How to Host a Dinner Party With Style
By Jill Fales
Many homeowners in Coastal Orange County have homes, views, backyards, and garden areas that rival or even overshadow the most elegant restaurant or world-class vacation destination.
With such beauty as a starting point, hosting events in the home is a more intimate option for entertaining guests. But a view of the Pacific or a tastefully decorated dining room can only carry a host so far. In order to host a dinner party that is as memorable, aesthetically appealing and delicious as possible, we turned to Ann Farrow, a nationally known design consultant, for advice.
Ann is the residentGuru and founder of homeStyle. She provides hands-on, user-friendly design tips to help create a more stylish, enjoyable life.
Ann appeared on a segment for ABC’s show “20/20.” Filmed on location in Washington state, Ann was one of the Team Leads for the project that transformed and enhanced the exterior of an already beautiful property in a matter of just hours.
She has also styled rooms and photo shoots for Bay Area newspapers and been a guest on local television shows and radio programs in Washington and Texas. Ann has also provided staging advice as a “Top Home Stylist” for the national publication Bottom Line.
Q: What advice do you have for those who feel intimidated by the thought of hosting a dinner party?
A: Start small. Maybe a multi-course dinner is more than you want to tackle if you are new to the kitchen or a novice at entertaining. Consider hosting cocktail hour before you and your friends go to a concert, a charity event or dinner out at the area’s trendy new restaurant. This smaller and easier start to entertaining is an opportunity to extend hospitality and show people value their friendship as well as a chance to get comfortable with hosting. Your event doesn’t have to be a large or lengthy, but it should be thoughtful.
Years ago, I lived next to a young married couple, and the wife and I became instant friends. My husband and I would often have them over for wine and dinner, as we all enjoyed each other’s company. I learned that my newfound friend didn’t “know her way around the kitchen” to put it mildly, and she was feeling anxious about reciprocating and having us over for dinner.
After a little reassurance from me and encouragement from her husband, they invited us over. When we arrived, the table was set with beautiful Asian-inspired plates, chopsticks and a bottle of sake. Our hosts ordered an array of take-out Chinese food from a great local dive. As we ate our Chow Mein and Mongolian Beef off the pricey plates we were making memories that will last a lifetime.
In general, people want to know that you care. Your friends won’t remember if you worked in the kitchen for days before the dinner; they’ll just remember how you made them feel once they arrived.
Q: Daylight Savings begins in a week. We are well past the holiday parties, but still a ways off from outdoor summer parties. What are some ideas to keep this transitional time of entertaining fresh?
A: Take advantage of this transitional season. Between every season is a change in weather, a change in fresh produce and a change in fashion. To enjoy the best of the pre-spring weather, schedule your dinner parties earlier or your brunches a little later in the day. This gives you an opportunity to enjoy part, if not all, of your entertaining outside. If it’s too cold to have even an early dinner outside, plan on having your cocktail hour on the patio and encourage your guests to bring a warm layer. Another way to take advantage of this time of year is to pair foods that are coming into season (like a roasted asparagus with fresh citrus zest) with some end-of-season items that are winding down.
Another fun option during the down time between New Year’s and Memorial Day is to create your own holiday of sorts. With fewer holiday options this time of year, people seem to have fewer opportunities to get together. How about throwing a Spring Equinox party and setting the table with bright spring blooms? Or maybe you’d like to embrace the trend of locally sourced foods and wines as part of an Earth Day dinner party.
Q: Menus. Discuss.
A: I always do printed menus and multiple courses.
Most people think of printed menus for holidays or more formal events, and they forget that a menu is another simple way to set the tone of the evening. Plus, it gives your guests something to look forward to and a way to gauge how much they want to eat of each portion. Chances are, if the menu has five courses, people won’t be asking for seconds of your crabcakes, no matter how delicious they are. This also allows you to pre-plate certain items and manage portions effectively. No matter how tasty that Grilled Romaine Salad with Crispy Capers is the night of the dinner party, you won’t want a huge bowl of it left over the next morning.
Multiple courses are a benefit to both you and your guests. It allows you to pace the meal and ensure that your food comes out of the kitchen fresh and the way you intend it. Smaller courses with a gentler pacing also give your guests more time for conversation.
Q: How do you get the maximum “wow” factor without killing yourself by the time your guests walk in the door?
A: Think about what you like to do, and focus your energies there. I’m more of a cook than a baker, so dessert is an area where I invest less time. A beautiful cake or dessert from a local artisan bakery is always well received, especially if you serve it in a pretty way and you are feeling pretty and less frazzled yourself. A simple fix to dress up any dessert? Spoon a puddle of a sauce (these days I’m loving the Salted Carmel Sauce at Trader Joe’s) on the plate and add a few fresh berries. It shows an extra level of care and attention to detail. That’s what makes your guests feel special.
Also, be realistic about what you can accomplish. Don’t attempt all new recipes in one evening; the added pressure isn’t worth it.
Q: How important are tablescapes when entertaining?
