There are many signs of a good dinner party: quiet conversation that quickly turns raucous. A chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ at your menu and decorations. Waking up to a table strewn with debris (think spattered napkins, burgundy-stained corks and the remnants of various games).
How I’ve missed dinner parties during lockdown! So much so that, in the short time that we’ve been allowed, I’ve hosted upwards of 10, each with a different call sheet of guests, dishes and drinks. Here’s my advice for throwing the perfect al fresco celebration, to make the most of long summer days.
The first act of the evening is an aperitif: choose something tangy and tart, served in a whisper-thin glass. The drink itself doesn’t need to be complicated; homemade syrups make spirits sing, so next time you’re in a field, fill your boots with foraged elderflower. Ignore the purists who say that cocktails can’t be made in batches – you’re not a mixologist, this is not a bar, and you’d quite like to be able to mingle, thank you very much. Sun and space permitting, set up an outdoor cocktail station which will give guests somewhere to hang out until it’s time to sit.
Tempting as it may be to concoct something clever, it will only stress you out, and stress is ruinously palpable for guests. Instead, choose a menu that you can prepare mostly in advance. A couple of stuffed whole trouts charred on the BBQ, for example, served with Za’atar tomatoes and ribbons of courgette. Or grilled picanha steak with garlicky chimichurri and a mound of crispy potatoes. Post-pudding, a tray of espressos or tequila shots (delete as appropriate) is rocket fuel for flagging guests.
The key is to keep your table casual. Stacks of gilded plates, umpteen glasses and flowers arrangements to rival a hotel lobby are a no, as are overly orchestrated themes. The brief you should keep in mind is ‘careful, but considered’. Have a loose colour scheme and a few bud vases filled with something wild or blousy. Choose old milk bottles, vintage, or The Sette’s trio of mouth-blown vases. Candles and napkins are a must, even if the latter are creased, as they add a sense of occasion. If the food hails from a certain region then it’s nice to nod to it, but don’t go full fancy dress. Tagliatelle, for example, goes hand in hand with a gingham tablecloth, while for Mexican, I use riotously colourful napkins, and repurpose authentic food tins from Etsy for cutlery or coriander. As a final flourish, try vegetable cutlery rests, which are a sweet addition to practically any table.
Don’t concern yourself with perfection – or be a pedant. Don’t worry about where to put coats if the night is unexpectedly cool (drape them over a bannister, or pile them in a mound on your bed). If you do need to move the party inside, remember that people have probably planned their outfits around their shoes, not their socks, so refrain from requesting removal if you can. Not enough cutlery for courses? Please hold onto your forks, folks (especially if they’re of the teak bistro cutlery variety).
Introduce shy friends to shouty ones. If the former ask if they can help you in the kitchen, put them to work stirring a sauce or decanting pickles – it’ll put them at ease until things are suitably and socially lubricated. Don’t, however, let them ferry plates or stack the dishwasher when dinner is done. As the person who’s brought everyone together, you’ll have heard everyone’s best stories ten times over, but laugh or gasp like it’s the first. Certainly don’t point out the embellishments since you heard it last…
Phoebe McDowell is a journalist, editor and interiors expert who has written for The Sunday Times and BURO. She is the founder of The Pinterior, a monthly interiors newsletter.