It is so easy to be concentrating so hard on what is going to happen inside that you forget that the first impression visitors get is actually when they arrive outside your home. Walk the route they will take from the street to your front door, if you have a garden then is it at least tidy, with no rubbish on display? Even better have all those persistent weeds been eliminated? Is the grass cut? Does the path need sweeping? If you live in a communal building, is the hallway clear and the floor clean? This is job you can do well ahead and at the same time check your front door so that it is spotless and any brassware shiny and impressive. The restaurant with the pots of evergreen outside and sparkling windows will create an impression of quality and style before you set foot inside, so try to emulate it at home.
Roles and responsibilities
If you are co-hosting the dinner with a partner, friend or colleague, then while you are at the planning stage, divide the workload between you so that at the start of the evening one of you is free to do the socialising and the other can see to the drinks etc, this is actually quite vital throughout as one can be in the kitchen and the other making sure everyone has everything they need and also keep the party going. It just doesn’t look good or feel comfortable if the guests are left high and dry and you are nowhere to be seen!
Set the scene
Before the guests arrive, it is always good to have candles lit, especially on the table and music playing See post on music for guidance on this. Think fine restaurant again here, presenting a well organised and efficient occasion will get things off to a positive start. Another thing to copy is having the menu printed out and available from the start, so that diners can pace themselves with the canapés and nibbles. You wouldn’t want folk to be leaving half the meal uneaten because they have overdone it on the crisps!
A warm welcome
It is important that you greet all your guests personally, never ever send another guest to do it for you, unless there has been a last minute emergency. This means that you will need to be as ready as you can be in plenty of time so that you answer the door relaxed and smiling. Use names and say how happy you are to see them and have a personal comment or question ready such as ‘love your dress, the colour is perfect for you’ or ‘you are looking fantastic, how was the holiday?’ so much better that the casual ‘how are you going?’. The classy restaurant would never expect diners to wander in off the street without a polite welcome from the Maitre d’ and you shouldn’t either. Another important little item is to discretely point out the bathroom to people who are new to your house so they don’t have the embarrassment of asking for directions in front of other guests. See post on basic principles for further bathroom advice!
Hats and coats
Again you can take your lead from the restaurants here, take coats and other outdoor clothes from the guest to be placed neatly away from the front door, never leave people to find a place for their things themselves, you will want to leave the space free of clutter for your next arrivals and there is nothing worse than a heap of clothes to be rummaged through when it is time to go home. Should the weather turn out to necessitate changes of footwear, then have somewhere to place outside shoes and boots, not forgetting wet umbrellas, so that you don’t end up with a massive puddle in your hallway.
People generally like to bring a small gift for the hosts at a dinner party, often it is flowers, wine or chocolates, so be prepared with somewhere to put them. In the case of flowers, they need to be put in water, either temporarily or if possible in a vase that can be put on display straight away, though there won’t be time for any fancy arranging! Chocolates and wine are probably best left for later as it could be a bit risky to give your guests someone else’s choice. Beer is also popular to bring along and you may not have any fridge room left for that, so a big bucket of ice would be a good idea. Warm beer would definitely not be!
Accompany each new arrival into the reception area and if they are the first, stay with them until someone else gets there. If not, then introduce them to anybody they don’t know with a little hook to get the conversation going, such as, ‘x let me introduce you to y who is in the same line of business as you’ or ‘who loves surfing’. If you have planned well, then you will know what they have in common and can use it to good effect here .See previous posting for advice on drawing up the guest list Often guests remain standing during the pre-dinner interlude, but if they are to sit down, then be sure that you have enough seats so that one poor soul is not left hovering above all the others and feeling like a spare part!
Drinks and canapés
Have these ready to pour / hand out as soon as people arrive, and it is not necessary to offer a huge choice of fancy cocktails that must be individually mixed. Far easier to offer a simple G & T, wine, beer or soft drink. The same with any nibbles or canapés, have them already around the room for helping yourself, you can always take a few around to get the ball rolling.
This is a difficult one, make sure that the guests know beforehand when you would like them to arrive and at what time you intend to serve the meal, so that they are in no doubt about when they should get there. Sometimes there is an unavoidable delay and the polite guests will let you know what is happening and when to expect them, so you can then gauge what to do. A few minutes is one thing, an hour quite another, especially when cooking is involved, so if the food simply cannot be kept successfully then it is far better to say so politely and warn them that you will have to make a start. It is not worth risking the whole meal being spoilt for everyone else. If they just don’t appear without any contact and time is getting on, then make a discrete call to find out if they are on their way or unable to come for some reason.
When guests are ready to leave, remember to bring coats etc. and hand them to their owners personally so that you can have a word before they go. Most will follow once the first ones make a move and it is usually at an appropriate time. If it is too early, then make sure everyone else feels comfortable to stay on. If you get hangers on who don’t appear to know when to go home, you might have to nudge them a little by pointing out the time, expressing surprise at the lateness of the hour! Another much appreciated little touch is to have a reliable taxi number handy. People will most probably have enjoyed themselves so much partaking of your fabulous food and drink that driving home would not be an option.
Clearing away and washing up
It is the mark of a good host to stay with the guests until they leave, enjoying the time with them, so leave the clearing away and washing up for later. It is not a good idea to leave everyone to it while you get your rubber gloves on and begin to scour the pans! Guests would feel unwelcome and possibly feel obliged to offer assistance, something to be avoided at all costs when in one’s glad rags.
When it is all over, sit for a moment and savour your success, reflect on the evening and heave a huge sigh of satisfaction that you got it just right!