Words By: Bri Lee
For the first time in my entire post-sharehouse life I live in an apartment that has space for a dining table (small and extendable) and a dishwasher (old and semi-functional). It was at this apartment, in Kings Cross, Sydney, that I finally began hosting fully fledged, adult dinner parties. During the prolonged lockdowns of recent times, those heady evenings swirl in my pre-Covid dreamspace like puffs of negroni-coloured cloud. As with travelling and dancing and all the other great things in life we have too long been denied, I find myself anticipating a dinner party renaissance, planning and scheming and dreaming up menus and tablescapes with renewed fervour.
Let’s get something straight up front: I am profoundly uninterested, uninspired and unimpressed by ‘fancy’ dinner parties. The special-plates-and-cutlery thing simply doesn’t do it for me. If the host is wearing shoes in their own damn kitchen in their own damn home then it’s not a party, it’s a performance. Hard pass! The late, great restaurant critic and journalist A. A. Gill termed dinner parties of that variety ‘the dandruff on the shoulder pads of the evil decade, the 1980s’. One time at someone’s dinner party he infamously sent a meal back to the kitchen.
‘The received wisdom is that being a guest is a treat, a pleasure, even an honour,’ Gill wrote in a 2004 essay for The Times. ‘But just think about it: there are eight of us who have taken an hour to get ready and taxi across town in clean shirts with bottles of wine in order to be amusing and entertaining in someone else’s dining room.’ Here he asks, pertinently, who’s really doing whom a favour? What Gill really loved was cooking
food for friends. I’m with him. But! A critical caveat! The simplicity of the sentiment disguises the secret to success: preparation. The core ingredients for a great time are setting, friends, food and (if you’re so disposed) drink, and preparation is not only crucial to a fruitful soiree but part of the fun. Here, I lay out my approach. As with all recipes, adjust according to taste.
My apartment has spectacularly high ceilings and spectacularly miniscule square metreage. You win some, you lose some. So, what are you working with? Survey your space and work responsively. Sometimes you have to improvise, but it pays to assess the risks involved. I don’t have a bath tub, and so one time I filled the kitchen sink with ice to chill drinks before realising I’d left myself without the use of said sink for meal prep. Rookie error.
Don’t try to hide your home’s apparent deficiencies. Instead, lean into them. I don’t have a full set of proper dining chairs, so someone gets my office chair and someone gets the piano stool we’ve appropriated from the hallway. It’s all good!
Speaking of the hallway, I like to greet guests shoeless and wearing socks, and if they ask whether to remove their shoes, I say ‘yeah!’ Apart from basic hygiene and cleanliness, I think padding around in socks on a faded Turkish carpet facilitates a feeling of home-ness that encourages comfortability and democratic attitudes towards conversation.
Promise me (promise!) you’ll never underestimate what the right music can do for a dinner party. At The Fat Duck in 1997, Heston Blumenthal put an iPod in a conch shell so that when a dish called ‘The Sound of the Sea’ was presented, guests heard waves crashing and seagulls squawking. A 2013 Oxford University study led by professor of experimental psychology Charles Spence suggested that high-pitched melodies enhance people’s perception of sweetness in food. Curtin University music psychologist Dr Adrian North reports that diners at restaurants leave bigger tips when classical music is playing.
So what does all this mean for your dinner party? Don’t just pick some random playlist and put it on shuffle. Sort your shit out. Make a playlist that goes from chill to funky to boisterous and back to mellow, then play it top to bottom. When in doubt, cue up Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings or French public radio station FIP. (Nobody knows how or why FIP is the best thing to play during parties or while doing housework, it just is.)
In terms of the table itself, don’t overdo it. At one dinner party I attended I was sat in front of a floral arrangement so big I couldn’t see (let alone speak with) the guest on the other side of the table. What lunacy. Another tip: buying big lilies for that divine rich-person smell means buying them before they’ve opened—long stems— three or four days before the party, so that they’re in their scented prime on the night. Just don’t leave them on the dining table and expect guests to know who is sitting across from them.
