Sunday, February 12, 2012

How To Give A Successful Dinner Party...The Guest List

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One of the most important considerations in planning a dinner party is putting together a list of those who will attend. This is not a haphazard exercise.   It is one that merits a lot of thought and consideration;  for in its outcome lies the success or failure of a memorable evening.

As a host or hostess, it is your responsibility to provide a beautiful setting where good food, good drinks and excellent service are enjoyed by all.  The rest and most important part of the evening  is a shared responsibility between the host or hostess and the guests.   You can have the best chef in the world and serve the most delightful Bordeaux from your cellar but if a good time is not had by all, there goes a very expensive dinner party .

Whether your dinner party consist of eight people or twenty the same rules apply, although in the case of a small group, the guest list is crucial.

I believe that a good mix is the secret to a fun evening.  But be careful how you mix.  Whether the different personalities come from age, culture or social standing,  make sure a common thread runs through the mix, such as a shared interest or hobby.  This levels the playing field and makes everyone more at ease with each other and facilitates breaking the ice amongst strangers.


On the other hand, at a dinner party of equals where you have to mix an array of people you simply owe a social invitation to, a balance of personalities is crucial.  When it comes to guests, I have learned, there are the givers and the takers.

The givers come in and immediately take to their responsibilities...being good guests.  They have been trained from birth on how to behave in social circumstances.  Most of them are simply born with this gene.  Others have been trained at home, something extremely rare and lacking these days.  They are usually alpha males or females. They go out of their way to meet and shake everyone's hand and make sure everyone is having a good time.  If they see someone with an empty drink, they offer to fill it.  If the hostess is hassled, they offer to help at the bar or in the kitchen.  If someone is standing alone in a corner, they rush over to talk to them. If there is a momentary lull in the conversation, they feel obligated to fill it, even if they put their foot in their mouth. They are a pleasure to have around and are always sought out by hostesses in the know.

Then there are the takers.  They are awfully nice people too, but they are there to be fed and entertained.  They stand with their drinks in a corner like a potted plant and never move an inch until dinner time.  They speak only when engaged in conversation by others or if no one is around,  by their partner, thus taking another guest out of the loop.  They are usually there because their spouse or date is a giver or a good friend of the host or hostess. These people are labeled as shy, although in my book they are really socially inept.  All of us are shy when we first walk into a room full of strangers.  Some of us just know how to take a deep breath and dive in. Hopefully you won't have more than one of these guests at your dinner party or the evening will be an enormous flop.

In a dinner party for eight, where most of the guests will be in close proximity most of the night, make sure you have at least one fun and outgoing couple to help keep the party and the conversation going.  If you are having a new couple who are strangers to the rest of the guests, make sure they at least know one other person or have something in common with the group.  Take the time to introduce them around and leave them with someone you know will take care of them for the first half hour or so.  When it comes to table settings, this is the only time I will seat a couple in the same table and across from each other.  It gives them that extra oomph and security to be more social in a group of strangers.

I have a great friend who is a master in the art of mixing guests.  He is  the product of a prominent Cuban family and an American education, has lived in New York City and presently shuttles between an apartment in Paris and South Beach, was and is a prominent antiquaire,  travels all over Europe with the Georgian Group and has friends from all over the world.  His parties are a pleasure to attend.  Your dinner partner may be the head of Armani Europe or a prominent Spanish author or playwright...he may even be an old friend from college or childhood;  but,  I guarantee, he won't be boring. His dinner parties are an extension of a fantastic life and of a giving and delightful personality.  I have learned much from this friend when it comes to the art of the mix.

This last anecdote doesn't mean that you can only have a successful dinner party if you invite prominent guests.  It is simply to illustrate that a wide array of nationalities and personalities can be brought together under one roof and at the same table and a wonderful evening will be had by all.

In my previous life as a hostess, both at home and in the corporate world, I have had to entertain friends and clients from all over the world in a wide array of circumstances.  These are some of the things I have learned, sometimes the hard way, and I hope they will be of use to you when you plan your guest list for a future dinner party.

The Crashers...Wouldn't you love to have them at your next dinner party?

Tell me, is there a particular way in which you put together your guest list?

