How to Host A Dinner Party For The Ages: Bring Back The Soiree

How to Host A Dinner Party For The Ages: Bring Back The Soiree

The term “soiree” conjures different images for different people.  Alcohol flowsfreely and in style. There's no shortage of entertainment and guests dancing the night away.  When people hear soiree, this is often what comes to mind.  They picture a scene from The Great Gatsby. They see Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford hosting in his mansion. Many people love the story based in the Roaring Twenties. They can close their eyes and picture themselves there, laughing at the antics of fellow party guests
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Two women toasting with their champagne glasses, dressed in 1930s hollywood party dresses
Sometimes I think I'd like to travel back in time to a party in the roaring 20s. Instead, I throw a theme party to remember.
 
Maybe, soiree makes you think of quieter dinner parties of the 1940’s and ‘50s. Hosts adorned their homes in art deco styles. Phonographs played Perry Como as guests mingled and talked. Women wore their hair in beautifully coiffed up-do’s as an accent to their cocktail dresses.  Each guest got an invitation addressed by hand in elegant calligraphy.  Upon arrival, the perfectly manicured housewife greeted her guests in a spotless apron - the kind we'd refer to as vintage  now.
 
In truth, a soiree is an elegant and intimate affair.  It is an evening party held in a private house.  Ambient music plays while guests engage in a variety of private conversation.  Subjects are more intellectual than mindless small talk.  Guests talk of current events, historical events and big ideas.  Meals run several delectable courses.
 

Bring Back the Dinner Party!

Why aren’t more people hosting soirees these days?  This idea is fantastic! Don't get me wrong, not every party has to be a fancy one.
 
I mean, who doesn’t love the occasional laid back party that lets you eat more than your fill of nachos?  Super Bowl parties and barbecues are some of my favorite gatherings.  
 
But every now and then, I like to put on a cocktail dress, break out my pearls, and talk the night away with close friends.  I'm on a mission to bring back the soiree, and I'm going to teach you how!

Dinner party guests toasting with their drinks, wearing white and sitting outside
 

The Soiree Starts With a Guest List

To keep it intimate, the ideal size is six to eight people.  All guests should know at least one person besides yourself.  It’s embarrassing to arrive at a party and realize that everyone there is best friends, and you only know the host.  You then only have two choices. Monopolize the host, or try to break into conversations between old friends. Many people feel trapped in that situation, so try not to let that happen.
 
The exception: Some people have a knack for these situations. You know, the person who becomes best friends with every stranger in the room in 15 minutes. Often referred to as The Life of the Party. They'll be fine. But most other people will appreciate your consideration.
 
When you create your guest list, think of personalities and strive for a good balance. Invite the social butterfly, someone who can make conversation with anyone.  But don’t overlook the quiet friend who listens well and makes excellent points when the timing fits.

Invitations Set the Tone of your Dinner Party

When is the last time you hand-wrote an invitation?  When is the last time you hand wrote anything?  It is a lost art.
Technology is a wonderful thing and I embrace it.  I love that I can type faster than I can write. Digital files save my house from the clutter of paper, not to mention the ease of sending Evites.  But, sometimes we should embrace the vintage feel of a hand addressed invitation.
 
Guests will appreciate your personal touch. Break out your best handwriting. Locate your old calligraphy set that your mom gave you when you graduated high school.  Sure, you only practiced for two hours before you got bored and threw it into a box.  Andmaybe that box has moved to three houses with you. Now it will finally get some use!

Pro tip: Be sure to hand address your envelopes, too. Your guests will feel excitement when they see it in their mailbox. The personal touch, complete with minor imperfections, is hard to beat.
 
When you choose an invitation, simple is elegant.  There is no need for over the top graphics or phrasing.  You can keep wording simple.For example: “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Smith request your presence for a night of food, drink, and intimate conversation.”  
 
Cream or white colored card stock is perfect for such an occasion. If you’d like, you can even use an envelope spacer like Mrs. Bucket on Keeping Up Appearances.  I always wanted to have my mail look as perfect as hers.  I never did get to host a tea with light refreshments for the vicar.
 

Let’s Talk Food

After you plan the guest list and the invitations, you need to plan your menu. Pull out all the stops.  Embrace your inner Julia Child.  You read that sentence in her voice, didn’t you?  Now is the time to embrace the art of gastronomy.
 
The menu doesn’t need to be complicated, but it should taste delicious and leave your guests talking.  Not the best cook?  A roast in a slow cooker is simple and foolproof, but the meat melts in your mouth and leaves you longing for more.  It’s so easy that I usually don’t even get my apron dirty.  And I’ll be honest, I’m in the running for the world’s messiest cook.  I once poured out an entire container of rice onto my kitchen island.  Okay, maybe it was twice.
 
