Representational image via iStockIt is joyous to watch people have a good time and set a table for sparkling conversation and good food. I hope my guests talk about the dinner party well into the future, about the people they met, the topics they conversed about, and the food they ate. I try to provide a memorable experience.
Although you want to create a casual atmosphere for your guests, planning a dinner party is not at all casual. Entertaining is an art and needs to be orchestrated with as much precision as a set-piece military battle. To do otherwise invites chaos.
Entertaining takes many forms, but I prefer the small dinner party of six to eight. That number of people provides the critical mass. Eight is the maximum number of people who can sit at a table and listen to one person speak. They will in the course of the evening split into many different conversations.
Choosing the guest list
The first thing to decide when having a dinner party is whom to invite. That's harder than it sounds because the mix of people is a form of alchemy and the wrong choices can make for a memorable dinner party you would prefer not remembering. One of the most horrible dinner parties I attended was one with 12 people, many of whom had absolutely nothing in common, where the food was a hodgepodge of unrelated dishes, and where more than half the people smoked at the table when there were non-smokers.
Think about who you are inviting. You can invite boisterous people and reticent people, but not too many of either. A boisterous person can be fun, but sometimes if you are not careful, they can dominate the table. Too many reticent people stifle the table. Dinner parties will often draw out people's personalities. I once had a quiet chef at one of my dinner parties, and his story of how he got into the profession had us riveted. Another time, a woman not known for her humor told one of the most hysterical stories I ever heard, and we nearly fell out of our seats. This happened because they were comfortable, and it's this comfort you must create and provide.
Second, set a definite time for people to arrive. I usually say "sharp." Waiting for stragglers may seem polite to you, but it's your guests who have already arrived who are being put out. They may be hungry.
Planning a conversation-piece menu
Third, what will you make? That depends on what kind of cook you are. If you're not confident of your abilities, stick with something you've made before, although you should feel free to try at least one new dish. Keep the menu manageable and seasonal. Ask all guests whether they have any food allergies or dislikes; this is important and often overlooked. Also remember Julia Child's advice and never ever apologize for your cooking.
Menu planning is an art, and a three-course dinner is typical. How organized are you? One of the big mistakes a host can make is making a too complicated menu that keeps them in the kitchen instead of with their guests. A guest should not see what happens "behind the curtain" because if they see you work too hard or if there is a huge mess, they will become anxious themselves. Many menus can be based totally on food prepared ahead of time.
Guests will offer to help, and a good host will always refuse their help, at first. There are three tasks I appreciate guests taking on: acting as bartender, helping serve plated food, and bringing used dishes to the kitchen. The exception is a dinner party where guest participation is part of the evening, such as a fondue party or a barbeque.
Keep your menu on track. Don't make wildly different dishes and stay with a theme. For instance, if your theme is Spanish, maybe Andalusian in particular, your choice of dishes provides a built-in conversation topic. Few people know what Andalusian food is, and now you're the expert. "Both tapas and gazpacho were born in Andalusia," you can explain as you serve the gazpacho.
Your kitchen should be clean and equipment put away before guests arrive. Everything should be set up so you can anticipate every need. I usually lead guests to the living room where we will sit and have cocktails and light finger foods. The easiest of these are nuts, but sometimes you may serve something a bit more involved that will portend the food to follow to increase excitement and expectation.
About 45 minutes after the last guest arrives (and all guests should have arrived within 15 minutes of the designated time), you will want to start moving people to the table, which will, of course, have already been set. One could write a book on how to set a table. Suffice it to say that your table should look inviting. A tablecloth, I think, is far more inviting than place mats, which always reminds me of feeding children.
Who sits where is one of the most important decisions you'll make. You don't need to sit boy-girl-boy. Consider personalities when making a seating chart. I usually try to sit the prettiest woman or the guest of honor (very loosely defined) next to me. I also don't believe in splitting up couples as a matter of course and especially not if everyone are deep strangers. This is one of the mysterious facets of entertaining -- how personalities gel. There are no secrets or tips for the matchmaker. Good luck.