Entertaining / Global
We turn to Monocle’s all-knowing agony uncle – and his faithful feline sidekick, Mr Tiddly – for the lowdown on the do’s and definitely don’ts of hosting and attending a dinner party. Here our hero tackles a few reader’s questions.
How do I cater to different diets?
Good question. The rise in fad diets and people’s various intolerances – culinary and personal – make it tough to tell whether guests are genuinely allergic or just plain picky. So here’s a thought: establish the actual threat (anaphylactic shock is rarely a feature of a pleasant party) and communicate the menu – clearly – to invitees in advance. Whatever you do, don’t make five different versions of your famous pecan banana bread to suit the neurotic diets of your gastronomically impaired guests; plump for something that everyone will enjoy instead.
Red, white or both – and anything in between?
Something bubbly is always a good start. For wine, let the food dictate and be sure to enquire at the wine shop, butcher’s and/or fishmonger’s about the ballpark you should be aiming for before you buy a bottle. If your scallop starter needs a white burgundy but the steaks are best with a fruity New Worlder, then mixing is fine too. Rosé isn’t risky if it’s sunny.
Aperitifs? Digestifs? Both?
Start guests off with a simple cocktail but make it strong. Be sure to show them where to make the next one and encourage them to help themselves – then try to stay one drink behind. If you’re feeling squiffy then the chances are that the attendees are well on their way so dial back with some water on the table, remove the offending bottles and leave it a few minutes before you serve the wine. For digestifs, don’t bother mixing anything; it’s too faffy. Have a bottle of port or pudding wine close by. And beware the drinks trolley: this isn’t the time to dust off the uber-strong palinka you got in Budapest or that bottle with the Chinese writing on it that looks like laundry detergent.
Is there anything more naff than a tour of the house?
No there isn’t. But it’s a useful ruse for getting clingy guests out of the kitchen and prodding them to socialise with the others in the living room. Let people show themselves around, look at your bookshelves and snoop. Just show them where the bathrooms are and be sure to lock any drawers that you’d be embarrassed for your friends to see inside.
Is there such thing as a failsafe menu?
Not at all but there are rules of thumb. Serving liver or tongue – or thumb for that matter – will turn stomachs. Avoid polarising flavours too: put off making that experimental sweet-beef dish or salty custard you’ve been “meaning to try”. Be kind and reach for a crowd-pleaser that you enjoy making and eating. If people don’t like it you can always put salt in their custard.
How should I prepare the house?
A quick tidy and cursory clean are all you need; zhooshing up the cushions won’t make your townhouse look like the Taj Mahal, remember. And if your friends are prone to clumsiness when inebriated then maybe hide away your priceless Weimar pottery collection too.
Should I make a seating plan?
Do feel free to sit your newly single friend next to an unattached would-be partner but don’t be too prescriptive. Take a seat from which you can serve if needs be but let people continue their chats as they sit down and avoid the pushy boy-girl configurations that the fun police make regulations about. Besides, not all boys like girls and not all girls like boys.
Should I invite children?
Tricky one. If it’s a lunch and your guests’ nippers will keep your own offspring away from the carafe then yes. If it’s a grown-up affair then keep it that way. Don’t be afraid to say no; Mr Tiddly doesn’t like their sticky fingers on his nice soft coat anyway.
What’s a sensible start time?
No one sensible hosts a lunch before 13.00 or starts dinner before 19.00. The cultural mores shift depending on where you’re reading this but there’s a general window of time depending on the location and availability of daylight. Between 13.00 and 14.00 works for a lunch in northern Europe and 19.00 and 20.00 for dinner; add an hour if you’re somewhere warmer, brighter or more Mediterranean.
And end time?
We’ll leave this one with you. Just keep a few matches handy to set off the smoke-alarm should someone’s other half fall asleep on the sofa or someone else’s partner get a little too frisky. Better yet, consider investing in a gong.
What should I bring?
Something, anything: then shut up about it. A loaf of bread from the baker’s? A wedge of cheese from the nice place on the corner? A bottle of white, perhaps? All acceptable. Just don’t make it the centre of attention. Pop your bottle in the host’s hands then put a cork in it and let them decide whether to open it.
How late is too late?
To arrive? Oh dear, oh dear. Anything more than 45 minutes is pushing it really. There comes a point after which arriving creates more problems than it solves when things that need heating or cooling create a faff for the host. The later you are the more closely you should consider not turning up at all. Oh, and cook up a good excuse while you’re at it.
When can I cancel?
A week before allows for plenty of time to find a replacement but will keep your place at the table for future events. Anything less than 48 hours’ notice is rude. Less than that and you’ll need a solid reason – surgery or Mr Tiddly’s health, for instance.
How do I leave (if I want to leave)?
With the right explanation you can excuse yourself as soon as the first coffee cup hits the table or, in decaffeinated households, when the desserts are hoisted by the hosts. If you’re in a household that serves neither coffee nor desserts, feel free to leave mid-main: what kind of dinner party skimps on the good stuff?
What should I wear?
Keep it casual and reflect the weather but there’s a good middle ground between (but excluding) sportswear or suiting: a collared shirt and trousers are just fine in cooler climes. Pay attention to your socks: your hosts might ask you to remove your shoes.
What if I don’t want to take my shoes off?
I’m afraid that’s not your choice; but what socks to wear is.
Should I offer to help chop the vegetables and set the table?
Do offer but don’t be glum if you’re rebuffed; it was a nice thought. And think carefully about what you’re offering: can you chop an onion without taking your finger with it? Great. Set the table? Perfect. But do you really want to be shucking the oysters or sluicing out the casserole dish? Not in that dress; don’t insist.
Isn’t this a wonderful forum for me to explain what a fabulous cook I am?
Perish the thought.
Should I eat it if I don’t like it?
You should try it at least; look at all the effort your host went to.
Do I help with the washing up?
If your hosts are the sort of people doing the washing up on the evening, you can leave immediately. So no; just enjoy yourself but don’t fall asleep on the daybed or lock yourself in the broom cupboard with the handsome stranger they sat you next to.