Once you’ve planned your main course, think of the courses that surround it. You’ll want to start the night with appetizers.  Now is not the time to heat up some frozen mozzarella sticks.  Think simple but elegant.  Baked brie is a great dish that seems fancy but is simple to make.  Bake a cranberry pecan brie and your friends will love you for the rest of their lives.  And who can resist bacon wrapped scallops?  Let’s rephrase that: who can resist bacon wrapped anything?

Appetizers - Bacon-wrapped chicken stuffed with cheese and spinach (closeup)
"You had me at bacon."

The salad dish is a time to experiment with unique flavors that will keep your guests talking.  Make homemade vinaigrette to drizzle over some spring greens and feta with pine nuts.  The lettuce should be crisp and cold, served on a chilled plate.  The dressing should bring out the flavor of the cheese and the earthy crunch of the nuts.  Your guests will clean their plates and wish for more.
 
Between courses, it is helpful to serve something to cleanse the palate. While you can do this with plain crackers or even water, sorbet is much more fun!  The tartness of lemon sorbet cuts through the richness of earlier courses, giving your tastebuds a fresh start for things to come! Scientifically speaking, the citric acid causes your mouth to salivate, clearing the taste of the previous course. Sorbet is not just for dessert!
 
With your entrée, you should serve complementary side dishes.  If you followed my suggestion of a roast, you can easily pair that with some nice crusty bread. Impress your guests with homemade butter to serve with the bread.  It’s more simple than you might think.  Pour some heavy cream and a dash of salt into a lidded jar. Now shake, shake, shake!  That’s it.  No specialized equipment is necessary.  
 
As you shake the cream, the buttermilk will separate from the butter itself.  Be prepared, your arms will get quite the workout.  Once you have a solid lump of butter, strain out the buttermilk.  I like to use mine to make mashed potatoes to serve with the roast. If you’re feeling extra fancy, order a decorative butter mold to put an imprint on your homemade butter.  The taste of this fresh condiment will make the effort completely worthwhile.  
 

Confession: Side Dishes Are My Favorite!

I already mentioned mashed potatoes as a possible side dish.  Crisp roasted vegetables are also the perfect addition to a roast.  The fresh crunch of a slightly marinated carrot in your mouth complements the main dish well.  The simple aesthetic of asparagus laid across a bed of mashed potatoes is a great combo as well. Serve it with juice from the roast to add another hint of flavor.
 

Something Sweet to Top it Off

Dessert is a time to shine with your guests. If you're a dessert artist, put on a show. But, I realize you’ve put forth a ton of effort in cooking, so there is no shame in purchasing dessert from a bakery. Whether you make it yourself or not, put some thought into it.
 
Crème brulee is a time honored favorite of dinner parties.  Plus you get the fun of using a torch!  No matter how hard I try, I can never bake a black forest cake that looks anywhere as good as my local cake shop.  The taste of cherries paired with chocolate sponge cake…oh my. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
 

Classy Ways to Imbibe

Besides food, you can wow your guests with delicious (and simple) drinks.  In the past, a typical soiree featured certain types of alcoholic beverages.  You can find recipes for those, or choose something more simple like a great set of wine pairings.

Woman drinking and talking at a dinner party
 
If you aren’t a sommelier, don't worry. Your local gourmet liquor store should have someone that specializes in drink selection.  You’ll want wines that bring out the flavors in whatever dishes you’re serving.  Brandy and liqueurs are often featured in elegant dinner parties.  There does not need to be a huge selection.  Typical guests at a soiree event are not there to become intoxicated.  Instead, the drinking of alcohol is part of the social dining experience.  The flavors are carefully chosen to complement both the menu and the ambiance of the night.
 

More ThanJust Food and Drink

Once you’ve established your menu and drinks, it’s time to plan the details of your party.  What makes a great party?  The answer is a host that has thought of everything.  Make sure to use your good china and crystal.  Polish your silver. Press your tablecloth.  No, not your vinyl tablecloth that your kids spill juice on. Iron your good tablecloth that your grandmother used.  
 
Fun details aren’t necessary, but they will wow your friends.  You can rent fancy chair covers for a very reasonable price.  They add an elegant look to your dining room table.  You can also rent or buy linen napkins in colors that complement your tablecloth and décor.  This fancy night deserves better than dollar store paper napkins.
 
Centerpieces should be simple and classic.  A fresh bouquet of flowers ties the room together.  They should be in season and not be flashy.  Your goal is not to have a towering topiary in the middle of your dining room table.  Instead, it should be a low arrangement so that people can see over it.  This encourages conversation at the table. It also allows the centerpiece to be a focal piece without being ostentatious.  
 