Candles famously create a more intimate, romantic light than electric lamps over overheads, but make sure they burn away from and down to the dish or tablecloth, pooling wax as they please. That’s fun. Short-stemmed flowers in small vases are good, but branches with mandarins still attached are better.
If the food is the star of the show then you’ve got the wrong guests. If you feel the need to tell your guests where to sit then, for fuck’s sake, you’ve got the wrong guests. This isn’t some school play, this is your Globe Theatre. Bring the talent and let them take it from there. If you’re heavy handed in trying to control the party it’s probably not going to be a very good party.
My sole recommendation regarding guests, however, rather than going in with a blunderbuss approach and simply inviting your most charismatic mates, is to consider this critical question: who will respect the dinner table cone of silence? What is shared in my apartment at my table must stay in my apartment and at my table. People may not feel as free and easy to chat and joke if they think someone’s making mental notes. And on a related note: put your damn phones away. I actually said, out loud, to a guest of mine once, ‘No phones at the dinner table’, to which they replied, ‘Yes mum,’ and we all laughed. Obviously it’s best to lead by example on this point.
A game I enjoy is Dream Dinner Party Guest List. It’s so revealing! So many people are such terrible judges of character with such malformed imaginations! Marilyn Monroe is a popular go-to, for example, but I’m more of a Cher kind of person. (I love Cher interviews. I recently found this funny old magazine article where she listed some of her favourite things: being in love, Italian food, spending money. Her pet peeves: bland food, weak men, phoniness, fake flowers.) I do wonder if Shakespeare would actually make for a good dinner party guest. None of us know anything about him! He seems pretty private? I’m convinced Channing Tatum would be really funny and chill. Zadie Smith, of course, and she can bring Sally Rooney as her plus one because they’re friends IRL. Kerry O’Brien for politics and perspective. Dolly Parton because she is the greatest of all time. And have you read Emma Thompson’s diaries? Her. I’d have to have her too.
Food + drink
In her 2020 book A Table for Friends, Skye McAlpine says she doesn’t do entrées for the same reason she doesn’t do fancy china or floral arrangements. This is similar to Gill’s approach. Regarding her stance on entrées, I respect the disposition but vehemently disagree: having several courses and stretching things out for hours is just too much fun. It’s an excuse for a different wine, it’s a new little ooh, aah moment for your friends. I’m having them over to treat them. To show them I care. I’m serving them.
Where I do absolutely agree with McAlpine is her recommendation regarding meal-planning: start with the star of the show and work out from there. Is your main cold or hot? Colourful or brown? Does it go from oven to table or will you need to plate it up yourself? Can it be prepared way in advance and to what extent? Build outwards from your main course—keep things light to start and finish if your main meal is heavygoing. If your main comprises a lot of cheese and meat, consider how the sides will cut through or lighten the load. Maybe the dessert is the show-stopper! A multilayered pavlova is what everybody everywhere always wants—prep each component ahead of time and then put it together on the night.
According to Brunello Cucinelli, the Italian luxury fashion designer and famed dinner party thrower, the Italian way is to have separate plates for everything. In 2017 the New York Times described one of Cucinelli’s twice-yearly dinner parties held during Pitti Uomo, this time at the grand Villa Palmieri in Florence, noting the buffet was rigorously separated by course and flavour to keep the perfumes from mingling. Unless you’re a millionaire with hired help, simply make sure that each course has its own set of plates to avoid any unwanted crossover of foods and flavours—not to mention having to wash dishes midway through. I’m fond of starters and entrées that require only hands and fingers to eat; eschewing the need for knives and forks early in proceedings helps to set a relaxed tone for the evening ahead.
