The very first thing you need to be a relaxed, memorable, happy host, is to be available to your guests. No glittering table-scape will make up for this aching faux pas. You are not present if you are perpetually mincing back and forth to the kitchen in a spatula-waving drama off-set. Being present takes planning and during the course of the occasion, it may take some significant effort.
As the ringmaster, you are responsible to set the atmosphere; low key, inclusive, enjoyable. If you have never had a proper dinner thing, practice with a small gathering of friends, don’t go all-in with a 300-person extravaganza with multiple complex courses, right out-of-the-gate. Flex your graciousness muscle a few times first; be courteous, kind, and pleasant.
The core of any occasion involving hot food is to delegate. Think about every single thing that needs doing on the day or night. Share out those jobs with the inner circle, most crucially, cooking, serving, and light clearing.
Could you prep ahead of time or shift hot food ideas to some colder ones to whip out of the fridge? You can extend delegation to the menu with closer friends — ask them to bring a small dessert or a favourite cheese to your “kitchen supper” (a current refresh on the dinner party).
This is perfectly acceptable etiquette. Most guests love it, as it takes away the pressure of being judged for a petrol station, screw-top bottle of wine. We’ve all had the surprise vegan moment. Guests can genuinely forget to flag they are teetotal or even coeliac.
If you don’t know someone pretty well, once they have accepted the invitation to dine and/or stay, ask if they have any special requirements in terms of diet (texts are ideal for this).
If you’re in a hurry, just ensure the entertaining space, the kitchen, and the bathroom to be used are science fiction immaculate. Close all other doors. Low light, great company, and a tipple will shroud the miserable, domestic drudge.
Are children coming? What will their needs be? Could you bribe a teen to clown around with them upstairs — even slip them off to bed?
Is the dog bananas? Send him to a sitter. Don’t apologise for your home. Does anyone look forward to mealy-mouthed, humble-bragging? Home is about people — not cut-glass and architecture.
Look at the table setting and elbow room. Can everyone pull their chair back and discreetly slip out if necessary? It’s fine to sit at the head of the table. You could even have a bit of fun and enthrone yourself in a larger chair.
Seating your intimate consigliere at your right hand is for mafia bosses. Take it easy. It’s often said not to have husbands and wives side by side, to part sisters and even best friends. This doesn’t always fly. Sit people together you know will get on. Some people will enjoy having their partner right by their side and will see this as a rare pleasure. A recent survey by The Lady magazine sponsored by Stoves found that vaping, gossiping about absent friends, asking for shoe removal, posting unflattering pictures to social media, fully clearing the table, cocktails in jam-jars and long introductory speeches were regarded as no-nos. Cava wine and light conversation like chatting about TV shows and Netflix — all in.
As every individual arrives, the standard practice is to ignite with joy, smile widely, usher them in and take their coat. Everyone is Guest Number One. Even if you have just seen June at the office, don’t roar from the bowels of the building to “come in” or scuttle back to the kitchen muttering, your phone pressed to your face. This can give the impression that they are second-rate. It’s an occasion and you are framing their night.
It’s fine to lead the way to the gathering. If you put the person in front of you, it can be bumper cars, as you try to herd them along the hall. Get to the doorway, step back, steer them in and make introductions. If there are drinks; get a glass into their hand immediately and give them a quick orientation, including the loo (it’s like primary school asking).
To be society-correct with peers, when you bring someone into the room (let’s call her Startled Mary), I prefer to assume they are the principal. It gives them a boost. Others are introduced to them by you. “Startled Mary, I would like you to meet Smooth-talking Gareth.” Older adults with status in the family are the principal: “Dad, this is my friend Hilarious Jacob from college.” For a group, introduce the individual to the group in one go. “Midge, Bidge and Bodge, this is Mary.” Pair people up to chat, but don’t worry if they then circulate, you can’t control everything. If they have something in common, make on open-ended remark before drifting off.
The air should be already gilded with music and with a reasonable DAB radio, streaming, or set up on a USB; hopefully you won’t have to touch the entertainment system again. Don’t get drunk.
If there’s food, work out the timing. When will the first course arrive, who is plating the entree/filling glasses/pushing in the pudding, etc? Presumably, in expectation of being fed, your people are genuinely hungry. Hanging around between courses for just two long (especially for shyer people meeting new people), can stall the night’s conversation as glazed eyeballs flit back and forth to the kitchen door.
If food or drink runs low deploy the Edwardian tactic of FHB (family hold back). Set up a signal or word. If it all falls silent, don’t prance about or tell embarrassing stories — let the conversation lift naturally.
The old adage “no politics or religion” is sensible — old-fashioned but sensible. We’re not here to suffer the lecture series by Aunty Frogmouth on skirt length or that “lovely man Trump”.
Your primary directive is to make everyone you have invited feel not just comfortable but cherished. If they accidentally chip your favourite Waterford Glass pitcher with a fork — laugh it off (weep later).
If they have obnoxious opinions on child rearing (in your view) — brightly drag them off topic. I had a charming lunch where, I asked one lady if she would like the only thing actually being served — roast, stuffed chicken. She responded mournfully: “It’s not something I would choose to eat, Kya.”
Teeth set, it’s up to you to be the better person — at least until they leave and you scrape them from your contacts. Act to defuse any tension. If someone takes out a phone, you could try a dry little dig by offering the wifi password: Chances are they would take it. It’s incredibly rude to monitor a mobile in general, but in real life, they may have pressures afoot you know nothing about.
For everything you need to know about table etiquette, how to sweep in and be that faultless, scrumptious guest at every moment, my other little primer on polite behaviour is also available here www.irishexaminer.com/property/homeandoutdoors/arid-20435400.html. Cin-cin!