The importance of being a good host was always firmly instilled into me from a young age. My grandparents were always hosting cocktail parties, suppers and always went to the greatest effort to ensure their guests were suitably looked after. Being taught the correct glass to use for a Sherry, or exactly how much water is needed to ‘open up’ a whiskey, the correct crockery to use for different occasions, or which piece of cutlery should be used for each course, the excitement of being asked to be a ‘baby butler’ for countless cocktail parties, it was clear my future as a host was set in stone.
Firstly a small disclaimer; these rules are maybe not the best, and I’m sure certainly not always the correct etiquette, but they are the rules I stick to, to ensure that my guests feel looked after and have most importantly a great evening. I’m going full throttle here, but feel free to choose what you think works best to personalise your own way of hosting.
I think when considering a menu, one of the key factors is to remember that although you want to please your guests, you also want your food and hosting style to be a reflection of who you are. Hosting for me isn’t just about having someone over for supper, it’s also about showing them some love. Whether you’re more of a low maintenance host or enjoy the pleasure of a challenging recipe, it’s important to remember that it’s about having a good time with your guests and offering something you wouldn’t get from eating together in a restaurant. Which invariably is adding a bit of flair - I’ll come to this later.
The key to a good dinner party menu is choosing dishes that can be prepared in advance. No one wants to be stuck in a kitchen away from guests for longer than you need to be. Preparation is key.
These are a must before the meal, and it’s far nicer to do something that will look and taste altogether far better than a pack of quavers in a bowl. (not that there's anything wrong with quavers) It’s so easy to make your own snacks: they also give you a bit of time to get things going in the kitchen, should you need to. And great to not let your guests starve if any timing issues arise! Here are a few ideas:
Buy a pack of corn tortillas and cut them into any shape, brush with olive oil and bake for 10 minutes until brown and crunchy, and there you have it - your own tortilla chips.
Or how about some Cacio e Pepe crisps? Easy to do, with a bag of black pepper kettle chips, spread on a tray with copious amounts of pecorino, and baked in the oven until the cheese has melted.
Nuts? Easy, spice them up with your own spice mix, some oil and honey, bake till golden. Super easy, and all guaranteed to feel special and moorish.
Dips are the easiest things to make and can be as simple as greek yoghurt mixed with spices, honey, good olive oil and herbs. Homemade hummus is far better than anything you can buy and as simple as a can of chickpeas, a tablespoonful of tahini, a garlic clove, a good glug of olive oil, cumin, and lots of lemon juice, blended or mashed with a fork.
This is one of the most important aspects of hosting a dinner party. On any budget, there are plenty of ways to ‘supe’ up what you serve.
One of the easiest ways to make a drink a bit more special is by making your own syrups. Very easy to make, use any cup, and remember one cup sugar to two cups water. Boil to dissolve and add a flavouring. Pretty much anything works here - add camomile tea bags for a great way to make a gin and tonic sing - add clementine juice for an easy way to make bubbles a bit more interesting - add herbs to make a vodka tonic less boring. I can’t stress enough how useful a syrup can be. Even humble beer can be made a bit more special - try lager with lemon syrup or pale ale with a squeeze of grapefruit and some black pepper.
If you’re hosting on your own, set up a ‘make your own cocktail’ station, with all the bits your guests will need and a recipe of how to make them - so if you’re busy getting other things ready your guests can help themselves and you won’t feel the pressure to juggle all the plates.
If you don’t have matching water glasses, make it a purposeful, as long as the sizes are similar. (n.b One small bugbear I have, however, is different sized wine glasses - if you don’t have a set, use a tumbler set or something similar. This is purely because you want your guests to get evenly tipsy)
If you don’t have matching plates, again make it purposeful, either use two sets together and mix and match them between your guests, or use all different and bring in the colours together through your tablecloth or napkins.
