The expert guide to dinner-party etiquette
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
What’s your policy on party plus-ones?
Terry de Gunzburg, beauty mogul: The more the merrier when surrounded by family and friends… But turning up with an uninvited plus-one is impolite.
Ravinder Bhogal, founder of Jikoni: I once had a plus-one turn up 45 minutes early and it all went very pear-shaped… he lunged in for a kiss and I fought him off with my spatula!
Beverly Nguyen, stylist and homewares dealer: We all need a security blanket from time to time.
Jackson Boxer, chef and restaurateur: The greatest gift anyone could bring to a party is someone clever and interesting I’m yet to meet.
Florence Knight, chef, Sessions Arts Club: I’m brutal; I’d rather have an intimate group of people I know.
What are your failsafe pre-dinner snacks?
Mimi Thorisson, food writer: Something that plays with the palate without filling the stomach: radishes with fleur de sel and butter on the side, pickles and peppered saucissons secs, garlic olives. Anything deep-fried is an instant appetite killer.
JB: I love crisps – my favourites are ones I make, fried in olive oil and massively oversalted. I douse them in cider vinegar. I hate fiddly canapés.
FK: Smoked salmon can be the best and the worst pre-dinner snack, depending on its quality. I always use the Secret Smoke House.
BN: I love a burger before or after an outing!
Do you give your guests a dress code?
BN: Doesn’t matter to me as long as it’s sexy and confident. But a conversation-starter piece is always a plus.
TDG: I always ensure all invitations (whether it’s printed invitations, an email invitation or a simple text message) contain the required dress code, even if it’s informal.
JB: What even is formal dress these days? I always think people look most elegant in the clothes that allow them to remain most at ease with themselves.
Lisa Jones Hyatt and Ruby Kean, founders, Atelier LK: When everyone has made an effort and feels a sense of occasion it can often lead to some of the most memorable times.
Joseph Denison Carey, chef and supper-club host: I let out a small sigh of despair whenever I’m invited to an evening with a dress code. As a 25-year-old man whose wardrobe is filled with jeans and hoodies, it’s fair to say that I dress mostly for comfort. I say wear what you want, no dress code.
Home-cooked, catered or order in?
Laura Jackson, founder of Glassette: I always like to cook and add in a few cheats, from shop-bought meringue to pastry. It’s not worth being a slave to the kitchen for days on end.
BN: Guests always love to hang out in the kitchen and pretend to help, so: home-cooked.
Felix Conran, artist and cook: Home-cooked, preferably home-grown or found foods. My girlfriend is an amazing forager and my mother keeps an incredible vegetable garden. I will almost always be cooking over a fire – outside standing at our Argentinian-style grill, or hunched up inside on a jerry-rigged grill in the fireplace.
LJH + RK: As a guest, I think there’s a warmer feeling with the energy in the kitchen, the smell of what’s cooking and the chatting while prepping.
What’s a great party theme?
Themes are like fancy dress – they diminish your friends by suggesting they lack the verve to be glamorous without guidance. Jackson Boxer
JDC: I’ve built my entire life and career around the fact that I’m a massive feeder. There are few things that satisfy me more than a group of friends enjoying a meal that I’ve worked hard at. Also, my friends and family would never let me get away with making somebody else do all of the hard work.
FK: As a chef, I am of course not opposed to cooking a home meal. But if I’m with close friends, I’ll order in so I can relax and enjoy their company.
How do you navigate food intolerances?
RB: My philosophy of 20 courses means there’s bound to be something for everyone. Part of the generosity of inviting someone around for a meal is taking the time to care what they eat.
Anya Hindmarch, fashion and accessories designer: No party is fun if you are hungry. But if you are too annoying (with no reason) then you might not get invited again…
JB: As a professional cook I’m neurotically respectful of other people’s allergies, but treat adults who simply have an aversion to certain ingredients with something approaching pity.
BN: People with food intolerances can eat before or after – they always seem to find a way to eat something…
Do you have a preferred seating plan?
AH: I love a weird seating plan. Sometimes I do the oldest to youngest. Or a table of women and a table of men. Or alphabetical. But always around a very narrow table so plates almost touch, with people at either end. That way you can have conversations of six. I also love a “one-conversation” dinner. It often leads to some interesting discussions.
LJ: I like to match personalities rather than boy/girl gender, which feels quite outdated.
What’s your go-to party playlist?
LJ: I love a good film soundtrack – great when you don’t have time to make a playlist. From Drive to Call Me By Your Name or Dirty Dancing…
Naturally by JJ Cale
Drive, the Motion Picture soundtrack
No thank you by Little Simz
FK: If I’m ever in doubt, I always turn to John Martyn, Bill Evans, Mark Hollis and JJ Cale – especially his album Naturally.
JDC: Soul, funk, hip-hop, jazz and neo-soul. I want the music to create a relaxed atmosphere. I also want it to echo the intimacy of the evening. Anything by D’Angelo, Cleo Sol, Sault, Robert Glasper, Little Simz, Bilal, Erykah Badu, Lianne La Havas, Olivia Dean. I’ll stop there, though I could go on…
LJH + RK: Music has such a transportive power; the most important thing is to read the room.
Do you drink the bottle your guests bring, or save for later?
