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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