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.
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.