How to plan a dinner party

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Throwing a successful dinner party is all about degrees of sophistication. I once had the privilege of spending time with the Lord Chamberlain of the Thai royal family, Khun Kwankeo Vajarodaya, who literally wrote the book on the subject and gave me an autographed copy.  But whether your guests are heads of state and foreign nobility – or just a bunch of old friends from high school – there are a few common rules for throwing a dinner party that will be enjoyed, remembered, and talked about for months afterward.

Planning ahead

Quite possibly the best dinner party host in the fictional world was Bree Van de camp of Desperate Housewives, who attained perfection at every occasion with a menu to die for and always something wonderful and home-made for dessert. The fictional host was famous for her crème brulee (which is fun to make because you get to use a small blowtorch in the kitchen). Bree was, above all else, a good planner.

Start a week out with invitations and menu planning. Dinner doesn’t have to be exotic, but it should be something memorable and with a unified theme. Coq au vin for example, is not that hard to make – and again, is fun because the number one rule of cooking coq au vin is to drink red wine while you’re cooking. If that’s the main dish, then you have a French theme that should guide the meal (include some baguettes for the table).

“What should I bring?”

Your guests, if they are polite, will ask you what they should bring. Unless you’re planning a potluck in your church basement, the answer should always be “You don’t need to bring anything.” If they insist, suggest something basic. If you rely on guests to bring main dishes, you will end up with a table full of broccoli casserole made with salty mushroom soup from a can, and all of your menu planning will go out the window. Suggest they bring a bottle of wine, a cheese tray or charcuterie, or some antipasti to share before dinner is served.

Small but elegant details

I know, it’s tempting to set out a stack of paper plates and plastic cups, but please, resist that temptation and leave those things for the backyard barbeque. Invest in a dozen or so nice wine glasses. It doesn’t have to be Waterford crystal, but there’s something elegant and satisfying about holding an actual wine glass in your hand at a dinner party, even if it’s a wine glass you bought on sale in Macy’s basement. Sure, you’ll have more dishes to wash, but it will be worth it, and your guests won’t forget.

Getting social

Make sure your guests are comfortable. Another thing I noticed about being around the aristocracy, is that even when servants are not present, they will take a personal hand in attending to small things that might otherwise go overlooked. See someone holding an empty glass? Offer them a refill. Take time to mingle among your guests and chat with everyone there.

Hide the heavy metal CDs

Everybody has that one friend who will immediately go for your stereo, put on the most annoying music from the ’80s and crank up the volume. If you must invite that friend, gently steer them away from the music. Like the menu, plan your music ahead of time. Keep the volume low enough so people can talk without having to shout above Johnny Rotten singing “God Save the Queen.”

Before dinner

We’ve all been to that party where everyone sits around before dinner with nothing to do. Don’t have that sort of party. Set out a separate table with some before-dinner snacks and small plates. This is where you would put that nice tray of charcuterie your thoughtful guest brought, but also plan on stocking this before-dinner table yourself as well with a few other items. To make it memorable, forego the traditional bag of potato chips and instead whip up a tray of mini crab cakes, some sliced pita with hummus arranged nicely on a glass tray, and a wheel of brie.

After dinner

If it’s a larger party, it’s likely that your guests will break off into smaller groups for conversation. Mingle among all of those groups, and make sure that your home has comfortable areas to gather in multiple areas – you might have a group talking politics in the sun room, a bunch of people reminiscing about high school in the living room, and another group standing in front of your bar (yes, you should set up a bar) and talking about the merits of single-malt Scotch.

Raising the bar

I’m talking about the literal bar here. You can have an in-home bar for not too much money. Put a few bar stools in front of it, and stock it with enough liquor to make at least a few cocktails – a martini, a margarita, or a Moscow mule, and of course, a good bottle of single-malt Scotch. You don’t have to be an expert bartender, but take a little time to learn at least a few good cocktail recipes. I guarantee this little area will be one of the most popular areas for gathering after dinner is over!

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