When I was younger, I never dreamed about hosting dinner parties. Keep in mind that this was in the time before the Food Network, before food and wine magazines were glossy jerk-off rags (and I mean that in the best way) featuring anything beyond ham with cherries and pineapple. Also, I hated cooking when I was younger because it was always prefaced by my dad saying “I’ve got a job for you,” and was later accompanied by him staring over our shoulders and yelling at us because we weren’t doing it “right,” which meant “his way and only his way.”
Eventually, I grew up and realized that, like a pre-20th century farmer, my father probably had kids just to have people to help with chores (not really, both my sister and I were accidents but we still had to work as if we were hired help), and that “his way and only his way” was ridiculous. I left the house, learned to cook on my own, and eventually looked forward to when I could cook for people in my own house.
I still like doing this, even though living in a more expensive city means we’ve backtracked in terms of house size. Nowadays, hosting people for dinner means asking people to bring chairs and somehow crowding them into our kitchen where someone has to scooch way up to the table if anyone has to get into the bathroom. It’s not too terrible, though, because the limited space means that less people have to make the kitchen vs. living room decision, and getting a drink from the fridge is a true community effort since there has to be an assembly line to even get over there.
I’m not a super host but I do okay, and I like to employ a few of the things I’ve learned since the dark days when cooking for other people made me shudder:
Clean your goddamn house. I mean, obviously.
Be very clear about your expectations. By this, I mean that you should tell people if an event is BYOB and what they should bring, if anything. Don’t try to be flippant and say “just bring yourself!” when you don’t want to share your booze (I don’t) or make a dessert (I always do because cake). Never tell someone to bring flowers, as this is presumptuous and kind of shitty. Plus, if someone does bring them as a surprise, it feels like the sweetest present in the world. And if they don’t, then you don’t have to pause cooking to find a vase or trim the stems.
Ask people about their issues. The real ones. I don’t mean asking around to see who’s gluten-intolerant, who’s vegan, and who’s paleo that week. That’s crazy. I mean asking to see if there’s anything anyone really hates or is truly allergic to eating. See, you may love mushrooms but they make me want to throw up, so I’d appreciate it if not everything you made had mushrooms in it. Make sense?
Turn the porch light on. Even if it’s just a little bit dark. Walking up to a house that looks like it’s ready to have visitors is a far better impression than forgetting this plus your locked door plus you can’t even hear people arrive in the first place because your doorbell is broken and there’s music on.
Do not make people remove their shoes.
Have a place for coats and say so immediately. It makes me cringe when someone stands there awkwardly with their stuff and no one helps them put it away.
Do not show off your record collection. Music is fine and should be playing at an unobtrusive volume, but getting up every two songs to change records is rude and by the way, your tastes aren’t that great to begin with.
Candles are good, candles that smell like perfume are bad. I recommend the Pacifica Thai Lemongrass candle, a single one either placed in the bathroom or in a side room that isn’t wafting into wherever you’re putting the food.
NO INCENSE. NOT EVER.
Always have an extra roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. This seems obvious but a lot of people don’t do it, and there are fewer things more panic-inducing than having to take an emergency shit at someone else’s house and not having enough clean up materials to finish the job.
Have nice soap. Even if it’s just the fancy soap for company. At our last game night, Dylan emerged from the bathroom and said “you guys have the best smelling soap ever,” and it seriously made me glow with happiness. I don’t care if it costs more, a single bottle of really nice hand soap is way better than a Costco-sized case of that garbage that smells like cheap latex. Would you rather be reminded of sweet basil or of used condoms? Yeah, I thought so.
Keep empty glasses on a tray. Actually, I don’t do this, but I always wish I did. It’s just so much easier than trying to tell people which cabinet to use, because people inevitably get it wrong and at least in our kitchen, some glasses have to be kept in one cabinet while other glasses have to be kept in another.
Have the wine opener out and visible. Same goes for ashtrays (if you can smoke in the house) and serving tools.
Share your booze. Okay, I know I said that I don’t like to share booze, but what I meant was that I don’t like to share all of it. Really, what I don’t like is people who hear BYOB but show up empty-handed, or with a single 12-ounce bottle of light beer and then beg one of everything off everyone else for the next few hours. I love giving people tastes of something I love or a glass or bottle of something, and I love it to the point that I will berate them into trying it because “dude, it’s so good!”
Cook vegetarian food. Not all of it. Just some. Like two dishes. Maybe an appetizer. I might not agree with vegetarianism and I might question most of the vegetarians who’d want to eat at my house, but for the sake of not being a dick, just make a couple of things that a vegetarian can eat.
Institute a cocktail hour. You should know by now that some people are always late (these are usually the people who don’t cook for others, as they have no idea how much planning and time management goes into it). Giving them an hourlong window to arrive – during which time people can drink and snack on appetizers – is gracious and lets people get nice and liquored up before the meal, which means they’ll be less inclined to critique your food.
Do appetizers! And dessert! Who thinks they can get away with just serving dinner? At the risk of sounding like an asshole, you’re inviting people for a meal experience. Let them come in, relax, snack on stuff that makes them drink more (salt, cheese, cured meats!). Then let them eat their meal and go for seconds if they want (people who go for seconds are the best). Then let them chill out for awhile before you serve dessert, because sending people home with something sweet in their bellies is a very nice way to thank them for coming over.
Remember the “Rule of Four.” Nora Ephron wrote about it, and it’s basically the concept of not limiting yourself (or, by extension, your guests) to the 3-point protein-veg-carb standard. Make more things. Make one unexpected thing. Give people choices. Don’t be afraid to make a sauce.
Serve family or buffet style. I have no idea how or why anyone would try to serve composed plates to a crowd. In this house, it’s food on the table or on the counters, and a pile of flatware and napkins in the middle. Just get at it.
Make coffee. It’s just nice to have at the end of a meal. Just be sure to use good coffee (dark, strong) and make it well (a drip maker is fine and best for a crowd, but don’t be a pussy and make it weak).
If someone offers to clean up, let them. Luke did this at our “thanks for helping us move” dinner and it was the second-best thing to happen all night (the first was Courtney bringing flowers, heeee!). If no one offers to clean up, don’t do it. At least not until the next day. Stopping the whole thing to do dishes is a pain in the ass, and watching you do them makes other people feel like they should offer (which they shouldn’t have to do). Rinsing dishes and wineglasses is fine. Clattering away at a sink full of dirty water is not.
Don’t freak about the mess. It can wait. Yes, it can. Also, who cares if someone spills something on the carpet? Clean it up like a reasonable adult. It’s already irreparably damaged by cat barf, anyway.
Thank people for coming. It’s so basic and simple but so many people don’t do this. You’re glad that people showed up and proved you have friends, right? So thank them. Also, say “you’re welcome” if someone is nice enough to thank you for the invitation. Welcoming people into your home is the whole point.