How to Host a Dinner Party

Small space? No problem!

10.27.16

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It’s hard to feel grown-up in a 500-square-foot apartment. The proximity of most New Yorkers’ beds to the table (or counter) on which they take their meals reeks of dorm life. But, unless you’re a hedge funder, you’ll likely live in a one-bedroom rental well into your thirties, an age during which many of us have stopped spending nights out at bars in favor of entertaining at home. Those of you in your twenties have started to feel the itch.

I’m here to tell you that you can throw a successful dinner party in a small space.

You know how we’re all impressed with the girl who shops at Target but, with a swipe of lipstick and a confident posture, fools us into thinking she’s wearing Miu Miu? Just like that, entertaining is all about your attitude and less about the space or even the food, frankly.

So first: Get rid of the notion that entertaining has to be grand. Think of it more like a family meal than a presentation, and not only will your guests feel more relaxed, but you’ll also enjoy the evening. The ambition of a truly great entertainer isn’t to show off her skills, anyway; it’s to bring her friends together and afford them some time to take pleasure. This is coming from someone who has cooked for a Michelin-starred chef out of her closet-sized kitchen and messed up the couscous in the process. I apologized — one time — and moved on, serving the rest of the meal hot, keeping glasses full, and engaging in (and sometimes driving) good conversation. The chef didn’t give a damn about the missing ingredient or her seat on the floor near my “dining” (coffee) table.

Point being: The biggest gift you can give your guests is the feeling of being cared for, so be realistic about what you can get on the table in good time and otherwise focus on being present. If you’re not — if you’re losing your shit by the stove or if your eyes are darting around the room — they will feel that, too.

Speaking of guests: the list. I entertain often and small, meaning the list is only ever six people deep. Every invitee knows me and one other person on the list, so that when I’m in the kitchen tossing something or other, that guests feels anchored and hopefully encouraged to mix with the newbies.

Here are some other tips I’ve picked up along the way:

1. To set the tone

Lighting should be warm. Now is the time for candles (of the unscented variety). Music should be soft. Not Enya-soft, but not something that competes with conversation, either. My go-to is the Miles Davis channel on iTunes radio; I set it when I’m cooking and forget it until lights out. Once guests arrive, I point them to the bedroom, where they can remove jackets, blow noses or do whatever else is it is they need to do before getting settled on my sofa.

Said jackets — and purses, and other stuff — stay on the bed for the duration of the evening. When you’re in a small space, bags resting by people’s feet not only add clutter, but they also remind everyone that they’re going home at the end of the evening. I want my guests to feel as much like they’re at home as possible, so I store coats and purses out of sight. That’s one of my only rules, and I’m a stickler for it.

2. To drink

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I chill pitchers of water and put them on the table. As for booze, because I’m making the meal, and because I’ve stopped drinking, I ask only that my guests bring wine if they want to have it, and to aid them in their choosing, I give them an idea of the menu. I do provide proper stemware, though; a little presentation goes a long way. Usually, each person brings a bottle and there’s plenty to go around. As for whether or not each bottle pairs perfectly with the dishes I’ve prepared? No one, to my knowledge, has suffered either way.

3. To start

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Always have something ready for the nibbling upon guest arrival. If I’ve had time to prepare, I’ll serve radishes with butter, or some small pieces of toast with a variety of toppings, such as sautéed mushrooms or ricotta and honey. If I haven’t, I transfer store-bought popcorn or even potato chips to a pretty bowl and call it a day. The salt and crunch is nice with a drink, and the presence of something — anything — gives your guests something to do while you’re tying up any loose ends.

4. The meal

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My friends have a dizzying mix of dietary restrictions between them, but you know what anyone with a gluten allergy or an aversion to animal products eats? Vegetables! I tend to whip up a few platters of vegetables dishes — some raw, some cooked — and serve a mezze-style meal with bread and hummus or another spreadable something. If I’m not dealing with finicky diets, I still go simple, usually making a one-pot dish like a hearty stew with crusty bread, followed by a simple Bibb lettuce salad.

5. To finish

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If someone wants to bring dessert, I always say yes, because I hate thinking about it. If someone doesn’t offer, I bring out fruit and dark chocolate. When the season is right, it’s clementines, in a large bowl, with another empty bowl next to it for peels, both placed smack in the center of the table for people to reach and peel and eat while they’re polishing off their last drinks. That, and a bar or two of dark chocolate that I’ve removed from the wrapping and cracked into pieces, spread onto a platter. It actually looks quite chic.

At this point, I bring out my guestbook. It’s not a fancy leather-bound volume perched on a stand, it’s just a paperback notebook, but I ask that people sign it so that I can capture the memory of the evening in a form other than Instagram. Most people use this as an opportunity to write me a little note, draw a funny caricature or inscribe a poem, and it’s fun for me to flip through on a rainy day. Again, it’s not about formality — the pages are filled with cuss words! — but it’s just…nice. The activity also acts as a subtle notification that the night is about to come to a close. (Mama’s still got to clean up.)

