Friday, 28 June 2013

How to Have a Dinner Party

The dinner party is one of the great joys of adult life, combining food, wine, conversation, interior decoration, table manners and ritual. Unlike other parties, it has a clear beginning, a middle and an end, and many rules to keep it civilized. Nobody's house was ever totaled by a flash mob during a dinner party. A sit-down dinner is very much invitation-only and mentioned on Facebook only after the fact.


I had my first dinner parties while living in my parents' house alongside four siblings. I was an undergraduate, and I managed these parties with the permission and collusion of my parents, of course. The trick is to always, from the time you first wield a pot and spoon, leave the kitchen cleaner than you found it. And the other trick is to arrange with your mother that the rest of the family will eat their dinner two hours before you and your guests eat yours and then vanish to other parts of the house or to the movies.

You know your household politics best. In my case, as my mother owned all the china, crystal, silver and linen, I asked her permission regarding anything actually valuable and practically irreplaceable. I also, I should hasten to add, only invited such guests as I thought would have table manners up to the preservation of the china, crystal, silver and linen. If that sounds uncomfortably urban and snobby to you, then I suggest that instead of having a formal dinner party you have a barbeque or picnic instead.

I seem to recall that my mother funded these dinner parties, buying my ingredients along with the family shopping. That was quite generous, but she might have thought of it as a sort of educational cost, like those involved in piano lessons.

If you do not live with your parents, you must consult your flatmates, if you have any, about your dinner parties, and if your flatmates are friends, invite them at once.


You can have a dinner party for any reason you like, but if it is really so that you can invite handsome men, you must come up with an alternative plausible explanation, like your birthday or the feast day of a favourite saint. When you are well advanced in dinner party having, you can have a dinner party simply to introduce a new person to your social circle.


As exciting and amusing as it would be to invite only male guests, this amusing excitement is not allowed to unmarried women. Traditionally the hostess puzzles over a guest list with great thought and with an eye to having equal numbers of men and women, if possible. And because the very essence of the dinner party is adulthood, children are not allowed. If there are children in your social set, they should be fed at six and packed off to bed or to granny's. Otherwise, you do not have a dinner party but a Family Supper, which is an entirely different beast altogether.

Only when you are no longer economically dependent on your parents, may you invite your parents to your dinner party. Let there be no confusion here: the hostess must be--in the most charming and gracious way--the boss.

Invite only as many guests as you can fit around your table. If you don't have a dining-room, consider setting up a table in your sitting-room. I can fit fifteen people in my sitting-room, but it is a bit of a squash. The traditional number of dinner party guests seems to be eight. Our dining-room can accommodate eight, but we have twice squashed in eleven.


For this I recommend the phone. Yes, you can send printed invitations, but you will still want to confirm by phone. I seem to recall loving the whole invitation thing when I was 21, but now I think they are a bit naff and really the sophisticated thing to do is call people up or have a word with them after Mass or send them a text.

The essentials to the invitation are where and when and theme, if there is one.  If you want your male guests to wear jackets and ties, say so briefly. In Edinburgh, people state when they want people to start drifting in and when they must be there. This is generally phrased as "Seven-thirty for eight," which means nobody should arrive before seven-thirty or after eight.

That said, arriving late is vastly superior than not arriving at all. It is a terrible social crime to accept a dinner party invitation and not then not go, unless you have ended up in hospital or died.

Food and Drink

When B.A. and I go shopping for a dinner party, we chant down the order of the meal while staring down into the depths of our trolley to see if we have everything.

First, there is "cocktails", which just means what our guests eat and drink before dinner is served. This could mean hors d'oeuvres, but in our case it usually just means crisps (chips), plus whatever cocktail we can afford. That could be gin-and-tonic.That could be rum punch. Currently it's just cava (a sort of fake champagne).

Second, there is the first course. This is often soup with good bread or biscuits (crackers). But it could also be salmon mousse or páté or guacamole or prawn cocktail or mussels or a particularly luxurious and exciting salad, like B.A.'s tomato-avocado-prawn-lime juice concoction. This goes with sherry or white wine.

Third, there is the main course. This is fish, game, fowl or meat with potatoes or rice and two vegetables, at least one of which will be green. On Fridays or on behalf of vegetarians, you could do something exciting with aubergines (eggplants), mozzarella and pasta. The main course goes with either white wine or red wine, depending on what it is.

