The thought of cooking for a crowd can be stress-inducing for even the most experienced home cooks, with guest dynamics, room décor, menu options, and preparation timings all factors which determine the success (or not) of your dinner party.
If you want to go ahead and get the name cards and folded napkins out, be our guest, but if you want easy, stress-free, effortless entertaining, all you need to do is think of atmosphere + food and drink. What everyone wants is to create an intimate and memorable dining experience which makes guests feel at ease, helps conversation to flow, and provides the perfect setting to tuck in to a great meal with friends.
We caught up with award-winning blogger duo Patrick and Russell of GastroGays.com for their top tips for hosting a cool, laid-back, and memorable dinner party.
Embrace an eclectic tablescape
Don’t feel the pressure to match every piece of cutlery and crockery on your dinner party table – Who has a full six or ten-person set of matching crockery? We certainly don’t! For a laid-back and eclectic vibe, we recommend mixing and matching to create a style that is unique to you.
You’ll be surprised how bold coloured plates match effortlessly with floral, dainty plates. Try mixing more traditional plates and bowls with modern ones, or mix and match the metals of your cutlery for a casual but stylish tablescape.
You want to make this experiential, but that doesn't mean recreating a garden centre in your dining room. To add a touch of nature, there’s also no real need to go to extreme lengths or take out a small mortgage on expensive blooms. Take a trip to your garden to collect fresh flowers or foliage. If you're growing herbs like rosemary or thyme, these are gorgeous for table styling, whilst if you want to go stark and ultra-natural, choose some elegant branches to take pride of place –– we did this recently at a couple of events and was a stand-out style statement and so simple!
Create a playlist worth remembering
A memorable party is all about atmospheric vibes. We recommend keeping the television switched off (unless, of course, your party is a Eurovision viewing party!) and instead developing a playlist which helps to guide guests through the night. Start off with something a little up-tempo in the background to encourage mingling amongst friends on arrival, switching to more slow-tempo, acoustic-driven music to enjoy during dinner without distracting. You know those Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater or Barefoot Contessa series soundtracks? There are literal playlists online that are those style of songs, so you could just stick that type of thing on shuffle!
Following dinner, step up the tempo to encourage a party atmosphere. A nice, personal, touch is to add in songs that have special meanings for guests of your party. Include music from their own bands, tracks from gigs you have enjoyed together, or ‘throwback’ tunes from when you were teens (or even kids!) which all guests can reminisce on. The music should reflect the experience, so if in doubt, think about what stage of the evening it is and mirror a mood in the music.
Serve up a main with ‘wow’ factor
For food enthusiasts like ourselves, a dinner party is a fun way to share with your friends and family some of the amazing local ingredients we have available to us or prepare them in a new and exciting way. A favourite protein to incorporate into our party meal planning is lamb. In terms of flavour, lamb delivers a rich and flavoursome element to your meal with the same effort as beef, pork or chicken. Lamb is incredibly versatile and pairs well with a variety of spices and flavours, from Asian-inspired flavour profiles to North African or Moroccan spice rubs and is even the star of a traditional roast dinner alongside some local veg and potatoes.
If you’re aiming to impress with an exciting main course, you don’t need to wake up at the crack of dawn to create something worth serving to your friends and family. One way of creating a ‘wow’ factor is to look at dishes that are served in a unique way. We love serving up this European Lamb Hot Pot which is served in individual crocks, creating a fun ‘reveal’ when they are placed on the table in front of your guests –– and it’s got a few secrets in the recipe to easily make that ‘wow’ moment and that ‘mmm’ flavour.
Many hosts tend to take on all the work themselves and see it as a sign of defeat if assistance is required. By the time dinner is ready to be enjoyed, they find themselves frazzled and exhausted. There’s no need to put that kind of pressure on yourself!
We recommend focusing your energy on one element of the meal – in this case, our showstopping main course – and taking help in the other areas. Ask a helpful friend to arrive a bit early to help prepare salads and sides. If sweets aren’t within your comfort zone, nip out to the local bakery to pick up a special cake or petits fours which offer the chance for your guests to sample from a selection of sweets.
Your guests will appreciate the professional edge, familiar flavour and will appreciate that you’ll be less stressed for it. If you do take on dessert, serve it up family-style in the centre of the table, with everyone handing around the bowl/dish and serving themselves. If you stress, it will reflect in your food and at the very least trip you up in forgetting an element or taking your eye off timings, so always think ‘stress less, enjoy this process’ and you’ll saunter effortlessly around like the perfect host you are!
Create an occasion
Whether you’re hosting a casual mid-week meal for friends or a special dinner to impress, a quick dinner can be transformed into an occasion by giving guests a reason to celebrate. Whether it’s to highlight a friend’s recent promotion, the finale of your favourite reality show, making it halfway through the working week, or even the birthday of your pet, by adding an intention to your dinner, guests will arrive in high spirits, ready to celebrate, elevating a simple meal into a memorable occasion.
Have some conversation starters
Music sets the mood, but conversation keeps things going. We have a podcast called Chew The Fat where we interview different interesting people in and around the food industry every week, so we’re all about getting to know different people as best we can. If your guests are unfamiliar with each other, sitting elbow-to-elbow is quaint but can be a bit awkward at the start. As you’ll be in and out topping up glasses and delivering dishes from the kitchen, think maybe of some conversation starters to foster table talk. Leave a mini stack of hand-written conversation starters if you like, or just prompt chatter yourself whilst you pop in and leaving your guests to chew it over – like “Oh, you guys have all been on such amazing holidays this year, tell the others about where you’ve been” or “where’s been everyone’s favourite place to eat out in the city this last few weeks?”
Start the night with an empty dishwasher
After a successful dinner party, the hosts will be understandably tired by the time that last guest has gotten the hint that it’s bedtime! If you are lucky enough to have a dishwasher in your kitchen, we recommend making sure it is empty when the night begins. Following each course, you can clear the table and stack the dishes straight into the dishwasher, then make sure it’s on when it’s full. Likewise, never go to bed without the kitchen/dining room being clean. WE KNOW, it can be difficult, but future ‘you’ will thank present ‘you’. Waking up to stacks of dishes and utensils all over the place is never nice, so before the clock strikes bedtime, simply switch the dishwasher on and wake up the next day to a tidy kitchen and dishes sorted!