How and why you should throw a dinner party

A guide to reviving the dinner party, by two anti-hosts who’ve wowed some 1,800 guests


This article was originally published on Nov. 23, 2009

The Roman Emperor Elagabalus knew how to entertain: he lined his banqueting rooms with solid silver couches, served peacock tongues and flamingo brains, and let loose his pet lions during dessert, just for fun. At the end of the night, guests were sent home with a party favour, like a eunuch, or a four-horse chariot. Times sure have changed since the third century. Today the dinner party is an endangered institution. At least that’s what Zora O’Neill and Tamara Reynolds think. The two food bloggers are determined to revive the art with their book, Forking Fantastic, which offers menus, step-by-step plans, and tips for novice party throwers and experienced, unflappable hosts alike. And don’t bother getting out the good linen and the centrepiece. “All of these superficial things,” they argue, “have nearly driven dinner parties to the brink of extinction.”

It’s a shame, because we’ve been congregating with food as the focal point for thousands of years. As Margaret Visser writes in The Rituals of Dinner, in many cultures, “two people do not feel they can talk in a friendly way with each other unless they have first eaten together.” And the dinner party is flagging in an age in which our senses are inundated with all things food-related. In fact, the picture-perfect dishes on TV and in glossy magazines may be part of the problem, says Reynolds: “Everybody thinks, ‘I can’t have people over because it won’t be perfect.’ ”

O’Neill and Reynolds, who met while working at Prune restaurant in Manhattan, started out hosting Sunday night dinners for friends five years ago. Soon friends were inviting other friends, until invitations became so coveted the pair made a rule that only the first 20 people to respond scored a seat at the table, albeit not necessarily an actual chair: early events saw cinder blocks topped with pillows. Emily Post it’s not, but these two do know something about entertaining: since 2003, they’ve served dinner to nearly 1,800 friends and strangers, each of whom arrives with only a bottle of wine and $35. O’Neill and Reynolds encourage would-be hosts to break the old rules, like not serving something you’ve never prepared before. When else will you have the chance to cook a leg of lamb that serves six? And for heaven’s sake, don’t start scrubbing floorboards and cleaning the bathroom before company comes over: just make sure you have toilet paper, and take that bra off the doorknob.

The authors are following the lead of comedian Amy Sedaris, who derailed the decorum train in 2006 with her lavishly illustrated book, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Sedaris, more famous for her stints on David Letterman than as a hospitality expert, concedes that her way “may not be the proper way, or the most traditional, or even legal.” But her thesis, if one can call it that, is bang on. She believes that when you invite somebody over for dinner, what you’re really saying is, “Hello, and I like you.”

It sounds simple, so why aren’t we saying it? Sara Angel, former editor-in-chief of Chatelaine and a consummate host, says the real problem is people don’t know how to cook anymore. Angel and her husband, who grew up in households that frequently entertained, cook for friends once a week. Having three kids forces them to entertain at home, otherwise “we would never see our friends.” Her secret? A big freezer in the basement. By tripling recipes, she’s always got a cache of prepared meals waiting for company. Angel knows about mishaps: “This is my horror of horrors—and I’m going to sound like a total Jewish mom here—but one time we didn’t have enough food.” They ran out of monkfish at portion No. 6. There were eight guests. Plates were collected back from the guests, and portions redistributed. Crisis diverted.

Tom Earl’s tip: buy, rather than make, labour-intensive ingredients like demi-glace or preserves at food specialty shops. The veteran waiter, who’s worked for Susur Lee and Mark McEwan, feeds his friends so brilliantly they surprised him with a cheque for nearly $1,100 so he could buy a bigger dining table and more chairs. Earl, 46, prepares as much as he can in advance. At a recent gathering, he made a seared scallop appetizer to order, and while everybody ate, his pre-made individual chicken pot pies (decorated with each guest’s initials on top) baked in the oven.

Above all, the pros insist, relax. If a dish doesn’t turn out, there’s always pizza. “I just love it when people eat with their fingers and lick their fingers,” Reynolds says. “I think it’s the hottest thing.”