Dinner Party Ideas
If your dinner party has a theme, plan your decorations to match, natch. Beyond that, decide how many guests you want to invite. Only own a table for four? No worries. Borrow, rent or buy a big folding table, or set up concrete blocks on the floor and top with plywood — just add tablecloth. No tablecloth? Get one — and a set of cloth napkins while you're at it — cheap from a thrift store or flea market, or buy material from a fabric store and cut to size with pinking shears. If you're short on chairs, make your party BYOC and ask guests to bring their own! Or circumvent any seating shortages by throwing a big blanket in the middle of your living room and hosting an indoor picnic. (Just let people know if they'll be sitting on the floor so they can plan their attire accordingly.)
If you go with flowers for your centerpiece, skip the super-scented sort (no lilies or freesia, please) so they don't interfere with the flavors of your meal. Likewise, keep them low so guests don't need a machete to see across the table. Instead of huge, expensive bouquets, march juice glasses, shot glasses or teacups with just one bloom in each down the middle of the table. To keep costs down even more, cut flowers, branches or even large plant leaves from your yard, fill a small vase with fresh herbs left over from your cooking, or set out a bowl of seasonal fruit.
Finally, keep in mind that nothing kills the ambiance of an intimate dinner like too-bright lighting. If you have a dimmer, use it, and if you don't, cut the overheads and turn on lamps and light candles. A grouping of votives doubles as a pretty centerpiece; add more on windowsills and side tables for even greater glow power. Candlesticks and/or candelabra can also be lovely so long as they're not blocking guests' views. You could even set the mood before guests set foot inside your door with luminaria lining your walk.
First, there's the matter of how to properly set the table. The basic setup is thus: Napkin in the center of the dinner plate, forks to the left, knives and soup spoons (if necessary) to the right, water glass over the knife and wine glass to the right of that. Guests eat the first course with the outermost silverware — typically a salad fork or soup spoon, which get removed after that course — and then work their way inward, so set the table accordingly. Dessert is served separately once the table is cleared, and dessert forks and/or spoons are brought out then along with dessert plates or bowls. You may even want to have guests retire to the living room and eat their sweets there.
If you're hosting a formal sit-down, consider place cards. Although they may seem a little stuffy at first, they serve a purpose: No one has to ask where they should sit, and since you seat those you think will have the most to chat about next to each other, your guests should enjoy a more entertaining evening. If you do use place cards, alternate men and women and split up couples; that way, they can't get cliquey and they'll have more to compare notes on later. Finally, to help new friends get acquainted, print place cards with guests' names on both sides.
If you prefer a casual buffet to a sit-down affair, be our guest. In this case, use place cards to identify each dish on the buffet table, particularly if anyone you've invited has certain dietary restrictions, and indicate the flavor of the gathering in your invitation so guests can dress accordingly.
Speaking of, dress for dinner. For all but the most casual early-evening suppers, a dinner party calls for something slightly refined; in other words, best to avoid T-shirts, jeans and sneakers.
Eating is the prime-time activity at any dinner party, which is what makes dinner parties so delightful — first, you have a primary primal obligation to sit still and consume the free food that's been lovingly prepared for you, and second, that obligation takes the pressure off mixing and mingling from get-go to goodbye. But that doesn't mean the evening has to be strictly dinner and polite conversation. For example, you might throw a murder mystery dinner, incorporate a wine-pairing lesson with each course or ask guests to go around the table sharing their own fantasy dinner party guest list.
For a game group, make up an unlikely sentence ("Telly Savalas had a phobia of escalators," say, or "The ancient Egyptians made sunscreen out of dried camel dung"), write it on a scrap of paper, then stick them all in a hat and have each guest pull one out before dinner. During the evening, challenge guests to slip their sentence into the conversation without being called out (with the caveat that the originator of the sentence keeps mum).
Food takes center stage at a dinner party. But that doesn't mean you have to slave away for days preparing a five-course meal. Start with simple hors d'oeuvres like olives, nuts, cheeses, a thinly sliced baguette and/or grapes or sliced fruit. For the main event, think make-ahead with one-dish meals you can assemble and leave to cook (or in some cases prepare in advance), like a roast, pasta, casserole, paella, chili or hearty soup. You could even call in takeout and transfer delivered dishes to your own serving bowls — shh! Add a simple salad starter and ice cream with jam that's been simmered into a sauce and bam, dinner is done.
If you aim to impress, add one showy dish — mixed greens studded with edible flowers, shaved truffles over fettuccine, baked Alaska or bananas Foster. For extra flourish, snip some parsley or chives to sprinkle on your main dish, and garnish your dessert plates with a curlicue, courtesy of a quick squeeze of chocolate syrup. Just don't bite off more than you can chew: Cooking for a crowd demands time and timing, so keep your sanity intact by keeping the number and complexity of dishes manageable.
When planning your menu, take a cue from your table. Lounging cross-legged at a coffee table or makeshift low table? Consider a Japanese or Moroccan menu. Spreading out a picnic blanket? Serve roast chicken and potato salad. Setting a banquet table glittering with crystal and silver? Go fancy and French.
For a twist on the typical vino, switch up the same ol' shiraz for a more festive sangria. You can also make a non-alcoholic version by replacing the wine with grape juice and skipping the triple sec.
Sangria (serves 8)
- 2 oranges, sliced thinly
- 2 lemons, sliced thinly
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- 1/2 cup triple sec
- 2 bottles cheap red wine
- ice cubes
Muddle the fruit with the sugar in a punch bowl (or two pitchers) using a wooden spoon to release some of the fruit juices and dissolve the sugar. Stir in orange juice, triple sec and wine. Refrigerate for at least two hours but no longer than overnight. Serve over ice.