How to Throw a Dinner Party

Don't stress! Follow our planning tips and recipe suggestions then sit back and enjoy your guests.
Entertaining Guide Dinner Parties

Even at its simplest, a dinner party involves theater; it’s a performance of sorts, and you’re the director. Use ambiance — the quality that sets the tone for the evening — to guide your guests’ improv. Will it be a roll-up-your-sleeves BBQ, or a semi-formal evening in Paris? Fancy sandwiches and poker, or a glittering Oscar-watching fete? Before the first invite goes out, start setting the stage.

Filling seats
There’s no dinner party without guests, but there are myriad ways to invite them. Your choice of invitation, and even wording, tells your guests what to expect. If you’re hosting close friends for an intimate evening, pick up the phone. Looking for a more formal tone? Old-school paper invitations do the trick. For something in between, there are dozens of Internet invitation sites to choose from.

Stage design
Dinner-party décor is more than just setting the table — gussy up everything from your living room (flickering votives on the mantle, fresh flowers on the end table) to your bathroom (neatly displayed guest towels, softly scented candle).

As for the table, let your menu inspire you. For a party reflecting recent travels, “Use those postcards you bought but never sent for place cards,” says Valerie Peterson, author of Peterson’s Happy Hour: Spirited Cocktails and Helpful Hints to Brighten Daily Life. "Or turn a well-used street map into a table runner.” Avoid disposables, unless you’re hosting a ticky-tacky-tiki-themed dinner. Use cloth table linens, real dishes — the good china, why not? — and real stemware. Don’t be afraid to mix patterns, as long as the colors coordinate. Do place candles on the table, since everyone looks better in candlelight. As for the centerpiece, it might be as lavish as a drop-dead floral arrangement or as rustic as a half-dozen shiny apples in a bowl.

The soundtrack
Well in advance, compile a playlist of songs that fit the evening’s mood. If you’ve got the time (and the inclination), you can begin with an upbeat series for the cocktail hour, a quieter roster for dinner itself, and something lively for dessert and post-dinner chitchat. Too much trouble? Keep everything mid-tempo and you’ll be just fine. Make sure you’ve got at least an hour’s more music than you think you’ll need, and set the volume relatively low during dinner to allow for conversation.

Warm-up act
When it comes to drinks, your options are seemingly endless. You might pair wines with each course, offer a full bar, or mix up a pitcher of one signature aperitif. “Start the evening with a tasty, thematic cocktail,” Peterson suggests. “Mai Tais evoke Maui, and Rum Swizzles bring to mind Bermuda. Or add the colors of a foreign flag to drinks with ‘Berry Pretty’ ice cubes: drop blueberries and strawberry slices into an ice cube tray for France, or mint and raspberries for Italy. Add water to barely cover fruit and freeze until solid.”

Special effects
The main activities at a dinner party are eating, drinking and talking. But in case some ice needs breaking, stash a trick or two up your sleeve. Before the party, skim a website like BoingBoing or the Huffington Post for interesting news nuggets (you might want to stay away from politics). If an awkward silence descends upon the table, kick up a conversational game like Two Truths and a Lie: each person at the table shares three things about themselves. Two are true and one isn’t, and it’s up to the other guests to figure out which is which. When dinner’s over, adjourn to another room for coffee, dessert and a classic party game (think charades).

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