. Beer and wine chilling in the fridge. Decaf coffee and herbal teas for after.

A friend of mine makes little place-cards for the table out of folded-in-half index cards. She decorates them with little drawings related to the person's interests or profession. It's a nice personal touch.
posted by basalganglia at 12:20 PM on February 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

if you have flowers on the table (or any centerpiece) make sure it's low. Nothing worse than trying to make conversation through a physical barrier.

Lighting -- if you can -- make the table area the focus. Like if you're in an open kitchen and you can lower the light over the rest of the area, do that.

Have wine and water (or whatever you're pouring) opened before guests arrive. Give people something to drink as soon as they've arrived.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:23 PM on February 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you have a Goodwill or the like near you, you can usually find cloth napkins and table runners or table cloths for pennies on the dollar. The one near me even had some nice silver plate napkin rings the other day - 6 for $5, I think!
posted by dbmcd at 12:29 PM on February 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I can't find it right now, but I think I saw on Cup of Jo or some other blog to put a little toy or figurine at each place setting: it gives people something to do with their hands, and relieves everyone's anxiety. People can trade toys and it's a natural conversation starter to lean over and ask, 'what did you get?'. Think dollar store action figures, toy cars, little puzzles, dice, etc. I even do this in my office now and it's amazing how much more freely people will talk when they are doing something else with their hands!

And seconding lighting; you want low enough that it's cozy, with lots of candles!
posted by stellaluna at 12:48 PM on February 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

If some of your guests don't know each other, it is nice to brainstorm some little conversation starters that take advantage of your knowledge of each of them. Examples:
  • Walter, this is my cousin Fiona. She also grew up in Southern California.
  • Ruth, have you ever met my co-worker Abdul? He is also a great baker.
  • Declan, I'm sure I've told you stories about Shoshanna, my college roomie. Shoshanna, Declan is my current roommate. You can probably commiserate about my inability to load a dishwasher.
  • Jaime, Eduardo here just got back from vacation in Spain. Didn't you spend a year in Madrid once upon a time?
posted by Rock Steady at 12:51 PM on February 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Breathe, you’ve got this! Table linens are a nice touch, and as folks have mentioned, charity shops are great for that. I recently donated a ton of table linens that don’t fit my current table, and they were like new. A friend said she saw them at the charity later for pennies, so do check those stores, you’ll be surprised what you can find. Pillar candles in a low bowl of glass rocks always looks pretty, and doesn’t create conversation barricades.

I love the toy idea above. I’m absolutely going to try that.

But mostly, just remain calm. Your friends love you and want your party to be successful. It will be wonderful and you will be a rockstar!
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 1:03 PM on February 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I like to prepare a little drinks station in my kitchen - a tray that has glasses, corkscrew, lemon slices, red wine, maybe a scotch, an ice bucket, and a little sign that says "help yourself" and a list of what's available in the fridge. Makes people feel welcome, gives you a place to put the wine that people bring you, saves you the trouble of fetching drinks for everyone. Also if there is someone who wants to help you can appoint them bartender and all the stuff they need will be right there.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:12 PM on February 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

In the past I always thought I’d get my day-of food prep work done first then get myself showered and dressed. Now I know better. Get showered and almost entirely ready first thing in the day and put out your party clothes to change in to right before guests arrive!
posted by Swisstine at 1:19 PM on February 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

Great suggestions above! One thing I'll add is if you decide to go with candlelight, use unscented candles.
posted by Majorita at 1:22 PM on February 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

Agree with the unscented candles on the table. A scented candle is nice burning in the bathroom, though (obviously, away from towels and other flammable stuff).
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:26 PM on February 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Your party sounds lovely!

After making this mistake with the first few events I hosted, I've gotten much better about ensuring that there's a clear place for items guests will bring (shoes, coats, wine, hostess gifts). Planning this in advance makes entering the party smooth and relaxing for guests.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 1:34 PM on February 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

Great suggestions so far! I would add a few:

For first time guest to your home:
-Make sure everyone knows where to/not to park/best bus route/exactly which door to use/ring buzzer, knock, or come right in/any other tidbit they need to find the party.
-Everyone know about your cat pals so allergic folks can medicate accordingly, yes?
-Any special dietary needs known and covered? Have some tasty nonalcoholic drink options!
-Think about your furniture and who is attending. Make sure your setup is cool for people of size, folks with back issues, etc. When I host older people, I invite them to sit down right away if they'd like, even if the food isn't out yet.

Other bits and bobs:
Have a plan to accommodate ten coats, bags, and pairs of boots, depending on the weather. I like to temporarily free up a bunch of hangers in my front hall closet since I have no coat rack (and I find the general solution, a giant pile of coats on the bed, to be slightly gross especially in winter. This might be personal tick though.)
-Sometimes guests will bring a thing to serve. If, unlike me, you have a normal, not a hobbit-sized fridge this may not be a concern to plan ahead for, but: leave some space free in there for perishables/extra bottles of wine just in case.
-Can't have too much ice.
-Bathroom: put in a new roll of toilet paper. Better than having guests have to hunt up an extra.
-No one will remember a forgotten garnish, but you and everyone else will remember if you were able to relax, slow down, and enjoy connecting with your guests. Have a lovely time!
posted by prewar lemonade at 1:43 PM on February 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

One of my favorite Youtube channels is Dinner Party Tonight.

Randy walks you through it all from menu planning to table setting to insights with her adorable dog Leonard. She lets you know that "You can do it!" and I just plain like her style and her awesome aprons.
posted by rdnnyc at 1:49 PM on February 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Friends will come early and say: “can I help with anything?”

