Hosting a Dinner Party
The invitation should indicate the level of formality of the occasion. A printed card sent several weeks in advance with the dress code ‘black tie’ would indicate a formal event; a phone call a few days ahead would obviously signal informality. In either case the host should prepare the guests as to what to wear and what to expect, and be specific about times. If there is a special occasion, such as a birthday, hosts should mention it beforehand so that guests aren’t taken by surprise.
Do as much as you can before the guests arrive. Lay the table, sort out the crockery, prepare as much food as possible - you will be able to spend more time with your guests rather than in the kitchen.
Offer them a drink upon arrival, Spirits should be available as well as wine and beer. A glass of champagne is also a good option. Drinks may last for anything from 15 minutes to an hour but resist anything longer. If people are running really late then dinner can be started without them. If drinks are protracted, provide substantial canapés or serve an informal first course with the drinks
If someone brings a bottle you may like to open it at some point in the evening, but have your own bottle ready and opened, in case your guests don't bring wine. If you do not open your guests' wine on the night, make sure you tell them that their wine is too exceptional for the assembled group and that you're saving it for a special occasion.
Often but incorrectly called placement, the formal term for a seating plan or list is place à table, and it can be a good way of organising your guests. Name cards are not necessary at casual gatherings. The traditional plan is for the host and hostess to sit at either end of the table, with the most important woman guest on the host’s right and the most important man on the hostess’s right. Some hosts prefer to sit opposite each other in the middle. Hosts who need to go in and out to the kitchen should sit near the door. Any peculiarities of the room – for example, drafts, proximity to fires or radiators, low ceilings – should be noted and guests can be seated accordingly. Men and women are alternated where possible and couples should not be seated next to one another (traditionally this rule was relaxed for engaged couples).
Sit those with similar interests together and balance loudmouths by sitting them at opposite ends of the table. Keep a close eye on proceedings during the first couple of courses, pay particular attention to guests who are shy or have come alone. As host it is your duty to ensure conversation flows throughout the meal. Steer it away from topics that you know will be awkward for any of your guests. A compulsory swapping of seats for pudding and coffee can rescue flagging conversation.
Apart from the first course, which may be plated up individually and set out, do not serve food already on the plate as in a restaurant. Aim to present the food in big dishes from which people may help themselves or be served. The host will usually say ‘Do start’ when people are being served hot food, but it is polite to wait for everyone else if food such as a cold first course is already on the plate.
The host needs to keep things moving and ensure the courses progress smoothly, without hurrying people. When the time comes, clear away plates two at a time and avoid stacking or scraping as this can look unattractive and be noisy.
You may choose to serve coffee at the table, but there are many practical reasons to get down. Those who have not had a chance to talk to each other at the table may wish to do so, or may want to wash their hands, move to a more comfortable chair, stretch their legs, or even smoke.
As a host, if someone is outstaying their welcome, a balance must be struck between being polite yet fairly clear. Very occasionally it is necessary to be absolutely direct, but always take the blame: ‘I am so sorry I am exhausted. I have not really recovered from our long journey the other day.’