Napkins can be anything that’s clean. I think using neckerchiefs is such a great way to add some interest to the table. You can pick up inexpensive ones from Labour and Wait for a fiver. Even using a fun tea towel set adds great charm. Also, picking up a metre of inexpensive block print fabric from places like the Cloth House can easily make 6 amazing napkins.
If you don’t have a matching set of cutlery, a great way around this is to tie a setting together with a scrap of fabric or ribbon. It creates unity on the table and makes it feel purposeful.
Avoid supermarket flowers - Forage for some interesting branches or leaves and stick in a heavy-bottomed vase for an atmospheric statement. If you don’t have any other options, make your supermarket flowers a bit more interesting with a few cuttings from your garden (or local park if you don’t have one) and why not make a little posey for each guest and place in a small glass on each setting. I would say it’s always 100% necessary to have some decoration on your table. A great rule for table decoration is to either go super low, and short or go super high with large twiggy airy branches or tall stemmed flowers. Other great solutions are ornamental vegetables, herbs in pots, paper flowers, etc.
You may scoff at this next section, but I’m ALL for an obscure theme. Pretty much anything goes as long as you commit to it. Here are a few ideas:
Try a pub theme; buy some vintage ashtrays, (clean thoroughly..!) and serve your starter or snacks in them. Write your menu on a chalkboard, serve suped-up versions of pub classics - think homemade pork scratchings or lager shandies with home-made lemonade.
Or how about serving up some recipes from history? There are some amazing books about what the Georgians ate or even the Egyptians, and I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how good most of it is. I’m not saying dress up as an Egyptian (obviously can if you want to) but how about serving all the food on terracotta or wood plates? With white linen or calico tablecloths and brass candlesticks and piles of dates and pomegranates to decorate. Candles nestled in pots full of barley.. bloody cool.
How about a banker theme? Buy a load of pink broadsheets and use as placemats and splash out and get everyone a lobster. Ready-mixed whisky cocktails served from decanters, cigars to hold down napkins. Buy some cheap pinstripe navy fabric from your local fabric shop, and use it as a tablecloth. The list goes on… A lot of effort? Yes - but ALWAYS worth it. A theme done right doesn’t have to be cheesy and gimmicky - and it will bring all kinds of joy to you and your guests. It also creates a great talking point for guests who you may not know so well, or for guests who may not know your other guests.
When it comes to serving food - I always think it’s best to serve the main course on the table, and allow your guests to help themselves. It feels in the spirit of a dinner party for people to serve each other, rather than the plates to come out one by one and thus leaving your guests either waiting to eat or waiting for their plate. I’d also say that depending on what you decide to serve to start, this rule may not always apply - if cold, it can always be served up ready to go and brought to everyone at the table in one go.
If your culinary skills don’t extend much beyond boiling an egg. Get the best eggs you can buy... and serve with the freshest bread, and asparagus or something in season. Make it the best-boiled egg your guests will have had. Find the most eccentric egg cups you can find, and serve with the best salt and pepper. I know Charlie is a huge fan of a boiled egg supper - and I am too!
It's probably as important as alcohol. This is a chance to completely make your dinner party. No one wants to hear your gym playlist or the power ballads you sing alone on a car journey. I mean, they might, but it’s more interesting to put a bit more thought into what you play.
If you don’t have time to make a playlist yourself, think about what you are cooking, or what would create the best atmosphere. Because music at a dinner party does just that, creates atmosphere. You want it to build a warm buzz in the background to encourage conversation to flow. There’s always time afterwards once everyone is suitably fed and watered to play something to inspire some dancing feet and drunken singalongs.
Last but by no means least, ambient lighting is key: you obviously don’t want to sit in the dark but turn off any overhead lights, focusing low-lighters, like lamps and candles (the more the better). I’d refrain from using any scented candles while you eat although a scented candle in your bathroom is always a good thing to do.
The opportunity to have people over has something I’ve sorely missed in 2020, but that’s more of a reason to make the times that we can (hopefully soon) a real experience. Take the opportunity to immerse your guests in something fun, take them on a journey, show them some love and most importantly have fun and get gloriously drunk.