All images Google/Life Magazine
Images #2 - 6 Dinner Party at the Cuban Embassy, Washington DC 1947
Image # 1 Valentina the fashion designer
Image #3 Marjory Merriweather Post Davis, wife of Ambassador Davis


  1. These are all very wise guidelines. I think an other element of success is to vary the type and scale of the entertainment, to accommodate different kinds of people, and those who perhaps didn't fit into a previous plan. For example, buffets can alternate with sit-down dinners; they are less formal which will make some people more comfortable, and they make it easier to accommodate people with special dietary needs, etc.

    By the way, I owe you thanks; your Welsh rabbit recipe that I made last week was a big success.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Not long ago, I went to a dinner party and the hostess said, "Oh, just sit where you like." Most couples sat together and that was NOT a successful arrangement. It reminded me that placecards can be helpful, even in the most casual seated dinner party.

  3. We like a mix of ages and interests for, we think, it gives more interesting dinner conversation. And we like no more than 8 (although on occasion we have had 10 or 12) because then everyone can be part of the conversation and you don't have an "up table" and a
    "down table" conversation going.

    We like husbands and wives not to sit together (although if we have a shy one we'll "forgive" that rule) --

    Since we live in a small town, we often have "the new kids" on the block for dinner along with old friends -- it's a great way for newcomers to meet people -- dinner parties!

  4. Parnassus,

    When I have a large mixed group, such as the one you refer to, I usually pick a fun occasion such as the Kentucky Derby, Fourth of July or an Oscar party and serve buffet style. It's a great way to fit in a wide assortment of guests!


    That is the perfect recipe for a nightmare of a dinner party!


    You are so right. I have found that mixing age groups can be a lot of fun, particularly now that my "children" and their friends are over the hill.

    When I have more than 8 people, my favorite number also, and have a couple of extra tables, I make everyone switch tables at dessert time and also make sure that some of the fun guests are scattered between main, down and up tables.

  5. Parnassus,

    I'm glad the Welsh Rabbit was a success. It is a great recipe for a hangover too!

  6. Roxie: You, of course, nailed it here in this most thoughtful and well-written post. I am a fan of dinners for ten at Darlington, as I have sometimes found that at dinners for eight, the person seated in the middle of the side of the table, where three are seated, can--at times--become isolated by conversations at either end of the table. But that is only a concern when a "taker" is seated there. Now, when we have dinners for eight (which we do now more frequently for many reasons), I am sure to seat a "giver" there. And I am a firm believer in placecards at dinners for eight or more. One doesn't want to leave these things to chance! When placecards are not in use, for whatever reason, the host (or hostess) should always inform his (or her) guests where to sit, as the placement of one's guests at a table (as you note) is a key ingredient to a dinner party's success.

  7. Ah Reg leave it to you to think of a new twist in this ongoing process. What a great idea, sitting a giver in the middle of the side of the table. Of course when I thought of "givers" my first thoughts went straight to you.

    Now that I'm getting older and forget names at the drop of a hat (including those of my grandchildren on occasion) I rely more and more on placecards lest I have the embarassing senior moment and mess up the dinner myself!

  8. i like all the b & w images. they look timeless

    happy monday


  9. There's a large round table in the dining room, and
    I realized years ago that I much preferred an odd number of guests (say, five, seven, nine) to the more
    expected even number. My reasoning is simply that
    an even number positions guests directly opposite
    one another. This can inhibit conversation, which arises from a kind of self consciousness, a certain geometric tension if you will. Well, at least in my mind! And the sight of a long, narrow dining table fills me with dread~because you're pretty much trapped, staring ahead at the same faces for better or worse the whole night long.

  10. Wonderful images, and great information. People forget that hospitality is about sharing who we are with our friends and those who may become our friends. Too often that focus is lost on the details of the table or the food or what everyone is wearing. Give as generously as you can, show appreciation and relax--those are my guidelines for a good party.

  11. oh P.S. No, I would not like the Crashers at my next party. Vapid brashness is never a good company to keep.

  12. Toby,

    A round table is ideal and I have a couple of those which are set up for bigger dinner parties rather than put more leaves on my Sheraton table in the dining room. I do agree with you a long table can be such a trap! I have been in the middle more times than I care to remember.


    Oh those crashers....what a nightmare. I wonder whatever happened to them?!!!


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