I find few things more exciting than being invited to someone’s home for a dinner party. Not a potluck or cocktail party, but a sit-down soirée with mixed company and food cooked and served by someone other than me. It’s a generous act of yore that seems now to be endangered if not entirely extinct. Surely we remember our parents entertaining at home, falling asleep to the sound of muffled laughter downstairs. And the first thing you do as a child when you make a new friend is invite her over, so what’s changed?
The popularity of restaurant dining’s certainly at play, yet breaking bread with people in a home setting deepens connections much faster. There’s no time wasted looking at a menu, ordering, or deciding on wines. You can linger without the staff sighing loudly behind you and there’s no awkward moment when the check arrives.
Of course, time, that elusive luxury of which we all get the same amount, is the ubiquitous excuse. But if we have time to cook for ourselves, take a photo of what we’ve made, and then broadcast it to all of our “friends,” then we have time to invite a few of them to eat with us. Spending less time on our virtual social life frees up more time for socializing in the flesh; besides, no one’s expecting the eight-course, aspic-laden affair with chargers and napkin rings that Emily Post outlines in her 1922 etiquette guide. Entertain with simple, weekday meals even—meatloaf, mac-n-cheese, build-your-own-tacos—just remain fully clothed when you get home from work and eat at the table instead of from the fissure between the couch cushions. You can laugh out loud instead of LOLing and bring up topics without assigning any hashtags.
Even with loftier aspirations, don’t burden yourself by cleaning the house from top to bottom. Chances are that if you are a hoarder, or have 18 cats, the people you invite will already know that and either forgive it, or decline the offer. If you’re just a person with unremarkable dust bunnies and a pile of dead ladybugs in the corner, then guests won’t notice. Tidy the bathroom and any linens they’ll use, light some candles, dim the lights, keep their glasses topped up, and your cleanliness will appear next to godliness.
It’s a drag slaving away in the kitchen while your guests make merry at the table, so come up with a menu that you can cook ahead. Baked dishes like lasagne or braises like pot roast can be warming in the oven (with their aromas at critical mass) when guests arrive so that all you need to do is toss a salad. And, if you think of the meal as four courses (appetizer, salad, main, and dessert), plan to make two courses, buy one course, and then take one person or couple up on their offer to bring something.
You always want to have drinks and nibbles available right away, so buy the appetizer components. Put down a cheese board with fresh or dried fruit, wrap prosciutto around grissini, or set out bowls of pistachios and olives tarted up with orange rind and fennel seeds. Tasking guests with bringing dessert (or even just gelato to top some box-made brownies) makes for a welcome mission and alleviates them from bringing wine.
Consider the number of guests you invite. Six can converse as a group without any factions splitting off, and if you want to introduce two singles, the other pair will provide a buffer if sparks don’t fly. The dinner table’s a great leveler, so go ahead and invite two big fish and watch them both act a little less big for their britches. Stay away from vitriolic topics, though don’t be afraid to delve. Ask your guests what they would have eaten first in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, or what part of themselves is physically perfect.
Invitees have a few rules to follow too. If you need to cancel, do so with no fewer than two hours notice (and not via text message). Don’t bring uninvited guests and don’t turn up sloshed. If you have a genuine allergy, let it be known to your host ahead of time; however, if you are just obnoxiously picky or health-conscious, eat everything you’re given, or else don’t accept the invitation. Send a follow-up thank you note—written is best, but electronic suffices. Most of all though, always always return the favor. It’s the only way to keep the dinner party alive.