Surprise Dinner Parties

There is no reader question this week. Instead, Helena has an etiquette announcement to make, based on her own discoveries.

A recent post on the Kitchn about spontaneous dinner parties has inspired me. As with surprise visits, your friends won’t hold you to the same high standards that they might if the event had been planned ahead of time. It’s OK if you don’t make the vinaigrette from scratch, and you can even serve leftovers. And when people accept last-minute invitations, you know they really want to come. They’re not showing up just because they RSVP’d “yes” six weeks ago, when the truth is they’d rather stay home and have some downtime.

However, a few rules apply even to spontaneous dinner parties.

Keep it manageable. Text an invite to a dozen friends. Chances are only a few of them will be able to make it. A larger group-invite creates too much unpredictability. What if your entire urban tribe shows up, expecting to be fed? Or what if you make a giant pot of jambalaya and only two friends make it—or worse, none? My ego just isn’t strong enough to withstand that. Better yet, pick up the phone. As I discovered last time I did some last-minute entertaining, phoning someone is the only way to ensure a speedy reply.

Choose “easy” guests. However much you love them, some of your friends are harder work than others, and may need the benefit of buffer guests. You won’t be able to carefully craft the invite list of a spontaneous dinner party to ensure buffers, so just invite the more socially adept in your crowd.

Give a fun reason. It’s more exciting if you give a reason for your surprise soiree. It can be food-related—maybe you spotted fresh corn at the farmers’ market. Or it could be the weather—like it’s warm enough to eat outside. We’re about to move, so I told my friends that this was our last chance to entertain in our old place.

Keep it simple—really simple. This doesn’t mean you should serve hot dogs. Make one dish from scratch, but pick something easy, like pasta with sausage and tomatoes; serve it with garlic bread and a green salad. Skip or buy dessert, or let your guests bring it if they offer.

Although the alpha entertainers among you may worry that such fare isn’t worthy of company, rest assured: Spontaneous gatherings are about appreciating the casual.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.