Anatomy of a Dinner Party

I am sitting at the dining room table with my favorite cookbooks strewn about and Martha’s Entertaining open wide, taunting with gorgeous tablescape imagery.  As I plan the menu for a dinner we are hosting next weekend, I am thinking not only of the ingredients for my dishes, but also of the ones that comprise a truly great dinner party.  Serving a wonderful meal (either made or ordered) is of course integral to the night’s success, but it is only part of the equation. You’ve also got to have:

Music.  It MUST be on when guests enter the home.  We’ve all been to a party where the host forgot the music and it felt more like a meeting than a social gathering.  I like to have several playlists ready – spirited mixes of 80’s, 90’s and contemporary songs for the cocktail and post dinner hours, and great jazz recordings during dinner (Chet Baker, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Cannonball Adderley, Mingus, and Miles are favorites).  If there is no time to assemble playlists, Pandora is your friend!

Drinks.  Offering a simple bar with a crisp white and a full-bodied red, Pellegrino for those abstaining or alternating (my usual MO), and the traditional spirits and mixers always seems to work best.  I love the idea of crafting a specialty cocktail to offer guests as they arrive, but I’ve found (after trying this several times) that most people prefer a good old-fashioned martini or vodka tonic over something fancy and complicated.

Small bites.  Taking a cue from Bernard’s, one of the chicest bars in Chicago, I often serve simple nuts and crisp kettle cooked potato chips in beautiful bowls.  And a well-rounded cheese platter (one soft, one hard, one blue) served with dried and fresh fruits is a must.

Lighting.  Nothing kills the mood quite like bright lights.  Setting out loads of candles and dimming the lights softens and relaxes both the surroundings and the guests.  Everyone looks and feels better in the warm glow of candlelight.

Dessert.  Who doesn’t love dessert?  Serving a seasonal, warm fruit crisp with generous amounts of vanilla ice cream makes everyone happy.  I also like to assemble a tray of locally made chocolates and fresh, perfect berries to serve with coffee or nightcaps.

And finally,

Laughter and lightness.  The two most important ingredients.  Planning ahead, keeping it simple, and enjoying a glass of wine before guests arrive help to create a happy and relaxed host.  And if the host is having a fantastic time, guests will surely follow suit.

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