Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Disorderly Dinner Party

I posted recently on Instagram that a dinner table after a meal is bit like a bed after sex: the messier it is, the more likely everyone had a good time.
("Dinner Party Detritus", Los Angeles, 2013, by LBG.)

It's true that I take a keen delight in seeing my table in a state of disarray. A messy table is sexy. It's a tantalizing record of an evening. Looking at the candle stubs, the puckered linens and drained glasses, the laughter, cheeky stories and half-whispered conversations come floating back up to me. They speak of pleasures had, gustatory and otherwise. Poet Robert Herrick would approve. 

Eight Tips For a Disorderly Dinner Party:

1. Low lights, lots of little candles.
Low lights give people a reason to lean in closer to each other. Little candles flicker and make eyes more sparkly and complexions more luminous.

2. Scatter flowers.
This is my favorite little trick. I don't know why, but the sight of petals strewn across a table lets guests know that we don't take ourselves too seriously here. Which is a good thing.

3. Don't stress out about your linens. 
White linens are actually quite durable because most stains can be bleached out without too much trouble. If that's too much work for you, then stick with dense dark-colored patterns  -- they're much more forgiving to a splash of Médoc or an errant forkful of blackberry buckle. (If you're going sans tablecloth, use footed glasses to prevent rings and water spots.)

4. Don't cook above your comfort level.
This is obvious but it bears repeating. If you're not relaxed, your guests won't be either. It's much better to order take-out than to be dashing frantically in and out of the kitchen all night. 

5. Make a toast
It doesn't have to be grand or serious. Funny is good. Recently, a guest at our house brought the house down with this one. He said, "Here's to lying, cheating and stealing [dramatic pause]: lying to help a friend in need, cheating death, and stealing the heart of the one you love." 

6. If something spills or breaks, look delighted.
I don't care if it's your last piece of heirloom china, you smile and clap your hands. Whoever did it is probably writhing with guilt so it's important to say something funny or reassuring fast. My personal favorite? "Excellent! Now it's officially a party!" 

7. Pass something family-style, even if it's just bread.
It gives people, especially those meeting for the first time, a nice chance to interact and help each other out ("Here, I'll hold it while you serve yourself.") Another good thing.

8. Linger. 
Whatever you do, don't clear the table too early. In my experience, the most magical moments come at the tail end of a meal when everyone is feeling satiated and the disarray leads them to loosen up even more and let go. When you take away the dishes, the mood you've so carefully curated usually disappears right along with them.


helen tilston said...

Hello Lisa

I would love to attend a party at your home. You are so right in all you say about hosting an evening.
Giving a toast, saying a blessing before the meal also lends an importance to the friendship.
Your scattered flowers that is so unique and so you.


WendyMcLeodMacKnight said...

I think we host similar dinner parties. I think the key is that the hostess or host makes everyone feel comfortable and helps keep the conversation going. that is rarely an issue at ours; the problem is getting people out the door at the end of the night! I see a book on the table - love it when they make their way to the table as if they were latecomers to the party!

columnist said...

"Check" on most of these. Hadn't thought about petals. Ours always finish at the dinner table; it's round and people feel more comfortable than repairing to the sitting room. For that reason alone every diner sits in a "carver" Regency dining table. Comfort is important.

Marcoantonio Arellano (Nene) said...

i appreciate your analogy of the table vs the bed activity but being from latin america, my messes are messier, if you know what i mean. sometimes there's frijoles and aros on the walls and the table settings are left more strewn.


Blue said...

I love to linger amongst "sweet disorder" after a meal – in our house usually served family style. I cannot bear plated and portioned food, but that said, ironed white linen napkins, proper crystal and silver to make an occasion of it (friends eating with us is an occasion –sacramental in a way) but no low-lying candles as they play havoc with cataracts. Simple food, stuffed with all the forbidden things like cholesterol, salt, fat, dairy and gluten and it's amazing how few allergies one's friends suffer from. By the end of the evening there's certainly there still a "wild civility, around the dining table.

Laura said...

How I wish my stepmother could this see this lovely post! She loves to invite people over and prepare great meals, but her hostess vibe is "eat and get the hell out." You should see her jump up from the table to start doing the dishes while everyone has taken their first taste of dessert. (She makes desserts but never eats them.) Sigh.

Expat mum said...

Great looking table. I may have to print out this post and stick it somewhere my guests can see. Unfortunately in the USA many guests insist on clearing your table for you and doing your dishes. There's rarely any lounging around after the meal. Sigh.

dervla said...

i'm totally stealing that toast! And i need to remind myself not to get up straight away to clear the table, it wrecks the mood, you're right.

Michelle said...

