15 Simple Dinner Party Ideas
Universal Party Truths: The first guest will arrive early. The pots and pans won't be washed. And a half-dozen folks will squeeze into the kitchen while you're still slicing and dicing. Instead of fighting the facts, finesse your game plan. With these clever tips from entertaining experts, you can keep holiday (or any-day) guests happy and occupied—and make yourself less harried, from hello to good-bye.
Let the Bar Beckon
For the smoothest entry, give arriving guests a clear destination. A cart or a small table done up with essentials (plus flowers and a kooky conversation piece) is a friendly oasis, and it frees you to scurry back to the kitchen if needed. Try to offer bar access from more than one side, to prevent traffic jams. Stock generously (chill white wine two hours in advance) so guests won't need to come looking for anything—ice, glassware, bottle opener, garnishes—but reserve some surface area for mixing drinks. Nobody wants to whip up a Manhattan in midair.
Parker Mid-Century bar cart, $349, westelm.com. Viv sparkling-wine glass, $5; Orb copper shaker, $22; Miller bowl in amber, $15; and Vineyard Pinot Noir wineglass, $20: crateandbarrel.com. Lobmeyr Patrician white-wine glass, $137, tableartonline.com.
Wander Into the Kitchen
Guests go where the action is—besides, they want to hang out with the host. Be ready with a hospitable setup.
Prop for socializing. Give over the far end of your work zone (kitchen counter or island) to appetizers, so people know exactly where they can linger without being too in-your-face.
Welcome help. Reserve certain small jobs for early birds and those who shy away from small talk. Offer the sorts of tasks you could give to an older child: setting out dishes and silverware, plating hors d'oeuvres, filling the water pitcher, trimming green beans, putting rolls in a basket, and ferrying sides to the table.
Hide signs of stress. If anything makes a guest feel guiltier than watching the host do dishes after the meal, it's watching her do them before the meal. If you're in a big rush (imagine that!), use the dishwasher as a hiding spot for dirty pots, even those you'll ultimately wash by hand.
Distribute the apps. Send flat breads, crudités, and other hors d'oeuvres that take up a lot of real estate out to the living room with a gregarious guest. Keep kitchen snacks compact so as not to crowd your busy surface. Go with the sort of low-key nibbles you would find in a classic bar: small bowls of nuts, wasabi peas, and olives. To take your nibbles up a notch, try Blue Diamond Crafted Gourmet Almonds—in Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, Rosemary and Sea Salt, Garlic, Herb and Olive Oil, or Black Truffle.
English Baguette five-piece place setting in Rumbled Silverplate, $129; and Chinese Porcelain Grand rimmed dinner plate in white, $48 for four: rh.com. Hasami dinner plate in sand, $36, canoeonline.net. Fog linen kitchen cloth in green-blue plaid, $15, John Derian Dry Goods, 212-677-8408. Mud Australia tray in Bottle, $130; and platter in Bottle, $96: shophorne.com.
Move to the Dinner Table
Spirited conversation is a dinner party's bread and butter, but sometimes it needs a nudge.
Manage moods. At holiday time, people tend to arrive hungry (and ready to indulge), so don't make them wait too long for the main event.
Make a scene. For easy ooh factor, use a white tablecloth, white dishes, and just one or two rich accent colors (say, cranberry and amber). Flowers and centerpieces should be tall enough to talk under or short enough to talk over.
A place (card) for everyone. Seating plans may seem formal, but they actually make guests more comfortable. Think about who would benefit from particular placement: small children (seat near a parent), couples (split them up to encourage mixing), and hearing-impaired guests (reserve a quiet corner chair or seat them front and center, depending on personality). Then fill in the blanks.
Set the sideboard. Turn a console into a convenient, arm's reach refilling station. Load it with wine, carafes of water, and spare utensils to eliminate supply runs.
Be present. Each time you get up to fetch something, you essentially abandon your guests. A host's primary duty isn't to feed people (really!) but to spend time with them. Serve family-style, and forget cleaning up midevent. Carrying plates to the kitchen is one thing; but once you turn on a tap, you've doused the festivity.
Welcome red-wine glass in gray (on sideboard), $15, crateandbarrel.com. Goblet water glass in amber, $20, billycotton.com. Stonewashed Belgian linen tablecloth, $89, rh.com. Spruce candelabra (on sideboard), $885, thefutureperfect.com. Tall cylindrical ceramic vase in red (similar to shown), $95, atwestend.com. Match Convivio soup and pasta bowl, $107, gracioushome.com. Pomegranate place cards, $45 for 12, mrsstrong.com. Molten pitcher, $199, michaelaram.com.
Dessert in the Living Room
Relocating for sweets and coffee lets guests stretch their legs and switch up conversation partners.
Abandon the mess. Walk away from the dinner detritus with everyone else. It makes guests feel relaxed and lets you seem chill, even if you're not.
Build a framework. Set up your dessert infrastructure—plates, napkins, forks—on a side table before the party. In the kitchen, stash a filled creamer in the fridge and have the coffeemaker ready for action. Serving only decaf saves a lot of trouble and makes most everyone happy.
Cheer at the finish line. At the holidays, Champagne after the meal is a nice surprise. It's one of those delightful little touches that people remember.
Make minis. Fend off "just a sliver" requests (and unwanted diet banter) with smallish desserts—cupcakes, brownies, or cookies—that guests can serve themselves, without comment or cajoling. (They're also a natural choice after a big feast.)
Pretreat. To really spoil guests, set out a warm-up to the dessert course—fancy chocolates or salted caramels—while you ready the baked goods. (Don't forget the desserts that guests brought!) Sweet cheeses and nuts with a dessert wine provide the right coda for the sugar-averse.
Toscana two-tier centerpiece, $790, tabulatua.com. Spheres creamer with wicker handle, $49; Domus French-press coffeepot with large wicker handle, $155; and Spheres sugar bowl with wicker handle and spoon, $55: shophorne.com. Tourron mug in lemon (similar to shown), $30, michaelcfina.com. Festival cocktail napkins in mustard, $23 for four, sferra.com.