Finally, it is a sin to overlook the importance of drink selection—that’s a fool’s folly. I like bubbles or a cocktail on arrival, something to sip that carries an implicit sense of occasion. On the morning of, I text guests what we’ll be eating in case they want to bring a wine to match. Have plenty of your own, of course, because if things go according to plan you’ll burn through all the bottles. For dessert you can return to bubbles or, even better, a complementary cocktail to match. People will squirm and say, ‘Oh, I’m so full,’ when you pop the key lime pie on the table, but when they hear the cocktail shaker going up and down and around and watch a Trinidad Sour oozing out into a coupe they will be powerless in the face of such delicious charms.
My dream dinner party
On arrival, champagne for everyone. A shabby old tablecloth and some candles. I will have bought twice as much rosemary as I need from the markets, and the humble arrangement at the table’s centre will be a short jar full of fresh rosemary sprigs. Some bay leaves too, if I can swing it. Also on the table: a giant platter of passionfruit cut in half with little spoons on the side, a bowl of Smith’s Original chips, bunches of green grapes, baguettes (ripped, not cut) and homemade hummus with mountains of dukkah piled on top flanked by two of the biggest hunks of Comté you’ve ever seen. The windows are open and Sam Cooke is playing.
Once everyone is seated and has had a minimum of two flutes, we’ll take the nibbles away and pour each person a Caipirinha. It’s the national drink of Brazil, very refreshing, and, with only three ingredients, simple to make in large batches. You’ll need a shit-ton of limes and ice, but people will exclaim at how good it is and it’ll whet their appetites for the crispy, salty entrée I’m about to serve. Somehow I will combine some or all of the following: puffs of golden pastry, browned bacon or pancetta, figs and honey, pine nuts, and large shavings of parmesan cheese. Pile ’em up, knock ’em down.
For mains we’ll need red wine glasses. Everyone will pull the bottles they’ve brought out of their bags to compare, and table space will be sparse because it’s roast time. If my mates eat meat, great, I’ve already slow-roasted the lamb. If they’re vegetarian or vegan I’ll do an entire head of the biggest cauliflower I can find and place it in the middle of the table like the show stopper it is. One of the guests carves while I’m bringing over the sides. Sides for a roast are sometimes the best bit. A gigantic bowl of glistening green peas, a pyramid of juicy corn cobs, and crispy potatoes. I’ve made twice as many potatoes as I think I’ll need, because they always get eaten. And I’ll bring back the leftover hunks of baguette for gravy mopping, too. The music has moved on, by the way. You might not notice it, but now it’s a mix of Brubeck and Dusty Springfield and Cream.
I usually prefer to take a breather between main and dessert, so when everyone’s ready I’ll make the announcement: affogatos and espresso martinis. I don’t have an ice cream maker and frankly couldn’t be bothered even if I did, but what I do have down the road from me is a fantastic gelateria. I’ll buy giant takeaway containers, a few different flavours, and put them on the table so people can self-serve. Keeping dessert simple means I can have plenty to drink by now as well. No pressure!
It’s easy to make two consecutive pots full of the biggest sized stovetop espresso and pour them into a temperature-safe jug to pass around the table. It’s also nice to put a dish of crispy sweet things for sprinkling on top, like honey-roasted macadamias, or—a crowd favourite—crushed up Oreos. Espresso for the martinis has been prepared earlier and cooled, of course, so now it’s just a question of shaking. Nobody says ‘no’ to an espresso martini.
I’ll just vibe it hereafter. People can revert to their favourite drink of the evening. Sometimes dancing follows, sometimes it’s jokes, sometimes heated debate. The candles will have melted down and any lipstick has been licked off and eaten away, and reapplying would be terribly silly. I’ll lead by example, pouring myself a Cointreau on ice and swinging on my chair. The rest of the night will be long remembered. In the morning I will laze around hungover until rousing myself to fill the dishwasher around lunchtime, pick at leftovers and leave pots to soak. I’ll shake the tablecloth out the window. My friends got home okay. We are all loved, sleepy, safe, andfull.
CREDITS FOR IMAGES:
Artwork by Carla Uriarte