Fourth, there is pudding. "Pudding" is just one of the British words for "dessert." Incidentally, the UK's outrageous and complicated class system still lingers on in what people call meals and foods and courses and rooms and whatnot. The best course of action is just to muddle them up and not  care--unless, of course, you have the misfortune to fall into conversation with a disgruntled Scots class warrior, in which case you have to cudgel your memory for words used by factory hands. Pudding goes with sweet wine.

Fifth, there is coffee. Even at 10 or 11 PM, guests may want coffee. Give it to them with chocolates. It is polite to ask if anyone would prefer tea.

Sixth, there is savoury or simply what B.A. and I call "cheese." Cheese is served with port, and it is at this moment that--depending largely on the politics of the company present--I get up in my Downton Abbey way and swoop all the women away to the sitting-room, leaving B.A. in charge of the men.

I don't think you can do this  disappearing act if you are Single, unless you have a brother there who is willing to play host to the men. And I am not sure you can get away with this in any country but the UK at all.

Meanwhile even British Marxists find it very odd, so I do this only when Young Fogeys, who love it, vastly outnumber the Socialists. The most important thing, when you are a hostess, is making your guests feel comfortable and cared for.

In addition to all this food and drink, we provide water and try desperately to remember to make ice cubes.


Most of our friends are allergic or adverse to something, and we plan accordingly. If you invite a vegetarian, you can make everyone go veg--most acceptable on a Friday--or you can simply make them something different. Roasted portobello mushrooms are quick, easy and delicious.


I know, how shocking. To get the subject over with, smokers may not smoke until after pudding. And they may smoke indoors only with permission of the hostess. And they may go outside to smoke only with permission of the hostess. If they can manage not to smoke or run away to smoke until the port comes out, that would be fantastic.

A good hostess always gives a smoker permission to step outside for a smoke. I suppose she might ask him or her to delay this disappearance for some very good reason, like an imminent toast.

Where to Put Guests

When your guests arrive, you greet them, ask if you may take their coats and invite them into the sitting-room. Introduce them around, and ask them if they would like wine, your chosen cocktail du jour or water. Put their coat in the appointed cloakroom and get their drink. Hopefully the hors d'oeuvres or crisps are already in the sitting-room.

If the dining table is not in the sitting-room, lead guests to the dining room when most of them have finished their drink and the first course is ready. Their cocktail glasses may double as water glasses.

There is a tremendous social science to placement, but here are only some basic rules:

1. The male guest of honour goes to the right of the hostess and the female guest of honour goes to the right of the host (if there is one). Unless there is an official guest of honour or a priest present, the guests of honour are the eldest people present and should be served first. If you are all about the same age, the hostess may ask the best-looking men to sit on either side of her. She shouldn't say it like that, though, or pull this trick at every dinner party.

2. Try to sit every man between two women and (obviously) vice versa. At big dinner parties, people are expected to alternate between speaking to their left-hand neighbour and their right-hand neighbour.

3. Married couples may not sit next to each other after their first wedding anniversary. After a year, they really do want a socially-enforced excuse to talk to other members of the opposite sex at dinner. But before that, it's slightly cruel to separate them. It is also cruel to separate engaged people, so don't do that either.

If you whisk the ladies away to the sitting-room when the port comes out, the men are expected to rejoin you. Sometimes the men show a terrible reluctance to do this. Actually, I suggest you skip this Downton Abbey stuff until you have had many dinner parties and are an old dinner party hand.

Ending the Party

If you live with your parents or housemates, this is easily done. Your parents or housemates will have told you "Eleven" or "Twelve" and at ten to eleven or at ten to twelve, you will inform your guests of this sad (but secretly useful) limit.

In the USA, I believe, dinner parties end shortly after coffee. Indeed, some hostesses delay serving coffee until they want to hint to their guests that it is time to go. However, in my UK circle, coffee is merely a necessary drug to perk guests up enough to enjoy their cheese and port. Thus, the only real arbiter of leave-taking is The Last Bus.

I'd love to say that another arbiter was sleepiness, but occasionally one or two of my dinner guests just fall asleep in their postprandial armchairs and then, upon waking, have another drink. But I cannot throw stones, for I fell asleep at someone's dinner party on Tuesday, and very funny I must have looked, too.

