How To Be the Ultimate Party Host
Having these understated – yet absolutely essential – party tricks up your sleeve will see you pull off the perfect soiree
Keep it simple
Avoid overcomplicating your menu
Cook something easy that everyone likes (it sounds obvious but is often not adhered to). A decent selection of cold cuts as a starter, served with bread and oil, is a handy time-saver. Often a cheeseboard will suffice for desserts — but be generous and treat your guests to the best produce that you can find. For the mains, prepare dishes that you’re familiar with and that you’re excited to eat too. Make an effort but don’t show off; this is a surefire way to fall at the first hospitality hurdle.
Don’t be too rigid about seating
Name cards are deeply naff at small gatherings; splitting couples not always as exciting as you think; and boy-girl is a bit old hat (not every boy likes girls and vice versa). Form a seating plan in your head if your table is large enough to demand it but, on the night itself, be sure to direct guests as if it’s a spur-of-the-moment proposal.
Time it well
Resist getting cooped up in the kitchen
The way you cook is worth considering as closely as what you cook. Pick a dish that’s made in the oven and can be taken out as people arrive. This gives guests something to look at — and look forward to — and avoids the stress of cooking in front of people and sweatily flash-frying last-minute greens that have gone cold. Plus, do as much prep as you can in advance. You don’t want to be tinkering away in the kitchen for so long that your guests wonder whether you’ve been locked in the cellar.
Carefully consider your guestlist
Only invite people you like and who will get along. Again it seems obvious but too many people bring together friends who are likely to butt heads, new neighbours they barely know or couples who can’t stand each other. Strive for a mix that forges connections. If saucy and newly single Sarah has apenchant for publishing then be sure to invite your unattached editor friend. And spare a thought for clashing demeanours: don’t sit rowdy Robert next to delicate David unless you’re sure they’ll hit it off.
Keep things breezy
Regulate the temperature
People obsess over getting their plates out hot but neglect to keep their dining rooms at an agreeable temperature. Take your guests’ coats when they arrive but make sure the room is warm enough to justify it. Slow-braising a lamb for five hours will make the house muggy so allow for a breeze to keep proceedings feeling fresh. Be wary of smells too; fish tastes good but the soft furnishings shouldn’t smell of sea bass when people arrive.
Provide proper seating
Kitchens may be the heart of the home but no one remembers meals spent standing or crammed around a too-small table. A decent dining-room table, such as the soft-edged oak Ercol Teramo, can anchor a room. This model can also be extended to cater for bigger crowds and a couple of high-backed bentwood chairs will have you and your guests sitting pretty too.
Neat and tidy
Declutter your tableware
In terms of table setting, be correct but not a prig: everything should be in the right place and facing the right way but people having to wash a glass to enjoy, say, some dessert wine isn’t the end of the world. Having five glasses for each person is showy. Likewise, fish knives and salad forks have their places but use them as little as possible to get the job done.
Don’t expect invitees to bring anything
From the starters to the desserts, be sure to have all bases covered; don’t rely on your guests to stock your fridge and cupboards. But if anyone asks if there’s anything they can bring say, “Something to drink, please.” Don’t get into the poisonous realm of everybody turning up with a different pudding; everyone will love one person’s and hate someone else’s — and that’s sad to watch.
Dial back the dress code
Getting all trussed up in a suit is hopelessly formal, not to mention uncomfortable. Don’t set a prescriptive dress code but if they ask do invite people to attend in something smart and comfortable. You know your crowd: you can wear shorts or a dress in summer if you like. While any chef worth their salt should own an apron, it shouldn’t be seen at the dinner table.
Keep the drinks flowing
It’s not the end of the world to be not quite ready when guests arrive — but it is essential to make them an aperitif immediately. As you get changed they will be at least one drink ahead (important) and have the opportunity to nose through your bookshelves and records in an unguarded way (vital). Be generous. People shouldn’t need to jangle the ice in their empty glass and interrupt your repartee to request a refill. Or simply make them the first drink and then let them know where you keep the spirits and mixers.
Cater to the crowd
Don’t stand on ceremony. People mucking in by carrying certain bits and bobs to the table is an icebreaker and a good leveller. You don’t want people hovering nervously behind their chairs as if waiting for someone to sing the national anthem or say grace. Asking someone (especially someone you fancy) to chop some mint, for example, is good. Asking them to chop an onion, less so. In general, though, it’s good to get people involved.
Plates, cutlery and glassware
Crockery-wise we favour something simple and stackable. Slates belong on roofs and chopping boards are best suited to bread, cheese and cold cuts so have decent serving crockery with a lip to avoid spillage and spattering. Cutlery should match and glassware should gleam. These are small efforts but form a crucial part of a comfortable experience in which guests will feel cared for.
Laying the table
A few soft touches in the form of linen and napkins will create a comfortable dining environment, while a carafe and a few ceramic bowls and cups will add texture and tactility to your place settings. A white tablecloth is all good but a worn wooden dining table or gingham cloth are fine by us too.
Keep it snappy
Avoid overdoing the number of courses
Assume that your guests will arrive a little hungry and thus don’t keep them waiting long to eat: half an hour after everyone arrives is a good rule of thumb. Likewise, keep the spaces between courses short enough for guests to anticipate the next round without passing out before it arrives. A nibble, starter, main and choice of pudding is easy enough. Try not to drag things out with protracted courses and extras.
Plating up for your guests is a pain and your dishes are likely to cool as you’re doing it. Let people serve themselves from large bowls and platters to avoid doling out portions that people won’t finish. And don’t skimp on the sauces and sundries: little things, such as condiments to complement your dishes, can add profoundly to proceedings.
Cocktails should be simple but strong
Cocktail-making can be a time-consuming distraction so we’d recommend sticking to a handful of time-tested options (and making them strong). An Aperol Spritz or pokey negroni are excellent summer sippers, while an old fashioned, martini or French 75 are year-round staples. Don’t get drawn into the world of egg whites, sweet-and-creamy liqueurs or imported and unheard-of spirits.
Set the tone with leading lights
It’s an abused term but the room’s ambience should be considered closely. Natural light and a few understated flowers show care and attention, while a flattering evening light that dims (but not so much as to obscure your starters) is also worth perfecting.
Put a cork in it
Don’t let the wine do the talking
The pleasure of a crisp glass of white or punchy red can be diminished by excessive analysis or tedious highfalutin’ discussion (the people who know the least about wine often talk the most about it). Take your wine shop’s advice on pairings and know what you’re serving but don’t bore people to death with the minutiae of its terroir or tasting notes. As before, we’d suggest being generous without being showy. One decent red, a white and maybe a rosé (if the sun’s shining) will be more than enough.
Music makes people come together
Parlour games are usually a poor choice so instead select some music and let that buoy the mood. Start with something that’s relaxing and unobtrusive but quickens as the evening passes. Don’t be too formal in introducing it but a post-dinner boogie can be a fun way to work off supper.
Bring things to a graceful conclusion
So you’ve drained the bottles, licked clean the plates and shown your guests to the door. Now get them out of it. Don’t allow people to drag out the goodbyes, be assertive with the stragglers and direct with the dawdlers. Do pop away the perishables, but leave the washing up until the morning. Don’t be ashamed to take tomorrow night off and tuck-in to a takeaway.
- Extract reprinted with permission from The Monocle Guide to Drinking and Dining.
Gestalten, £40 from monocle.com