A: Having a beautifully set table is a clear way to tell your guests, “I’m so pleased that you’re here”. The preparation and thought that go into the look of your table can be simple or elaborate, depending on your personality. One of the simplest ways to create a great tablescape is to think about the layout of the table (does everyone have enough room for their silverware, glasses, elbows, etc.), the decorative elements of the table (centerpieces, candles, color, style, level of formality) and the fun factor.
A good starting point is to decide if you plan to use a tablecloth or not. In some cases, the beauty of a wooden dining room table set with decorative chargers can be simply stunning. In other cases, especially when trying to bring in color, a tablecloth can serve as the perfect foundation. You can rent linens from a local party rental company. For around $10-$12 per tablecloth, you get the wrinkle-free table base, in the color you want, and no laundering.
For the middle of the table, here are a few guidelines to help: only use unscented candles or oil lanterns. Next, don’t use candles or flower arrangements that might prevent conversation. If possible, add something you have or something from your own yard to the table even if you purchase professionally arranged flowers. Maybe you’ve collected some interesting seashells, or perhaps you have old photos of your guests that you can use as place cards. Something personal and whimsical can turn a table from ordinary to memorable.
Q: You talk of having an entertaining motto, what does this mean and do you have one of your own?
A: Every person, family or couple has a philosophy around having people over, whether they realize it our not. Sometimes this philosophy or motto is rooted in childhood, and people base their ideas on how their parents entertained. For others, it’s a lifestyle that they live that they want to share. My dear friend Karen from New Orleans has a “Come as You Are” approach that speaks volumes to her Southern heritage and hospitality.
At our house, our motto is “Come hungry. Come thirsty.” It’s a reflection of our generosity, but there is also a practical application. Since we always do multiple courses, this is a great way to subtly remind people that there are no short parties at the Farrow house.
Think about what’s reflective of your style and embrace it in both spoken and unspoken ways. When you figure out what is representative of your style, tell people. Make it your trademark.
Q: What do you think lies at the true heart of a successful dinner party?
A: Good guest chemistry. You could have pizza and cheap beer, and if the interaction between the guests is good, everyone will walk away thinking “What a great party!” There are three guidelines and one non-negotiable rule I put into play with every party. One, invite someone new or at least people that are new to each other.
Two, it’s a numbers game. Think about the right number of people for the event you are throwing. A backyard pool party has a different capacity than a seated dinner. After years of throwing parties that were too big, I grew tired of the running around of that’s part of being a good hostess and not really connecting with my guests. After too many nights of tired feet and unfinished conversations, I came up with the idea of Table for Twelve. Now my husband and I host smaller groups about every month or two, and we get to connect with everyone that comes. Sometimes we even switch seats halfway through dinner so we can talk to the friends at the other end of the table.
Three, always seat spouses apart. I even applied this rule to my own wedding reception – My husband and I sat at different tables for each of the first three courses of our five-course meal. Spouses already know each other’s backgrounds, well-told stories and familiar jokes, so the conversation becomes less animated and interactive when couples are sitting next to each other. Plus, it’ll give couples something to talk about on the drive home.
My non-negotiable rule: You must remember that you set the tone of the party most by your own mood. Your guests’ enjoyment is most often a reflection of your own enjoyment. If you are feeling scattered, hectic and unsettled, chances are that they will, too.
Q: Where do cocktails fit in to a top-notch dinner party?
A: Cocktails are a must. A Cocktail Hour is the perfect way to start almost any gathering, as it gives guests time to mingle and get to know one another. Plus, it accommodates guests that invariably arrive at different times without making latecomers feel awkward. By the time people are seated for dinner there is already a sense of camaraderie.
I think every party should start with a cocktail that has bubbles, a garnish or both! This serves three key purposes – First, a good drink establishes atmosphere. A seasonal or pretty cocktail puts your guests in more of a festive mood, and that helps set the tone of your whole party. Even if you don’t have time to make a mixed drink, open a bottle of champagne. A tray of flutes full of fizz with a little something special added (like a layer of pomegranate juice and some floating blueberries) just feels festive, even if the occasion is Tuesday night Book Club.
A well-appointed tray with a pitcher of pre-made cocktails and already garnished glasses full of ice can be a lifesaver when it comes to time management. Guests can refill their own drinks, after you’ve poured them their first while you greet arriving guests, or put the finishing touches on dinner.
Q: Is there a tasteful and fun way to host a themed party?
A: Every dinner party should have a theme, whether your guests know it or not. Choosing a theme can be as simple as deciding on a type of cuisine. Or you may want to do something reflective of an interest like wine-tasting or wines from a region that you recently traveled to. Another type of theme in a broader sense is life-style; this month I am hosting a Luxe Low-Carb dinner party. With Spring and Summer almost here, a lot of people are thinking about slimming down and toning up. This is one way we can all enjoy six courses of small bites that pack a lot of flavor without packing on the pounds.
If someone wants to throw a more obviously themed party, I have one key piece of advice. “Choose wisely.” Choose something that you are passionate about; your guests will connect with your passion. Are you from the South (the real South that is)? How about a Kentucky Derby Party? Did you and your spouse meet at a college tailgate during football season? Host a chili kick-off or beer tasting when your alma mater has a big rivalry game and encourage guests to wear their college colors.
Ann Farrow, Founder and ResidentGuru
homeStyle Staging & Design Consulting