How to host the ultimate dinner party this holiday season
What’s the secret to a successful dinner party? MFK Fisher, doyenne of American food writing, once professed that it should be “six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home”. Writer and film-maker Nora Ephron famously swore by the “Rule of Four” – always having a fourth plate on the table that was unexpected and intriguing, such as monkey bread or tiny little baked apples. For Laura Jackson, co-founder of online homeware marketplace Glassette and supper-club host, the new dinner-party rules are simpler still: “It’s all about creating a really great atmosphere. Even though the food is important, it comes secondary to that. You want people to feel welcome and for it to be a cosy space.”
Jackson suggests scenting the space with candles such as those by Bzzwax & Co (from £22) or new “sensory-based” brand CYRE, whose crinkled glass vessels (from £69) make for interesting centrepieces and can be repurposed once the wick has burned down. “I always find that flickering sparkle you get from a naked flame to be really nice,” she says. “Everyone looks better by candlelight,” agrees food writer and host Skye McAlpine. “You can be sitting in the grottiest kitchen and have piles of washing up stacked around you, but if you switch the lights right down and put lots of candles along the table, it instantly transforms it into a magical space.”
When it comes to setting the table, Jackson likes to layer different tablecloths and napkins. She recommends brands such as Straw London, The Sette and Butter Homeware for beautiful linens (from £11). “I always tend to mix it up and use a combination of the high street and vintage pieces I’ve collected over the years,” she says. “I don’t mind it looking mismatched – people aren’t coming to a fashion event at my house, they’re just coming for dinner.”
A way to bring some festive cheer to your table, says McAlpine, is to adorn it with bowls of winter fruits such as satsumas or pomegranates (“the culinary equivalent of a Christmas bauble”). She also suggests stocking up on pretty postcards from museum gift shops to use as name cards or for creating individual menus for your guests in gold pen, which “instantly makes it feel like a special occasion”.
Crucial to the atmosphere, says fashion PR Daisy Hoppen – who regularly hosts parties for fashion clients such as Shrimps and Ganni – is the right playlist. “You need to consider the tone of the dinner, guests and food, and have something that will grow as the evening develops,” she says. “My personal favourite is forever Van Morrison, but for festive times it’s always nice to play some retro classics that end with Mariah Carey.”
And as for the perfect menu? “Keep things as simple as possible,” McAlpine advises. “Obviously you still want it to feel really special, especially in the holiday period, but it’s about finding that balance so that it’s still doable and you can enjoy it as a host.” Her go-to festive dishes include roast pork with honey-baked persimmons (the recipe for which can be found in her cookbook A Table For Friends), and a beetroot and Gorgonzola tart, followed by frozen berries with hot white-chocolate sauce and a touch of ground saffron, “which takes five minutes but looks really beautiful on a big, lipped cake stand”.
And her one golden dinner-party rule? “I never do starters. It’s controversial but I’d rather have more dishes all on the table at the same time,” she says. “I think the food almost acts as decoration, but I also find it frustrating to sit down and relax into conversation then have to get up and clear all the plates. It really breaks up the flow.”
Hoppen recommends Meera Sodha’s cookbooks and Our Korean Kitchen by Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo for a big dinner party at home with friends – or, for a trusty Italian recipe, The Sopranos Family Cookbook. “Sometimes all you and your guests want is a massive bowl of delicious pasta and lots of red wine,” she says. For dessert, she is a fan of a simple affogato, or hibiscus ice cream served in a hollowed-out lemon for when she wants to create more of “a dessert moment”.
But if you don’t have time for a festive blowout with all the extra bells and whistles, calling in a pizza is an option too. “People would rather have a pizza than have a three-course meal and not see you,” says Jackson. “Decorate it, serve it on a beautiful platter and get some really fancy napkins. People don’t mind.”