The end of lockdown should be close; we wait with bated breath for a final decision on whether 21 June will in fact see the sweeping away of most of the remaining restrictions. In the meantime, however, we are allowed to gather indoors according to the rule of six (or more, if they are drawn only from two households). This means that we are able to have people for dinner.
For a while, the dinner party fell out of fashion. People wanted large, rustic-looking kitchens and one-pot suppers, dining rooms were pressed into service as studies or playrooms or other specialist spaces, and the formality of hosting a sit-down dinner seemed uncomfortably starchy, perhaps even—the horror—passé.
Fiddlesticks. There are few greater joys than inviting friends over and making a fuss of them. If you dream of spending your whole life in elasticated-waist trousers, fine. Pass by, stranger. If, however, you enjoy an occasion, a red-letter day, making an effort, then here are five tips for a foolproof dinner party.
The best of us find entertaining an occasionally stressful affair, so anything you can do to take the pressure off yourself is a bonus. Perhaps you can make the starter or the pudding the night before, or lay the table first thing in the morning, or polish the silverware well in advance. Even the slightest task will ease your burden and you will thank your foresighted self for the head-start.
It is not much of a challenge to prepare three or four different cocktails. Make sure you have gin, bourbon, vermouth and some bitters, and you’re ready. Nothing will get people into the swing of the evening as easily as a stiff drink, made well. If you’re not at ease with the cocktail shaker, then practise—you’ll enjoy the results.
Don’t be excessively strict about it but have a notion of when people will arrive and what time you want to sit at the table, then the pace at which you want to serve courses. Try to think it through so that you’re neither rushing nor smiling awkwardly and saying “Sorry! Another fifteen minutes!” Also have an idea of when people will want to think about leaving, and, perhaps, when you might want them to go (unless you’re settling in for an all-nighter, in which case, chapeau).
4. Make one course more than your guests expect
We generally anticipate a starter, main course and pudding as a standard offering, but it’s remarkably easy to push the boat out to at least four courses, if not more. The easiest addition is a cheeseboard after the pudding (not before, we’re not French), over which people can linger at their leisure (Paxton and Whitfield will see you right). Get a decent bottle of port, even just a late-bottled vintage, and your guests will feel spoiled. If you’re feeling more adventurous, throw in a fish course. Sole meunière is simple but delicious, but roasted salmon is easy and effective, or some pre-prepared prawns or langoustines.
Make sure you think through the drinks you will serve. People will of course bring a bottle or two but you are not obliged to serve them straight away, or even at all. My experience is that people are delighted to be presented with drinks you’ve chosen for each course, so perhaps a white with the starter and fish course, a red with the main, something sweet with the pudding then port or—stay with me—a good beer or cider with the cheese. You may not end up drinking all that much, though you won’t lack for hydration, but it will feel so much more like an occasion, which is, after all, the point of the whole affair in the first place.
I know people will be out of practice at entertaining and may seek easy options to test the water. Trust me. Put in a little effort, along the lines I suggest above, and your guests will be astonished and delighted. They will remember the evening and tell their friends, and you will be the envy of your social circle. And that, surely, has to be a good way to greet the summer?