I was recently asked to write a feature for Local Secrets, a fantastic online guide to what’s going on in and around Cambridge, the topic being how to host the perfect evening soirée.
Naturally, I was in my element jotting down my tips and advice on how to enjoy a stress-free event in your own home or venue and here on the blog I’m also sharing these notes with you, my food & etiquette-loving readers.
Hearing guests squeal with delight, oohing and ahhing as they bite into your home-cooked gastronomy, is one of the most gratifying elements to hosting a civilised shindig.
But what is the secret to a successful dinner party that oozes elegance and sophistication? Exceptional planning, a sprinkling of creativity, a dollop of love and hosting flair and etiquette are equally as important as the food itself if you really want to create a memorable affair. Here are a few secrets to hosting a successful evening soirée…
Firstly, when was the last time you delivered handwritten invitations? It’s most likely been a while, so get yourself some classic writing paper and matching envelopes to send a beautifully handwritten invite to your chosen few. It’s not only a great exercise of formal etiquette, but sets the tone for the soirée itself.
It’s said that the perfect number for a dinner party is six to eight guests, any more then conversations and personal elements can get lost so remember not to overcrowd your table, especially if not everybody knows each other. To create a sophisticated ambiance, do keep it to grown-ups only; no children or pets present, no matter how cute and cuddly they may be.
The thought of arranging a floral centrepiece might be a little daunting or overrated, but you can go for a display of seasonal fruits or even a sculpture or candelabra as the focus for your table. Sometimes simple, low level lighting can be just as effective.
Take time to lay the table correctly. Warm your plates, cups, bowls and so on before serving food or hot beverages, ensuring your dishes are served at the correct temperature. Use best china, no plastic or paper imposters, and under no circumstances is it okay to dish out the paper napkins. Starched and ironed linens are a must; there’s nothing as luxurious as sitting at a table with a superbly ironed tablecloth and a crisp dinner napkin over your lap for a hint of luxury. Just don’t over starch – nobody wants to cut their mouths whilst dabbing.
Food glorious food
Plan your menu in advance, allowing time to plot your shopping list, decor and drinks around the food you are serving. There’s plenty of inspiration online through blogs, recipe sites and even Pinterest, which is a very creative online ‘mood board’ allowing you to create a visual dinner party menu to really get your creative juices flowing.
If going ‘retro’ with your food, then do try to put a modern twist on dishes instead of serving inelegant prawn cocktails and a 70s trifle recipe complete with ‘Dream Topping’ that looks like Auntie Elsie made it for tea. And don’t experiment on the day of the event as this will add unnecessary stress. If you’re going to try out new recipes, give them a go in advance to iron out any creases.
Try using a ‘secret ingredient’ or method in one of your dishes to get some excitement and conversation going. It’s always great fun playing this guessing game with people, so enjoy the rewarding attention from your friends;you will have earned it. When it comes to dessert it’s always good to have a choice of an indulgent option as well as a healthier one to please everybody. Most guests will go for a bit of both, but it’s good to offer them an alternative.
Remember to always make introductions – don’t expect others to do it. Seat people next to guests they may already know or will get on well with from the off to avoid any awkwardness. A superb little tip is to write guest names on the front and back of all place cards so that people around the table can’t forget names. It’s also a good idea to set up a DIY drinks bar for your guests to enjoy with a few of your favourite recipes behind it for some fun and entertainment, allowing you a little less stress whilst you calmly panic behind the scenes.
Music should offer something relaxed and mellow, playing ever so gently in the background, but not disturbing conversation. Ensure that you have a playlist that doesn’t repeat the same song tens of time and that doesn’t stop until your guests have left.
Don’t ever punish your guests by delaying dinner for late arrivals; they shouldn’t be made to wait for any rude latecomers. Any late arrivals should simply slip in wherever you are within the evenings’ schedule. And always ensure that you are ready to host before the final cooking commences – there’s nothing more unglamorous than a hostess pulling rollers out of her hair as she answers the door!
It’s a good idea to host different elements of your dinner party in different rooms: arrival drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the lounge or garden, dinner at the dining table followed by coffee in the conservatory. This makes the evening flow better for you and your guests, allowing you to clear up later on. Finally, remember not to clear away too quickly between courses, as the clearing and serving dictates the pace of your meal. Instead, ensure that you sit with your guests and make time for them – this is where being organised will reward and help you to enjoy the soirée too!
To read this feature in full and other superb features by many local (and very talented writers) then visit the Local Secrets Website by clicking here.
And to read more about becoming a well behaved guest or host/ess at your own tea party, visit my etiquette workshops page here.
Please Note – These are my own words and reviews and I am in no means obliged to blog or write about them or promote them if written for any external publications, I simply choose to do so. Should you wish to reference these posts or ramblings, please do contact to discuss or share your own ramblings on the topic.
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