Great tips that I will be sure to remember. Dinner parties are, sadly, a dying art. I am curious, do you have any special recipes or favorite foods that you can recommend? I am searching for some good party appetizers for the holidays. Thanks!

Hels said...

What do you think about soft music in the background to the dinner party? Mood enhancing? Or irritating interruption to conversation?

Acf57 said...

Loved your post and will take your comments to heart. Going to start planning my next dinner party!

Emily said...

I would love to sit at your table and linger!

Unknown said...

That list is simply amazing! I've never tried a disorderly dinner party before, but I'm definitely enjoying the idea of doing one. Being all casual and informal with friends while enjoying good cooking sounds fun. I'm definitely going to try that out. Maybe a spice-themed dinner will work well, you think? Anyway, thank you for sharing! I hope everyone is doing well!

Alexis Webb @ 7 West Bistro

Rie Moratto said...

I wish I would have read your post a few days earlier as I had a dinner party on Monday. Good food, conversation, laughter... then I cleared the dinner dishes for dessert, and the atmosphere changed and part of the party began to get ready to leave, granted they had kids, but I knew it was a mistake as soon as I did it. UGH. Scattered petals for next time. Lovely!

JudyMac said...

A most excellent list!

Anonymous said...

I just love this post! It's inspiring as we head into what feels like dinner party season with darker evenings wanting the comfort of food and friends. We often eat around the big coffee table in front of the fireplace in the living room - and it is all about lingering! All the comments here are great fun to read also. I so dislike "plated food" - was fun to see that prejudice expressed.
And wanted to say that your Instagram feed is the most clever, most enjoyable highlight of a

Anonymous said...

oops - of an Instagram day!

Miss Cavendish said...

I read the Andy Warhol diaries (sur votre table) while nursing my second daughter. Dinner party indeed!

Anonymous said...

Best dinner party so far was years ago when neither my husband nor guest of honour was able to attend at short notice (husband called to a work thing - guest of h. had suddenly left the country, earlier than expected). I had to attend cocktails elsewhere first (because diplomat husband and his boss were tied up with work) but most of our guests were there too. Somehow in gathering them up, acquired an extra guest, a former Finnish Ambassador and UN representative. Turned out he sang. Beautifully. What should've been a disaster was fabulous. We were all a bit hysterical about those missing and toasted them in absentia. Our new guest was prevailed upon by people who knew him to sing. We were still enjoying ourselves when husband returned home from his work function, sure that everyone would have gone home - but we were all there laughing and carousing and a bit smashed. No-one wanted to leave.
Then there was the dinner where the guest of honour licked the dessert serving bowl clean (having politely asked first) - loved him. Best wishes, Pamela

The Old Fashioned Girls said...

I love this blogpost and so agree with all your dinner party tips, especially as to staying as relaxed as possible. Your photos are beautiful. Miranda

Lisa Thomson said...

I wish the dinner parties I've gone to were as fun as yours sounds. Great advice!!

Unknown said...

Wonderful post! Exactly what a dinner party should be.

Vintagediamondring.com said...

My dinner party tables never look this good.. i love it!

Anonymous said...

Very smart and sensitive tips on dinner parties.

Bmore Bungalow said...

Giving a toast is a good one. I never do this, but think I will start.

Frances Schultz said...

Perfect, thank you, brava!

Anonymous said...

I love all your tips, it sounds like you throw brilliant dinner parties! I especially like what you said about not clearing the dishes too soon. I couldn't agree more - some of the best times at the dinner table are after everyone's finished eating and is happily each other's company (and not yet worrying about the dreaded tidying up of the table that comes after). Thanks for sharing!

Rachel said...

lovely tips! I wish I could hold a dinner party at my home, it's such a dreamy concept. But alas, my anxiety level thinking about if I could come up with decor, a menu, conversation and then put it all together makes me dizzy!

Jamie Herzlinger said...

Stunning table! Can't wait to try it out!


Jamie Herzlinger

Ellen said...

Love this post! Read it and had to come back and read again. Love the look of a table after a party...I would actually love to enlarge this photo (really large) and frame by my dinner table to encourage lingering...any chance you would ever sell me the picture? Thanks so much for your consideration!

nononora said...

The key is: just do it! invite everyone and feed them! they're always thankful;a friend said to me last week, "even a ham sandwich is more fun at someone else's house!" People get so stressed...

That said, firneds in CA are telling me that there are so many food restrictions these days that you can't make anyone happy - one's paleo, the other is gluten, then there's one that's meat vegan and whatever - that's so sad. Everyone should just get together and eat!

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Unknown said...

Wonderful looking table!! I have never tried such dinner party but I love your idea. I am going to host my birthday party at the party halls in Boston MA and would like to use such table décor theme. It would be amazing!!

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