TDG: My husband and I adore wine, particularly wine sourced in local vineyards in the Provence region in France, where we live. We want our guests to enjoy the wine as we intended it to be consumed, meticulously pairing it with our menu. We like to keep gifted wine for later.
LJ: Drink on the night for sure! I’ve had a dinner before where I’ve asked everyone to bring a bottle with a story attached to it… it made for great conversations.
Should guests bring a gift?
TDG: Never turn up to a party empty-handed! Especially if it’s a party at someone’s house.
AH: No gifts needed. If you must, the best gifts are something from a garden or homemade. But a bag of Minstrels is always welcome. Or a tin of caviar.
JB: Perfectly ripe fruit for your host to enjoy for breakfast the next morning.
FK: You can never go wrong with chocolate. My favourite has to be Original Beans’ Femmes de Virunga. The brand is high-quality, carbon-negative and works closely with female farmers in the Congo. I also love BRIK Chocolate – it’s handmade in the UK.
How do you decorate the table?
FC: Fruits, vegetables or flowers that are in season. I tend to do something a bit fun and unexpected. For instance, I once carved a sofa out of butter.
FK: Simple seasonal flowers – and candles. Most importantly, nothing too high in height so that it blocks faces.
Arthur Parkinson, gardener and writer: I find doing the flowers for a dinner party annoying because you have to cut the lovely long stems so short and then people still make a fuss if you put too many vases out. Once the alcohol hits, the vases get put to the side in place of ashtrays. The best idea I’ve heard for table decorations are buff Cochin hens, but you’d need a decent-sized room to accommodate hens within a coop on a table.
LJH + RK: Functional elements are as much part of the decoration as the flowers. We love colourful glass plates by Leo Kasper and characterful end-of-dinner coffee cups by Christabel MacGreevy.
Individual servings or sharing platters?
RB: I have Persian friends who say the same thing as me: the idea for a starter, main and dessert is a very European way of dining. For us, culturally, it’s always about lots of platters, generosity and wanting to give everything that you have…
FK: I always think it’s nice to share starters, so there’s a real sense of abundance and colour. Then I’ll go into plated individual servings for the main and the pudding.
LJH + RK: Individual servings for dinner, sharing platters for lunch.
JDC: If I’m feeding more than four people, plating individual portions starts to become a bit of a ball-ache. I also like watching people share things; passing plates and spoons around a table reminds me of being at my grandparents’ house.
What’s the ideal number of courses?
Fc: Personally I like one long one, with really good bread and butter.
AH: Two. Otherwise too full and too late.
JB: Fewer courses, more waves.
FK: Keep it speedy and simple with three: a starter, main and pudding.
Cheese before pudding or pudding before cheese?
JB: Cheese at the beginning of the meal, actually, for me.
LJ: Pudding then cheese, always.
FK: Sometimes I find people are full up on the cheese by the time it gets to pudding. I like to put the cheese out alongside petits fours at the end of the meal so you can go between them as you like.
AP: You can never have enough ice cubes.
LJ: Never finish the evening with shots of alcohol.
RB: Turn up to a dinner party 15 minutes after you’ve been asked. There’s always that last-minute thing the host is doing.
Clean-up-as-you-go or wait until guests have left?
MT: The duty of a good host is that they must face the mess alone.
It’s a lovely thing if someone’s enjoyed a meal and you’ve got something left to give them. One guest came prepared – she brought her own Tupperware with her and presented it at the table. Ravinder Bhogal
LJH + RK: Never clean up as you go, it shifts the energy and makes your guest feel obliged to help.
JDC: Find a small area out of the way where you can pile dirty dishes and leave them until the evening is coming to a close.
FK: I find it impossible not to clean up as I go. That’s why I try to keep the menu simple, to avoid spending all the time at the sink.
Ultimate party faux-pas?
LJ: Turning up drunk or full from lunch!
FK: Smoking before your main arrives. It makes it go cold and ruins the taste.
AP: I absolutely hate not being able to hear well due to music.
AH: Late. Midweek. Bad placement. Wide table. Bright room. Loud music. Too many courses. Tall flowers. Low chairs. Boring guests.
And what if you want to leave early?
AP: I can’t stand being at most social things and try to leave as early as I can. A wise person told me once that the thing to say on arrival is, “I’ve got to leave [at whatever time]” and before they can reply the magic words are, “And I know you’ll understand.”
Are handwritten thank-you notes necessary?
BN: Manners never go out of style.
TDG: Manners don’t cost a thing. A thank-you message is necessary, whether it be an email, a phone call, or a text message.
JB: If they were in any way necessary, they wouldn’t be nearly so touching to receive.
How do you ask guests to leave?
AH: Sometimes, I just say, “Right, time for bed.” A good evening doesn’t have to be a late evening. In fact, a very good evening is home for the 10 o’clock news for me.
JDC: When it’s late and you’re starting to flag, slowly start cleaning up. If you haven’t already been doing it all evening your guests will notice the change in tone and will more often than not suggest wrapping up.
LJH + RK: Our rule of thumb is to let the night play out; guests will leave when they’re ready.
LJ: Dimming the music and brightening the lights… If that fails, head to bed and let them carry on!
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