Find fun and easy things for people to do! Like: help each other make cocktails. Or help chop things, or help choose the music, or help create finger food. Even in the best of dinner parties, I really like it when everyone’s gathered together helping and working, and it sounds like your friends might like it also.
posted by suedehead at 1:57 PM on February 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

What I do for dinner parties and mine are always casual. I'm oftentimes trying to make my house more inviting and homey because it can look neglected with my work/life grind:

1. Clean the house. Especially focusing on entryway, guest bathroom, kitchen and living room. Sweep your front porch or front doorway. If weather permits place a big healthy looking potted plant in a decorative planter -- I like a fern or something seasonal -- outside your front entryway. Wipe off switch plates and doorknobs. If weather permits, open windows day of party to air out the house. I don't buy it all of the time because it's pricey but if I'm having people over I clean with Meyers Clean Day all purpose cleaner.

2. I know you have your main entree but for others and future consideration f you want to go casual, family style -- I like Ina Garten's lasagna with turkey sausage. Also, Ina's chicken stew with biscuits. You can make both ahead. Use less salt than she suggests. It's way too much and I like salt. Also, I leave out pearl onions because many are not fond.

3. Iron your tablecloths or runner. Tea lights and/or votives in some sort of mercury glass holders lined down the table are nice. If your party is close to Valentine's Day you could put red or pink mercury glass holders on a white or black tablecloth or runner. Red and pink both (or any color) mercury glass holders on Amazon. Affordable. Or skip the decorations.

4. I know you can't but I always buy flowers and I put an orchid in the guest bathroom. If I don't have an orchid I have been known to pick a hibiscus flower off the bush and put it on decorative plate (red or dark pink hibiscus flower looks great on blue and white saucer) with a lighted votive alongside. You can use any flower. Flowers in the bathroom speak spa to me. Also white or sage green tip towels. I saw the hibiscus trick in a swank restaurant in the Keys. It's cheap and easy.

5. New or very fresh hand or tip towels. Aromatic hand soap. New bath mat and dishtowels if yours are starting to wear and if you display them.

6. Music. Low volume. Easy vibe.

7. Plenty of drinks in plain sight so people can help themselves and you can serve as well. Your friends may be more sophisticated but I always have bottles of still water, sparkling water, Diet Coke, Coke, 7-Up, wine, beer. Also, I oftentimes make a pitcher of cocktails. Ina Garten's pitcher margarita a favorite. I like stemless wine glasses plus I buy clear plastic, no colored cups, if it's casual and I don't have enough drinking glasses.

8. Lighting. A few candles. Turn on all of your lamps so the house looks lit and inviting.
posted by loveandhappiness at 2:02 PM on February 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I love the ideas above- it sounds like a great party. One thought, and I apologize. This is a bit delicate, but you mentioned lots of cats- many cat-owners are a bit noseblind. This may not apply to your situation, but maybe make sure that the litterbox is fresh and clean if you use one?
posted by jenkinsEar at 2:23 PM on February 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hey, you're already impressing your friends -- you're inviting them over to ply them with food and drink! It's really nice that you're doing this.

I like the suggestions to consider a playlist and a lighting design. If your only dining-area light source is a harsh overhead, consider relocating the bedroom lamps for the evening. (I'll go against the crowd, and admit that I'm against decorating with live candles for dinner parties.) Look around the rest of your entertaining space for 'layered light' needs.

I think natural elements and simple place settings make for an elegant table. Like clean stones or seashells in low glass containers, or shiny metal bowls, on a table runner. You can create a runner with a pretty length of fabric, or by folding a thin tablecloth in third or fourths (edges underneath). If you've got a small collection of anything interesting (but not overly precious -- it will be near liquids and hot foods, and people may handle stuff), display that on a tray, or wind the items along the runner.

Also, air out the house earlier in the day and tidy up a bit. Really clean the bathrooms; top up soap dispensers, hang fresh linens, and make sure spare rolls of toilet paper and a plunger are easy to spot.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:59 PM on February 5, 2019

nixing scented candle in the bathroom; a guest might be allergic
posted by brujita at 8:29 PM on February 5, 2019

People will ask if they can help. Set aside very very simple tasks so they can feel included - eg, arranging cheese on a platter, tossing the salad, bringing a jug of water to the table.

I always light a candle in the bathroom but YMMV considering Brujita's comment.

As a non-drinker I always appreciate a nice non-alcoholic option. I learned about shrubs via MeFi and they're so easy, grown-up and delicious. They also make a great base for cocktails for drinkers, so that's a bonus!

If you have a TV in sight in the living room something we like to do is put on one of those 10 hour YouTube videos with the sound off. We especially like train journeys. This provides a nice ambience, gives our big 'ole TV a job, and can weirdly be a conversation piece.
posted by nerdfish at 3:15 AM on February 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Go to your nearest craft store and choose a few nice looking stems of fake white flowers and unscented candles. Use matching small glasses and place them along the middle of your table. Alternate between the candles and small bunches of the white flowers (cut the stems down) which you've put a small amount of water so you can pretend you've got real flowers in them. With dim lighting, it's pretty and inexpensive. White flowers look great for every season.
posted by IndigoOnTheGo at 5:39 AM on February 6, 2019

All of the above sound great. I would suggest one additional thing: have a list in your mind of fun conversational topics to introduce in case there's an awkward pause, as sometimes happens.

There doesn't have to be a feverish pace of conversation, but it's reassuring to know that if there is a lull that's going on a little too long, you have something to help people start chatting again.

Also, if there are a lot of people who don't know each other (or even if they do!), having a board game set up in a corner might help. We had a crokinole board set up one time and it was a huge hit. Everyone was chatting *and* watching the game, which generated a lot of laughter.
posted by Amy NM at 5:47 AM on February 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

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