Summer is party time in my book. Throwing the backyard BBQ, beach blanket gathering or casual bocce bash is easy queasy, but what about the fancy dinner party? That can seem daunting if you don’t have a game plan. Here are some tips to get you started: first the guest list. I always imagine the conversation and then plug in the players. It is a bit like match-making — close your eyes and visualize who you are thinking of including. Minimum pause in conversation is desirable, good spirited debate is lovely, but preachy soapbox? Save that invite for the beach or backyard. Pick a date three weeks in advance, start mentioning it to people and then send formal invites a couple of weeks prior. The invitation should be informative and interesting; by looking at it a guest should know you are having a fancy party. You may assume that people will RSVP, but people are dumb. Make it clear that they should. A useful trick is to include the menu and ask if there are any dining restrictions or depending on how adventurous a cook you are, offering a choice of vegetarian or carnivore entree.
When planning a menu start by visiting your local farmers market and write down what you see. If it is there, it’s in season. Use that list to plan. Farmers markets are also a great resource for garnishes, flowers, sweet treats to finish the meal and fun non-alcoholic beverages. If you are going to have an appetizer, consider a locally sourced cheese and charcuterie board, it can set the stage for dinner. Beyond a couple of local cheeses, items such as honeycomb, quince paste, local pickles and smoked bluefish create a memorable first impression. Remember it is there to stimulate one’s appetite, not satiate it. When planning your menu think of your guests. Steer clear of things that get stuck in your teeth or are drippy, stinky or include common allergens. I also suggest doing a test run of new recipes to be sure that you are not serving egg on face.
Once you have the menu determined, create a detailed tabletop diagram. Then start making lists. Ingredients should be broken down by store. List your serviceware needs, like platters, utensils and glassware. List your tabletop needs with everything from flowers to menu cards. It sounds a bit compulsive, but just do it. Trust me it will keep you on track and excited for the night. Once you have your entire to-do list done, check it again. Leave it by your bed, as you will inevitably think of something a nanosecond before REM sleep kicks in.
About three weeks prior to your dinner party, start to develop a play list. Nothing kills a mood faster than lousy music. If at all possible, hire a bartender. It creates a WOW factor and there is nothing like a well-made cocktail to get you in the mood for dinner. If you can’t get a bartender, put the same diligence into picking a couple of signature cocktails that you put into menu creation (and buy extra ice).
As much as you can do ahead of time DO! Of course this applies to pre-prepping as much of the food items as humanly possible. It also means deep cleaning your house a week in advance so that you can just do a refresh the night before. Hide clutter; it will make you feel better the night of — trust me on this one.
Set your table the night before. This will help you get excited and will give you time if you decide at the last minute to put out seating cards. On your table décor, give attention to details like having the menu written out on a postcard or on a decorative tag tied around a pressed napkin. Keep flowers or candles low so as not to obstruct anyone’s view. Your table can be a conversation starter — it should make people feel comfortable and engaged in the meal.
When thinking of what to wear, if you are doing the cooking think stylish comfort. Treat yourself to something new — anything from a killer pair of shoes to a bow tie to fun earrings. It is well known that wearing something new gives a host good juju.
When cooking for a group, give yourself some extra time. You will inevitably need it. Hospitality is set by the host. Stay relaxed, greet each guest and if someone offers a hand and you need it, take it. Do not get overly fussy about clean-up; nothing makes a guest feel the need to leave more than the “swiffer” making an appearance before dessert. As for dessert, keep it simple. Artisan candies, fresh berries and bite-sized pastry. A strong finish can be made via a toast with homemade limoncello during which everyone is thanked for coming and making the evening a smashing success. A memorable end and subtle cue that dinner is over.