Washing Up

If you live with your parents, you must finish it before you go to bed. Alas. The kitchen and dining- room and sitting-room must be spotless, woe.

Otherwise, I recommend at least rinsing everything under the tap as you go, and stacking it neatly for the next morning, or put it in the dishwasher, if you have one.

At formal dinner parties, your guests should really not be expected or encouraged to help you wash the dishes, unless it is the only way you can think of to rescue one guest from the unwanted attentions of another or some similar social emergency.

Thank you notes

Guests are supposed to call, email or send you a note by post to thank you for your dinner party, but they rarely do unless/until they have a dinner party and discover that their friends do. If you are an influential married lady, you can advise young men to send thanks, but before you are, you really can't. The most you can do is send thank you notes yourself. I do because one of my friends is absolutely punctilious about this and so set a fashion.

And with that, I must now go and write two.

Update: It just occurred to me that that is a lot of alcohol. You do not have to serve alcohol at every or at any course although I cannot imagine a dinner party in the UK that did not feature any alcohol. Just because it is there doesn't mean you have to drink it. Part of social life is managing your alcohol intake, and of course how much you can drink and still be a pleasant, reasonable, witty person changes from person to person.


Bernadette said...

I started having Dinner Parties almost a year ago, because I wanted to have a social event where I could actually talk to all my guests. They've been a lot of fun. However, I do sometimes run into logistical issues, since I am both hosting and cooking. It's hard to entertain people and get the party started while at the same time running back to the kitchen to tend the stove. That's when I start wishing I had a partner in crime to help manage that part of things.

Seraphic said...


Elisabeth said...

Or plan a hostess-friendly meal - one of my favorite ploys, as a single woman who loves having dinner parties, is to provide something that requires carving, or cleaving, or something manly like that, and have everyone serve themselves buffet-style. This gives the men something to do, the women something to be admiring about, and the children something to clamor for ("Lovely meal! My goodness, Fr. Whatsit, you do know how to cleave a chicken, what would we do without you?! No, you may not have only white meat!). Being fierce to older children who are being allowed to attend (older child = 14 to 18) also allows the hostess opportunities to remind the whole party who is in charge!

Jam said...

Bernadette, this might not be a very practical suggestion, but your question is a good excuse to hunt down some mid-century (1950s) etiquette/entertaining books. The problem of being both cook and hostess was at the forefront of housewife problems at the time (much like "weeknight meals" might be today). One book at least used the term "Mrs Three-in-One" to describe the protagonist's dilemma: she was supposed to be the hostess, cook, and waitress: formerly three jobs! Anyway, it would make for some light-hearted research. As I recall, the vintage solutions include using oven-to-tableware (then a new kind of product); choosing recipes wisely; and not trying to pretend that you're not needed in the kitchen. (There's an article in a design journal on this subject; I only remember it uses the "Mrs Three-in-one" tag in the title.)

Seraphic, any tips for studio-dwellers (bed-sits)? Previously of course my bedroom door was firmly closed when there were male guests in the apartment but now my bedroom is also, in the other corner, my living room. Is it inappropriate to have mixed parties there?

I love this guide!

Lena said...

I love this post.

Bernadette said...

Careful planning can help with the challenge of wearing too many hats quite a bit, but it doesn't eliminate the problem. I've got several mid-century cookbooks that claim to solve the problem of having to run back to the kitchen to stir things while your guests sit around. Even the Immortal Mrs. Child talks about it. But even those assume the presence of a Partner In Crime to keep topping up the aperitif glasses. Also, a lot of those recipes seem to rely heavily on canned cream soups and other things I don't allow in my kitchen. Not, of course, the ones from Mrs. Child, but then her recipes often have other logistical issues (i.e. her recipe for roast duck that is supposedly hostess-friendly, but still involves multiple cooking stages, and specialized equipment).

Anyway, my best solution so far, like Seraphic said, has been to draft one or more of my sisters (I have several) or best girl friends to act as temporary hostesses while I mash the potatoes, or get the second course ready to go on or whatever.

Sheila said...

The Joy of Cooking recommends hiring a maid for your parties, and if you don't have one, obtaining a teenager from a friend. If you can't do that, the authoress recommends trays and carts to make carrying-out easier. But there is much, much to be said for the sort of meal that is prepared some time in advance and all sits in the oven, on the stove, and in the crockpot for you to just go and fetch the dish you want when you want it.