6. To really finish

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My signature nightcap is the take-home treat, and I now bequeath it to you. Honestly, I stole it from Battersby restaurant in Brooklyn, where, along with the check, I received a single serving of homemade cookie dough, packaged with instructions for baking. I love sending my guests home with something by which to remember the evening, even if it’s a stick of palo santo because I didn’t have time to bake. Package it with intention and, no matter what it consists of, your guests will be warmed by the idea.

Now go forth, and entertain without fear. In your bare feet, if you want to.

Visit Julia’s website and follow her on Instagram @juliabainbridge and Twitter @juliabainbridge. Photographed by Nicole Cohen.

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  • Abby

    Love these tips and think they’re spot on – I especially agree with the mezze style meals, they’re always a hit!

  • My studio is just over 400 sq ft and while it’s a tight fit for even small groups, some of my best memories there are nights spent cozied up around the coffee table, drinking wine and eating cheese with my friends.

    PS I’m totally gonna incorporate the take-home treat idea next time I host!

  • Hilary

    Fantastic tips! I love the dessert spread of fruit + broken-up chocolate. Brilliant. Also, can we get that radishes with butter recipe?! It looks so good.

  • Natty

    yes, yes, yes! I love the gift bag idea. The last time I hosted, I gave everyone a pineapple (I bought a bunch to use as centerpieces) and it was a hit.

  • Taste of France

    FYI, my very grown-up (read: old) friends here in France routinely serve clementines after a meal.
    Six-eight is a great number for conversation. We have a rotation of regulars, and try to loop in new people, to keep things interesting.

  • Allegra

    Noooo, please don’t start a trend of having to make favor bags for casual dinners with friends… Nice idea, sure, but imho completely unnecessary and way too formal.

    • Agreed. Spending time with friends is enough. Nobody needs a goody bag.

      • I think that if buying formal favors seems like too much of a hassle, having cute takeaway containers on-hand is a nice alternative (a la Chinese food containers [clean]). Leftovers are the best way to secretely offload clean-up since there’s nothing to clean! It’s also a courteous gesture that keeps on giving. Who doesn’t love some leftover spinach dip amirite amirite

        • Julia

          Love that.

      • Hannah

        Yeah, I would feel super awkward if a friend gave me a favor on the way out. It feels formal in a way that diminishes intimacy

        • Julia

          It all depends on the attitude with which it’s done. Honestly, a lot of my friends start eating whatever’s in the bag right in front of me, and we all have a good laugh.

      • Julia

        It’s not about need; it’s just nice, if you have time and want to do something extra!

  • Robyn

    Such great hosting tips! I like the idea of keeping the group small and close, always leads to a better time 🙂

    xx

    http://www.skinnybelle.com

  • Michelle

    What time do you invite people over for? Aka when do you have time to make the food?

  • Isabelle

    This sounds like the most obnoxious dinner party ever. If I was at a dinner and the host whipped out a freakin guest book, my head would explode.

    • Allegra

      Some of my friends used to do this when they had first moved out of their parents’ house to live on their own. Thankfully it has died down over the years, because it always felt so awkward and pretentious and all the guests were trying to avoid the book anyway.

    • Julia

      Again, it’s not meant to be stuffy. It’s a paperback notebook and it’s just for fun! And that’s the attitude with which I present it: casual, fun. It’s not some big “and now you mist put your signature in this leather volume.” It inspires people to be creative, too, if they want; there are drawings, poems, and all sorts of other funny shit in those pages…

  • Julie Garbutt

    Favor bags sound hard. Making a batch of cookies, freezing it/freezing dough in balls, and throwing them in little ziplocs before people get there—or heck, even when they’re about to leave—actually sounds pretty easy. I have a friend who makes wedding treats for a living and she always sends us home with scraps/extras/dough.

    • Julia

      That’s a great idea!

  • Janet

    I have a 550 square foot apartment and have no problem feeling like an adult, thanks.

    • Allegra

      I hear you. Plus it’s a bit hard to see why throwing a dinner party in 500 sq ft would be challenging – I have a very non-dorm-like 400 sq ft apartment and entertain regularly (and not around my coffee table).

    • isabelle

      Yeah, mine is around 500, I have an open plan living/dining room with a full kitchen. It’s perfect for entertaining because everyone is within earshot. I can seat six at my table. It works really well.

      The only thing I change for entertaining is I move my (lightweight) sofa against the wall so it’s easier to move around, but I keep it in the middle of the room facing the TV when it’s just me.

  • zadieblair

    I love this article! I enjoy entertaining but have felt very held back by my small apt. and this was the inspiration to get back into it! I also feel constrained by my perfectionism, i.e. everything has to be spotless and sparkling and the presentation has to be on point, so being more relaxed about the whole thing will make it more manageable. I have one question, though… anyone know where the coffee table in the photos is from? Thanks!

