We learned a lot about dinner parties from our parents. The exhaustive shopping list; the months-before invitations; a call sheet of oven times; silverware shined with vinegar; a bursting fridge that you’re not allowed to so much as glance at; one hefty booze shop (always separate to that of the food); a misting of perfume; a drenching of aftershave. “They’ll be here any minute,” your mum said with the kind of frantic energy that dissipated - if only falsely - the moment she opened the door. But those dinner parties are dead; stultified by their own stuffiness, and brown bread rolls. Millennials have resuscitated the art of throwing them, and despite how much effort we put in, there isn’t a whiff of pretension. Perhaps because our houses, incomes, and bandwidths don’t allow for it. But definitely because without the grandiose expectations, it’s actually very easy to excel.
Don’t always invite your five best friends. Pull together a motley crew of ages, professions and politics. (Ok perhaps not the latter in such partisan times.) Variety is the traction of good conversation but lulls are to be expected, especially in a new group. Introduce guests with a delicious tidbit of information. “Harriet, did you know Johnny sings in a Duran Duran tribute band? And Johnny, Harriet here is not only beauty, but brains too - she got a double first at Oxford... Twelve years ago.” Yes matchmaking is allowed. Encouraged even. This can best be facilitated by a clever seating plan and a conviction not to refer to yourself as Cupid.
Do tell your guests what’s on the menu. It’s bound to generate a few Come Dine With Me “and how about the ricotta, did you make that too?” quips. (Lol). Television series are ripe for dissection and will often give your guests good insight into the moral compasses and emotional constitutions of those they don’t know. Zeitgeist-y suggestions are as follows: Unorthodox, Little Fires Everywhere and I May Destroy You.
Atmosphere: the one intangible thing that no dinner party can do without. You want to flatter your guests, and for them to stare longingly at one another, noticing attractive features they may not have done otherwise. “Make sure any artificial light is soft, so it feels intimate and cosy, and use skinny candles in holders down the table,” says professional party planner Fiona Leahy who’s dressed tables for Dior.
Born out of the mundanity of mealtimes, tablescaping piqued in lockdown and it’s now ripe for hosting. Use your tablecloth as the foundation, thinking about its colours and texture. Linens for example, work well with pared-back more rustic crockery and stoneware, which lends itself to Italian stews and one-pots. Bold striped or floral tablecloths work well with more ornate, fanciful decorations such as fruit and shells. “Not everything has to match - in fact it’s often better when they don’t,” says Leahy. For beautifully rambunctious tablecloths, try Lisa Corti, whose designs blanket the tables of the design elite, from Laura Jackson and Luke Edward Hall to Beata Heuman.
Flowers are a must, though you needn’t spend a fortune, or even anything at all. If you’ve got a garden, see what’s growing. Three single stemmed flowers in bud vases down the middle of the table are simple but effective. Why not forage some wild garlic (sounds silly, is actually very easy - it grows in droves by canals), or says Leahy “snip a little something from your local park.” Just make sure nothing is blocking the eye line of your guests (see aforementioned point about facilitating a hookup). On the question of fake flowers, Leahy says they’re not a total no-go, but “to keep them out of touching or inspection distance” so as not to incriminate yourself.
Everything outside can be more laissez-faire. You’re not expected to bring out your best crockery, or your skinniest stemmed glasses. The elements won’t allow for it. You want durable glasses and crockery, plus you’ll need to put candles in hurricane jars unless you’d like the Sisyphean task of relighting - and relighting and relighting - in the breeze. Theme-wise, to juxtapose actual flowers, Leahy recommends ‘matchimalism’ which involves using tablecloths, napkins and even placemats of the same print, so it’s almost camouflage.
Playing restaurant in your own home is thirsty work. “Fill a beautiful vessel with ice and plenty of bottles so that people can help themselves to drinks,” says writer, restaurant owner and chef Ravinder Bhogal. That way, alcohol is free-flowing, and your guests don’t feel the need to bother you (or alert you to their galloping intake of units.) Be sure to have soft drinks too, and ones that have been paid the same reverence as their hard counterparts. Robinsons squash and water won’t do. Instead, try homemade (or shop bought) elderflower cordial with sparkling water. Having a few glass straws in an enamel jug will score you some woke points, too. “If guests bring wine chilled, take it as a hint that they’d like to drink it,” says wine expert Elliot Awin. “Good wine should be drunk with good friends - you needn’t be stuffy about pairings,” he continues. Ensure that the wine you are serving however, is optimally chilled. “Chill crisp vibrant whites as much as you like, but take medium bodied whites out of the fridge 20 minutes before drinking, and make that 45 minutes for full bodied wines. This way, you’ll get the best out of them.” And for red? “Keep juicy Pinot Noir or Gamay reds in the fridge and take out 45 minutes to an hour before drinking; bigger bolder styles should be served at room temperature.”
Where possible, opt for dishes that you can prepare beforehand and store in the fridge. That way you can enjoy mingling with your guests when they arrive. You do not, we repeat not, want to be the flappable, tea-towel-over-the-shoulder-fingers-about-to-be-burned, pan-clattering host who’s eyeballing their partner for help. It’s an awkward scene for all involved, and it obligates your guests to volunteer help when they should be chatting, unaware and already squiffy in the corner.
“Yes, be real!” says Bhogal. “Don’t try and be cheffy - I am devoted to an approachable table laden with generous platters made up of locally grown seasonal ingredients. Using ingredients at their peak means you often don’t have to do much to them.” Sharing platters are a great way to feed your guests - not least because there’s no plating up on your side. Stick a bird or fish on the table and chuck in some colourful, good-looking salads around it, and people will get stuck in. Once you’re done, “share the leftovers for your guests to take home - it shows you’re still thinking of them beyond the party,” says Bhogal.
Ravinder Bhogal’s Jikoni: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from an Immigrant Kitchen
Skye McAlpine’s A Table For Friends
1. Do not ask guests to take their shoes off
2. Make sure your bins and dishwasher are completely empty at the beginning of the evening so everything can slide straight in
3. Ensure ice cube trays are fully stocked, and if in doubt, fill more. If you fall at the final cocktail making hurdle, and you’ve got the mixed, so very nearly drinkable components of a - wait for it - WARM margarita, you’re in big trouble. Trays usually take between three and four hours to freeze so doing them on the night isn’t an option.