If you've ever hosted a dinner party (or brunch party, or luncheon) you know that there's more to it than simply cooking a bunch of food. People need plates to eat off of, cloth to wipe their faces with, and furniture on which to set their rears. Though nothing is as important as the food, it's the details that really make the party.
Photo by Ann Larie Valentine.
Look, people are always going to be grateful and impressed that you fed them, but if you want to give the impression that you are some sort of adult who can give advice on adult things such as how to handle jet lag, there are few little extras you can provide to elevate your food-based affair:
Put out the good salt and pepper
Iodised salt and pre-ground pepper get the job done, but they're both a little flat-tasting. Freshly-ground pepper not only has a ton more flavour than the other stuff, but there's something very satisfying about the feel of of grinding it out yourself. You could get a fancy, wooden pepper grinder, but you can find very nice pepper grinders for relatively cheap. As for salt, do everyone a favour and get a box of Maldon. Those gorgeous pyramid-shaped crystals are said to have a softer, less bitter taste than other, lowlier sodium chloride crystals, and I have found this to be correct. Not only do they look gorgeous in a little ramekin, or sprinkled atop some perfectly roasted vegetables, but they add the most satisfying crunch, and their unique shape keeps the crystals from caking together.
Use real napkins
Paper towels are for pizza-fuelled moving parties. Paper napkins are for picnics. Adult dinner parties call for cloth napkins. Your guests may be confused at first — I have actually had people ask for a paper towel because they didn't want to get my pretty napkins dirty — and you may have to reassure them that it's fine if they get tomato sauce on the napkin; that's what they're for.
Provide an adult beverage
Skip this one if you went all out on the meal, but I like to be able to at least offer something alcoholic, be it wine, a particularly nice beer, or a simple cocktail. Want to really wow your friends and lovers? Hand them a simple aperitif when they walk in the door, preferably something comprised of either vermouth (Cocchi Americano) and soft drink or your favourite Italian liqueur and soft drink, garnished with a strip of lemon or orange zest.
Grab some flowers
There's something slightly intimidating about walking into someone's home and seeing a vase of fresh flowers. "Wow. This person probably gets their Christmas shopping done by August," I think to myself as I sniff their begonias or whatever (I'm bad at flowers). Just don't overdo it with foliage, lest you look like you're trying too hard. A bouquet or two will do just fine.
Tease with a simple appetiser
Sometimes, if they know they are going to be fed later, people hold off eating during the day, and arrive to a dinner party ready to consume. Putting out a little nosh will keep everyone calm and social while you finish braising the osso bucco. Cheese plates are always a pleaser, but frico is the most addictive one-ingredient appetiser around, and no one is ever mad at homemade onion dip.
Put on music
Awkward silence is awkward, so make a playlist, put on a record (Tom Waits' Closing Time or Fleetwood Mac's Tusk), or make Spotify do all the work and create a radio station around a song that really captures the mood you want to create. (My summer aesthetic is best described as "Stevie Nicks scream-singing at Lindsay Buckingham during the '97 live performance of "Silver Springs", and it translates into a pretty dope Spotify station.)
Also, wear an apron while you cook. Not only will you look cute as the dickens while you finish plating — I'm talking to the girls and the boys in the audience — but you'll protect your pretty outfit, which is very adult of you.