    • SarahN

      Ditto – Are you me?

  • ‘Becca’lise Deveaux

    I throw theme parties all the time and I’ve used the same guest book at every one over the last five years or so…people sign it yearbook style and doodle, put quotes, whatever. It’s a lot of fun!

  • Lyla

    I would be so irritated if I went to a dinner party expecting things to be interesting and I just got what I feed myself at home everyday. If I served vegetables, hummus, pitas, oranges and chocolate I would feel like I was insulting my friends. Oh look, I bought extra groceries this week but made zero effort otherwise. Maybe the author doesn’t really do much for herself on a day to day basis?

    • Julia

      I treat self care-taking quite seriously, actually! The carrot recipe above came from Andrew Tarlow’s new cookbook, Dinner at the Long Table; the radishes from the New York Times’ new favorite, Small Victories, by Julia Turshen; I marinated the steak in a garlic paste inspired by Mozza’s Nancy Silverton; and the homemade salad dressing is a simple shallot vinaigrette I always make. To me, that stuff is simple but delicious, and definitely worth serving to guests.

      • Allegra

        Julia, I thought the food looked delicious and I definitely have to try those radishes! For me, dinners with friends are not about preparing something fancy – it’s about getting friends together and discussing what’s currently happening in each of our lives over delicious food and drinks. IMHO, any time a host seems to be trying too hard, it creates a level of awkwardness. In our social group, if we want any specialty food, we’ll just go to a restaurant.

      • Mary

        I think the food looks delicious, and I appreciate a simple meal just as much as a fancy one. I go to a restaurant for a fancy meal; I go to a dinner party for the company. In fact, sometimes the “I bought extra groceries, come over” dinners are the best! Last week, I went to a friend’s house where she made dinner for four to use up her last Blue Apron meal before she went on vacation. The conversation was good, the cava was cold, and I cared not one whit that she made something that had been sent to her in a box. One of the other gals brought a half a log of leftover gingersnap dough from her freezer, which made the perfect dessert!

    • Genevieve

      I do like the ‘appetizers’ before the main meal, and I also wanna try out the easy to share (and make) group dinners like hearty stew with bread or mezze-style. Nice tips! However….sorry to say the oranges and chocolate sound kind of sad : that’s like a work snack for me. Maybe my friends and I just eat a lot but dessert is the fun part! Things like ice cream or cookies keep it casual, are easy to share and now there are plenty of options now for healthy, sugar-free and/or organic kinds.

  • Listen, I’m going to need a link to the jacket chilling on the bed…

  • I know the comments section seems generally against the idea of favours (British English because South Africa, soz), but I kind of like this lo-fi approach? Maybe it doesn’t seem like much effort to me because I don’t entertain often, so when I do I like small, special touches, especially if they’re as simple as putting something funny/tasty that I didn’t have to make by hand a week in advance into a paper bag, like mini salami sticks (gaining popularity as a day snack for some reason???). IDK.

    • Allegra

      To me, it’s not really about the extra effort (which I would not mind), but because it feels like trying too hard and, hence, awkward in the setting which is intended to be intimate, friendly, casual. I know it would just make my friends feel uncomfortable.

      • true true. I think everyone knows in better detail what would work best for their settings and specific group of friends

  • Nan

    I love your suggestions and your attitude…I’m an old hand at dinner parties (because I’m old and have been having them for 35 plus years!) and one thing I know for sure, it’s all about making our guests feel loved – it’s not about the placemats or old carpet or small rooms…no one will remember anything except how they felt! Party on!

  • Jeannette

    Where did you get the wooden spoon in the salad? It looks like it is made of Black Walnut?

  • ErinZ

    Kudos to the author for not only writing a v. nice article about a subject near and dear to me but for shutting down some real snark in the comments in a v. sweet, adulty way. You stay classy, Julia. xx

  • I love this!! And the favour idea is such a sweet thing to do — I’d love to adopt that for a slightly more special gathering.

  • Trina D.

    Great article, as someone who entertains often, I especially appreciated the idea for a little favor – def something new I never thought of. I think spending time with friends is the obvious point of throwing a dinner party, but doesn’t mean your effort needs to end there LOL (yikes these comments)

  • Having moved out of a massive house in a small city to a teeny little NYC apartment, I’ve never hosted so many unintentional dinner parties?? It’s like my living room is an entertaining challenge: we don’t even have a coffee table and have to eat on the floor around my pull-out couch bed.

    Potluck-style has been super fun when you name a theme, provide a main, and have everyone bring their favourite fillings/sides/desserts. I hosted Canadian Thanksgiving and roasted some turkey thighs (can’t fit the entire bird into my stove), then everyone else showed up with a version of potatoes, bread, or pie. No vegetables. It was like the Thanksgiving of our childhood dreams.