How to Host a Dinner Party

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

No matter the season or occasion, at the heart of exquisite entertainment is simplicity. The illusion of effortlessness is what sets the table for guests to enjoy the evening—untroubled and inspired.

All preparation should be complete long before guests arrive—the table set and candles lit—and you as the host should be prepared to be the evening’s guiding undercurrent. Remember these rules as you host dinner guests in your home.

1. Keep the menu simple, but balanced

Entertaining is not the time to try a new recipe. Unless you have enough lead time to really master a new one, stick to tried and true. Keep the menu simple and serve what you know how to prepare well.

My personal favorite is herb-crusted chicken, crispy Brussels sprouts, and arugula topped with lemon juice and olive oil. Don’t forget a plate of olives, mustard, cheese, honey, and crusty bread. Always balance sweet with acid, heavy with bright, starch with green.

Two types of alcohol is enough. A good wine on the table and accoutrement on a bar cart, for example, and let guests mix their own.

2. Set the table, forget the decorations

Your menu—light or otherwise—paired with simple, well-manicured table settings should do the decorating for you. If you do choose to include decorations specifically for the party, stick to simple classics—a few candles and flowers placed discerningly on the table will suffice.

Choose simple, mood-setting music set softly in the background, away from where guests can interfere. I hide speakers in the living room credenza to keep sound nearby but unobtrusive.

3. Know when to step back

What goes on behind the scenes should stay there. No one needs to see food prep or clean up, your stressing about lack of flavor or salt, or questioning whether your guests are enjoying themselves. If you relax, so will your guests.

Remember that as the host, you set the temperature for the evening. Always enjoy the drinks, always enjoy the food. And if you’re responsible for a misstep, brush it off and laugh. If it’s one of your guests, absorb the embarrassment, and laugh that off too.

4. Don’t cordon off the kitchen

Even if you don’t have an open floor plan, make the guests welcome in the kitchen. For most, the kitchen is the sanctuary for conversation and congregation, and a natural jumping off point for those who may be newer to your guest list.

Put the bar table or hors d’oeuvres on a clean countertop or table and let guests pass through as they please.

5. Let your guests close the night

Invite guests for seven o’clock in the evening, and leave the night open-ended. The right guests will never outstay their welcome—and the ones who do receive no return invitation.

Make sure you have enough wine to last through dinner and then some, and keep the coffee or digestif (like sherry or cognac) nearby. The best dinner parties run long, with old stories shared over twice-filled coffee cups and warmed brandy.

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