Are you an entertaining guru or do you panic at the thought of a couple extra people coming over for dinner? I consider myself the guru type… I love to entertain and in my mind, the more the merrier. I can just as easily have a few friends over for Sunday brunch on the Screened Porch as 20 people over for a dinner party in my formal Dining Room.
I consider my life (and my lifestyle) very laid back, so it only goes to reason that everyone that comes to my home would expect to experience something laid back, right? Well, I think that the less the fuss, the more the fun. And with hosting more than a few dining occasions under my belt, I think that really does hold true.
So, here are a few of my suggestions to help you create a ‘laid back’ dinner party experience for you and your guests as well as help keep your stress level down to a minimum.
For a dinner party for twelve or more people, I like to go for equal doses of easy going comfort and continual interest peaking items. My approach to entertaining a crowd is to create designated rooms for designated activities. I believe that the party, as well as your guests, should flow throughout your home. If there are different activities in different rooms, your guests will be drawn to those different areas of the home. This also helps with the bottleneck of a large crowd in the same room at the same time. How many of us really have more than one room in our home that can handle over 12 people comfortably at one time?
For instance, just inside the Foyer set up a chest or unique cart/table to serve as a bar—deck it out with a lustrous silver vase of flowers, an ice bucket, and trays filled with glasses, liquors/ wines and a snack or two just to start things off. What's more welcoming and charming than asking someone, 'Would you care for a cocktail?' It is a beautiful way to start the evening, greet your guests at the door and begin the party the moment they step in your home.
From there, people will automatically be drawn to the Kitchen, don’t ask me why, but everyone always seems to head straight for the Kitchen (it is the heart of the home, after all). So, if your Kitchen is large enough to accommodate a large table or island, (mine is not but it does have a connecting breakfast room with a large worn oak table) serve appetizers fresh out of the oven. Place all your snacks and goodies on the table and invite guests to help themselves. This gathering creates an ongoing tasting as well as a flowing party: …snacks in the Kitchen …drinks in the Foyer, get it?
Everyone loves to chat with the cook and discuss ‘what’s cooking?’ This gets the guests involved in the meal’s preparation and for some reason they feel like they have helped the hostess with the evening (no, seriously… it works) It becomes almost a tutorial for the menu.
And speaking of menu, I always like to ‘post’ a menu somewhere in the mix, casually or formally. Within a large crowd, there will always be different food tastes and preferences for what to eat that evening. If a large meal is being served, many guests may opt to snack small and save their appetite for the main event. Others may not be interested in some of the main event menu items and will choose to fill up on more appetizers.
When dinner is ready to be served and if by chance, guests have wondered away from the Kitchen, think of a unique way to call everyone back... I have a couple Western-inspired triangle bells that I cheerfully ring to get everyone’s attention.
Replace the appetizers on the table with the dinner food buffet-style. It's casual and easier for everyone to help themselves. With a large number of guests, passing family-style dishes at the table or preparing filled dinner plates to serve can be overwhelming for everyone and requires more room than most hosts have available. Everyone can serve themselves and then sit down in another room. Once again, a flowing party: …food in the Kitchen ...drinks in the Foyer …seating in the Dining Room. Keep it moving...
For a large crowd, I don't believe in seating arrangements, i.e. eliminate those place cards. There are conversations that might have started well before dinner and would be enjoyable to continue, so let people decide who they want to sit next to at a table. Help your guests make new friends.
Like I said, I like large parties to be laid-back, more of a progressive dining experience. Let your guests wander around the house more after dinner before calling them back together for dessert (no dinner bell, just a quiet word of mouth, 'Spread the word, sweets are being served')… and oh yes, serve it in another room. “Have you seen my Family Room, yet?”
Parties work best when they are fluid and not rushed. Part of throwing a great dinner party is knowing when it's time to bring out the food and knowing when the group's energy is starting to wane. It requires the host/ hostess to be intuitive about when the guests are ready for a change.
But remember, don’t rush anything. A dinner party could be two hours or six… always be prepared for your guests to be enjoying themselves and wanting to savor those enjoyable moments a little longer.