The Millennial's Guide to Entertaining: How to Host a Rad Dinner for Friends

There's nothing quite so special as sharing a meal with friends.  Whether it's a casual mid-week shindig, or a "let's lose track of time together" affair on the weekend. 

Brunch.  Lunch.  Pizza + beer.  Taco Tuesday.  There are many occasions to celebrate many things, including my personal mantra, “make every day special because every day is special.”  Whatever the occasion, the ritual of purposefully gathering at the table is cherished timelessly. 

Hosting a dinner party, however, has become a lost art.  Somewhere between trays of canapés and deviled eggs, elaborate multi-course meals, and the convenience of taking out, we lost the sense of inviting people into our homes and welcoming them to stay, to just be - without asking them to bring their dinner and drinks, potluck style. 

For me, hosting has always been an incredibly pleasurable hobby. I know very well that I am a minority here, though; I know that many of my peers have little inclination to host a dinner for fear of failure, pressure, cost, and not knowing what to do, or how to do it.  I am not judging, this is a transcription of words from the horse’s mouth, and the words I hear are “I’d love to have people over, but it’s all a little much.” 

So allow me to use this space as a handy little “How To,” and demystify the lost art of hosting, maybe even racking up a few invitations while I’m at it…

Consider the three things that will affect your overall evening, and plan from there:

1.     The People: six is a perfect number, including you.  It’s big enough to spark conversation across the table and small sufficiently to allow everyone to participate.   It’s an intimate gathering that will feel just rowdy enough.  Think of who will play well with others: is there a friend who needs a bit of coaxing to come out of her shell?  Balance out that energy with someone more confident or outgoing.  Are there people who you know will connect well but have never met?  The perfect the time to introduce them.  Are your friends singles or couples?  Invite a mixture; often couples get pigeonholed into only ever hanging out with other couples, and singles get forgotten.  The bottom line is people connect with people, so invite guests who you know will bring out the best in each other, and only love to be a part of that great warmth that comes from just being together and laughing.

Don’t ask anyone to bring anything.  Just allow your guest to come and be.  Conversely, when you are attending as a guest, never ask, but always bring something.  It might be something to drink (dark rum, sparkling water that is fancier than your average bear). It might be a new and thoughtful gift (graphic tea towel, great olive oil, succulent in an attractive planter, paper straws, and novelty napkins, the best jam with a spoon to it), but bring something.  Sadly this part of the lost art, knowing how to be a guest, and received as such. 

2.  The Ambience: Very simply, channel your favorite restaurant.  Put together a playlist of music that you love and is simultaneously easy to tune out, dim the lights, light as many tea lights in small mason jars or glass cups as is possible, and have fresh flowers at the ready.  White, white, white.  White plates, white napkins, white candles.. keep it so incredibly simple and welcoming that it just feels good to be there, and is almost literally effortless to pull together.  I think it’s when you start trying, that it ironically begins to fall apart.

Embrace the concept of the kitchen party.  Don't fight it.  People always want to be in the kitchen, so let them stay there.  I used to have a formal dining room that I would, on occasion, try to corral people to sitting in, and it changed the energy and the dynamic entirely.  Let you be you, and your friends are them and get cozy with people gathered around, sipping and laughing while you work your magic. 

3.  The Menu: sometimes this is the most intimidating part for some, and it needn’t be.  You don’t have to be a great cook to pull off a great dinner, because of all the other social factors involved.  If you always come back to creating that feeling of warmth and welcome, it kinda doesn’t matter what you’re eating, because the feeling is already there.  That said, the simplest way to slay a menu for six people has a theme.  If you pick a baseline theme, it will anchor your focus and keep you on track.  It also helps create intangible ambiance for your guests, who immediately now feel that they’re a part of something bigger.  My go to parties are Italian, Mexican, 50’s, and my (and my friends) all-time fave, Pizza + Prosecco.  For whatever you choose as your theme, the formula remains the same:

•   Start with a cocktail and easy apps

•   Choose food that can in large part be prepped in advance of your guests’ arrival, then quickly executed while they’re in the kitchen with you

•   Finish with a hellishly simple dessert

The Complete How To.

Say you’re going Italian: open the evening with a pre-made pitcher of Negronis, and have that ready to greet your people over a cutting board full of three to five different antipasti (olives, cured meats, bread sticks, parmesan shavings, artichokes, roasted mushrooms or almonds…).  Move to wine for the main course, which is a delicious bolognese sauce that’s been simmering for the day, over pasta, besides a great salad and garlic bread, and that’s a very simple execution, even while drinking and talking.  Finish with the stupidly easy Affogato (a shot of espresso over vanilla ice cream), or even better and equally comfortable, Sgroppino, a shot of champagne over lemon gelato, and you’ve had a low stress, easy to execute, deliciously fun evening.

Pizza + Prosecco is a spin off of this and requires slightly more engagement from you, but always feels casual and interactive and perfect for every single Friday night.  Choose three pizzas you want to make, prep all the ingredients in advance.  Start with - you know it - prosecco, and add bruschetta with garlic toast, maybe an artichoke or white bean spread, and more olives, and slices of salami baked till crispy, and topped with fig jam.  The trickier part is rolling out the dough, three times over, but it’s so fun to do so while everyone is gathered around…especially if your confidence level is 100 and you start tossing the dough!  Bake off one at a time, and as you’re cutting one pie, fire the next one in the oven.  As I say, it’s not the easiest for a newbie host but is an excellent and more comfortable than you think a party that is guaranteed to make your house the hot spot on the block.

Mexican?  Sub in a pitcher of Palomas with chips, fresh guacamole and salsa, and raw jicama sticks sprinkled with Tajin (a dehydrated lime salt)…which can be found in “ethnic” aisles urban grocery stores.  Your main can be shredded chicken or pork that’s been cooking down all day, served on warmed corn tortillas with avocado and shredded cabbage, and a corn / red pepper/feta salad on the side and icy blonde Modelo to wash it down.  Depending on the season, you could finish with either Mexican hot chocolate (cocoa with chile and cinnamon) or cubes of watermelon with lime and mint.

50’s?  Lean in with a pitcher of Cuba Libres alongside a pickle tray, chips, and olive or crab dip.  Secondly, move your main into something ultra comforting and nostalgic, like mac and cheese (throw a tin of lobster in if you want to feel fancy), shepherd’s pie, basically any casserole with cream of mushroom soup and comfort, and for dessert do something ultra playful like a cake (because, cake) or a make your sundae bar.  It will tug at the inner child and make people feel so comforted and welcome that they’ll just be at ease and relaxed and impressed as hell.

So there you have it.  In a nutshell, remember that the point is bringing people together, not to be perfect.  There is a beautiful ritual in gathering that doesn’t necessitate formality but does invite a nod to the past and our human connection. 

Above all, it invites that gorgeous high you get from being with your tribe and loving them fiercely exactly as they are.  And the pasta doesn't hurt. 

Leisse WilcoxComment