How to Host a Rad Dinner Party For Friends

*this post was originally published at So She Slays

Just in time for the holidays, today I’ve got “The Millennial’s Guide to Entertaining” for you.

There’s nothing quite so special as sharing a meal with friends or family.  Whether it’s a casual mid-week shindig, or a “let’s lose track of the time together” affair on the weekend, the act of breaking bread together is deeply woven into our social fabric as human beings.  Brunch.  Lunch.  Pizza + beer.  Taco Tuesday.  There are many occasions to celebrate many things, including simply to make every day special because every day is special.  Whatever the occasion, the ritual of purposefully gathering at the table is cherished timelessly. 

Actually hosting a dinner party, however, has become a lost art.  Somewhere between trays of canapés and deviled eggs, elaborate multi-course meals, and the convenience of takeout, we lost the sense of inviting people into our homes and welcoming them to stay, to just be – without asking them to bring their own dinner and drinks, potluck style.  For me, hosting has always been an incredibly pleasurable hobby, and I know very well that I am a minority here though.  Many  have little inclination to host a dinner for fear of failure, pressure, cost, and generally not knowing what to do, or how to do it.  So here’s a handy little “How To” that should demystify the lost art of hosting.

Why do we love going to restaurants?  Because they have deep fryers.  Obviously.  But also because of all the thought, all the intention, all of the detail that’s gone into making you feel welcome.  Restaurants that don’t do this are either charmingly ironic (think of your favourite dive bar and unabashedly grumpy greasy spoon), or they don’t get your business. 

We don’t really go out to eat, we go out to experience.  To invoke, then capture a feeling.  To have the sense that even if only for an hour and a half, our lifestyle is one that feels good and balanced and strikes a chord way deep down for us in all the right ways.  The Dutch call this feeling Gezellig, the Swedes have dominated Instagram pop culture with Hygge.  It’s all the same – we want that feeling that is unique to each of us and our bespoke contexts, and is what just feels right.

An environment that truly welcomes your guests and makes them feel at ease is what you’re aiming for.   And you know how this is most easily achieved?  When YOU yourself feel at ease.  This is why entertaining becomes so easy and fun if you let it, because it gives you the creative opportunity to just be you, and communicate that through your home and food.

Consider the three things that will affect your overall evening, and plan from there:

1. The People: six is a perfect number, including you.  It’s big enough to spark conversation across the table, and small enough to allow everyone to participate.   It’s an intimate gathering that will feel just rowdy enough.  Think of who will play well with others: is there a friend who needs a bit of coaxing to come out of her shell?  Balance out that energy with someone more confident or outgoing.  Are there people who you know will connect well but have never met?  This is the time to introduce them.  Are your friends singles or couples?  Invite a mixture; often couples get pigeonholed into only ever hanging out with other couples, and singles get forgotten.  The bottom line is people connect with people, so invite guests who you know will bring out the best in each other, and simply love to be a part of that great warmth that comes from just being together and laughing. 

Don’t ask anyone to bring anything: just allow them to come and be.  Conversely, when you are attending as a guest, never ask, but always bring something.  It might be something to drink (dark rum, sparkling water that is fancier than your average bear), it might be a cool and thoughtful gift (graphic tea towel, great olive oil, succulent in awesome planter, paper straws, and novelty napkins, the best jam with a spoon to it), but bring something.  This is part of the lost art, knowing how to be a guest, and received as such. 

2. The Ambience: very simply, channel your favourite restaurant.  Put together a playlist of music that you love and is simultaneously easy to tune out, dim the lights, light as many tea lights in short mason jars or glass cups as is possible, and have fresh flowers at the ready.  White, white, white.  White plates, white napkins, white candles…keep it so incredibly simple and welcoming that it just feels good to be there, and is almost literally effortless to pull together.  It’s when you really start trying, that it ironically starts to fall apart.