Keeping Guests Entertained at Your Dinner Party

Perhaps the most fun to plan is the entertainment.  Your guests will converse with each other, and you want that throughout the night. But, a great dinner party has some planned activities.  Card games such as gin and canasta are easy to plan.  Get ready to explain the rules of the games to your guests.  
 
Canasta originated in the 1940’s and isn’t exactly the hit on modern college campuses.  But it’s coming back, as more people realize it’s a fun game that is perfect for a party setting! Teaching the game itself is an activity, sure to engage everyone in conversation.  Some people will already know how to play and can help with the newer players.
 
Charades is a fun game to play, especially as more alcohol flows.  Be sure to have a list of words ahead of time.  If you’re feeling especially adventurous, choose a theme or topic for the game.  It helps everyone’s guesses to stay on the right track.  It can also be hilarious to see your friends try to perform under the pressure of time.  Charades can bring out the competitive nature in people.  I always get a chuckle at how excited a room can become over someone not knowing that you’re trying to act out fishing.

Deck of playing cards spread out on a table
You can go all out with games, but getting a deck of cards and learning a few games is a great place to start!

If you’re detail oriented, you can plan a dress code for the evening. If you’re having a themed soiree, this is easy.  For example, say you’ve already spelled out in your invitations that you’re planning a 1950’s dinner party.  Ladies would know to include their stiff chiffon petticoats and their pearl necklaces.  
 
If you haven’t set a theme, feel free to point out to guests that semi-formal attire is the norm. No need to make a big deal of it,simply note it on the invitation. If you know that the men will balk at the idea of wearing a tux to a dinner party, you can be more specific.
 
For exampe: "Semi-formal attire. Coats and ties, and dresses and pantsuits will do."  Whatever wardrobe you choose, be sure to make it known to all guests so that no one feels out of place.  It’s very unsettling to arrive at a party and find that you are either under or overdressed.
 

Choosing Music to Please Everyone at Your Party

In case you were wondering, still - yes, you need music! After all..“Without music, life would be a mistake.” -- Nietzsche
 
Music is an absolute necessity at any party, and your fancy soiree is no exception.  Choose selections that allow for conversation and activity while still relaxing the guests.  Again, fit the music to your theme if you have chosen one. Instrumental versions of modern songs are an option that many people overlook. A recognized melody relaxes people, while the absence of lyrics allows for easy conversation.  
 
Pro Tip: Spotify and other streaming services offer playlists full of instrumental music.Some songs are original, some are versions of popular tunes, and some will be recognizable from the best movie and stage scores ever written. I can say from experience that this becomes a wonderful conversation piece! If you choose a genre that is not mainstream in modern society, learn a little about it for your dinner party.  Then you can impress your friends by knowing that Frank Sinatra’s middle name was Albert.  It helps to stimulate conversation among your guests. Depending on what music you choose, you could spark a new hobby in your friends. Everyone loves discovering new music they like.

Screenshot of album cover for Piano Novo by Maxine Cyrin
Warning, this song may give your guests goosebumps.
 

With Careful Planning, Your Soiree Can be an Affair to Remember  

The elegant dinner party has lost its place in contemporary society.  There was a time that dinner parties were the norm. Friends regularly gathered together to enjoy each other’s company and good conversation.  There’s no reason for dinner parties to not be regular affairs, even in modern times.  We should all embrace relaxing with music playing while we sip champagne. Once you've hosted a successful party, your friends will most likely want to join in the fun!  It’s exciting to rotate between hosts with afairly regular guest list.  I love seeing how each person puts their individual twist on parties.  Some put meticulous detail into plating a gourmet dinner.  Others have delicious food, but put emphasis on fun activities. I've been to dinner parties that kept laughter roaring through the house all night.  
 
I love getting together with my friends.  I also love meeting new people in small settings, allowing me to make a better connection. Sometimes large parties limit intimate conversation because the large crowd becomes overwhelming.  A small soiree almost forces guests to interact at a deeper level.  Even something as simple as dressing up changes people’s behavior.  There is something uplifting about wearing a cocktail dress versus jeans.
 
Once you’ve mastered the soiree, make it a regular occurrence.  Host a party each season with a different theme.  Experiment with new recipes.  Travel to the next county to bring home a dessert that you read about online.  I love hearing my guests gasp with delight as they taste the first bite of a new cake.  Put effort into planning, and you’ll enjoy a successful night full of joy and laughter!
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collage of good food and people at a dinner party with text overlay "How to Host a Fancy Dinner Party. Bring Back The Soiree"


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