Embrace the concept of the kitchen party.  Don’t fight it.  People always want to be in the kitchen, so let them stay there.  I used to have a formal dining room that I would, on occasion, try to corral people to sitting in, and it changed the energy and the dynamic entirely.  Let you be you, and your friends be them, and get cozy with people gathered around, sipping and laughing while you work your magic. 

3.  The Menu: sometimes this is the most intimidating part for some, and it really needn’t be.  You don’t have to be a great cook to pull off a great dinner, because of all the other social factors involved.  If you always come back to creating that feeling of warmth and welcome, it kinda doesn’t matter what you’re eating, as long as you’re eating together; the feeling is already there.  That said, the simplest way to absolutely slay a menu for six people is having a theme. 

If you pick a baseline theme it will anchor your focus and keep you on track.  It also helps create intangible ambiance for your guests, who immediately now feel that they’re a part of something bigger.  The best go to’s are Italian, Mexican, 50’s, and my (and my friends’) all-time fave, Pizza + Prosecco. No matter what you choose as your theme, the formula remains the same:

      • open with a cocktail and easy apps
      • follow with food that can in large part be prepped in advance of your guests’ arrival, then easily executed while they’re in the kitchen with you
      • finish with a hellishly simple dessert

Say you’re going Italian: open the evening with a pre-made pitcher of Negronis, and have that ready to greet your people over a cutting board full of three to five different antipasti (olives, cured meats, breadsticks, parmesan shavings, artichokes, roasted mushrooms or almonds…).  Move to wine for the main course, which is a rich bolognese sauce that’s been simmering for the day, over pasta, beside a great salad and garlic bread.  That’s a very simple execution, even while drinking and talking.  Finish with the stupidly easy Affogato (a shot of espresso over vanilla ice cream), or even better and equally easy, Sgroppino, a shot of champagne over lemon gelato, and you’ve had a low stress, easy to execute, deliciously fun evening.

Pizza + Prosecco is a spin-off of Italian, and requires slightly more engagement from you, but always feels casual and interactive and perfect for every single Friday night.  Choose three pizzas you want to make, prep all the ingredients in advance.  Start with – you know it – prosecco, and add bruschetta with garlic toast, maybe an artichoke or white bean spread, and more olives, slices of salami baked till crispy, and topped with fig jam.  The trickier part is rolling out the dough, three times over, but it’s so fun to do so while everyone is gathered around…especially if your confidence level is 100 and you start tossing the dough!  Bake off one at a time, and as you’re cutting one pie, fire the next one in the oven.  As I say, it’s not the easiest for a newbie host, but is an awesome and easier than you think party that is guaranteed to make your house the hot spot on the block.

Mexican?  Sub in a pitcher of Palomas with chips, fresh guacamole and salsa, and raw jicama sticks sprinkled with Tajin (dehydrated lime salt found in “ethnic” aisles at urban grocery stores).  Your main can be shredded chicken or pork that’s been cooking down all day, served on warmed corn tortillas with avocado and shredded cabbage, and a corn / red pepper / feta salad on the side, with icy blonde Modelos or Tecates to wash it down.  Depending on the season, you could finish with either Mayan hot chocolate (cocoa with chile and cinnamon) or cubes of watermelon with lime and mint.

50’s?  Lean in with a pitcher of Cuba Libres alongside a pickle tray, chips and olive or crab dip, and move your main into something ultra comforting and nostalgic, like mac and cheese (throw a tin of lobster in if you are feeling fancy), shepherd’s pie, basically any casserole with cream of mushroom soup and comfort, and for dessert do something ultra playful like a cake (because, cake) or a make your own sundae bar.  It will tug at the inner child and make people feel so comforted and welcome that they’ll just be at ease and relaxed and impressed as hell.

Remember that the point is bringing people together, not to be perfect.  There is a beautiful ritual in gathering that doesn’t necessitate formality, but does invite a nod to the past and to our human connection.  Above all it invites that gorgeous high you get from being with your tribe, and loving them fiercely exactly as they are.  And the pasta doesn’t hurt. 

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