The hosts of CTV’s The Social and I had lots of fun chatting about which wines to serve at dinner parties, pairing tips and other entertaining suggestions.
If you’re hosting a dinner party, how many wines should you serve?
Count on one to two glasses of wine per guest per hour, as people tend to drink more in the evening and at a sit-down dinner, than they do at a standing reception earlier in the day. There are 4-5 glasses of wine in a standard 750 ml bottle, so if you’re entertaining ten people for, say, three hours, counting pre-dinner and post-dinner drinks, that’s about six to eight bottles of wine.
What about those who don’t drink wine or designated drivers?
I also like to have some local craft beer on hand, as well as non-alcoholic, still and sparkling, cider. I make sure everyone has a glass of water, and I keep those topped up so that guests don’t have to slake their thirst with alcohol, which is important as a responsible host.
Villa Maria Estate Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2018
Marlborough, New Zealand
What do you do with the wines that guests bring? Serve them?
I always make a big deal any guest whose brave enough to bring me a bottle of wine because most of them think it’s like bringing tea to China. I always say something like, “Oh this is a terrific wine (much as I’d say any newborn baby is just so cute) and I’d love to try it unless you think we should save it for another special occasion?” Then that lets guests tell you whether they hoped you’d open this expensive bottle of cabernet that they just schlepped all the way back from Napa, or that they really did mean for you to enjoy it at a later date.
If you’re the guest and you do bring a bottle to a dinner party, do you expect it to be opened?
Traditionally, the host gift, whether it wine, chocolates or candles, was part payment and part homage in recognition of the effort to organize the evening. How do you think Crabtree & Evelyn stays in business?
If you really want that expensive Napa cab to be opened at dinner, call your host a week in advance and ask her if it would pair well with any of the courses she’s serving. Short of decanting your wine on your friend’s doorstep, this is the most direct approach. Otherwise, leave it up to your host, even if she asks, as she may already have planned the wines for the meal.
Taittinger Brut Reserve Champagne
Champagne A.O.C., France
How much should you spend?
For casual meals, a $15 bottle is fine; but for serious dinners $25- plus is more appropriate. By the way, relax as you couldn’t possibly do worse than the late novelist Kingsley Amis, who once gave his host a bottle of HP sauce.
What is best to serve before everyone sits down at the table and why?
Start with an aperitif – offer a choice of wine, beer, soft drink, sparkling or spring water. Not everyone likes the same drink.
Pre-dinner wines I recommend are:
Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc is a zesty white wine from New Zealand that’s perfect with pre-dinner nibbles and hors d’
We also have Taittinger Champagne, a hi-classy bubbly from France when you want to splurge.
I’m going to have you all try the Henry of Pelham Catharine Cuvee Rose Sparkling, Niagara because it’s less than half the price of the champagne, but delivers just as much flavour and elegance with notes of fresh field strawberries and toasted bread. Plus it’s Canadian, and I think we should celebrate Canadian wines on the dinner table at Thanksgiving and year round.
Henry of Pelham Winery Cuvee Catharine Rosé Brut
Niagara Escarpment, Ontario VQA, Canada
How do you decide the order of which wines you should serve first, second, third?
What I tell my course students is to always drink up sensory-wise, so go from light-bodied wines to more full-bodied, from dry to sweet, so that each wine is bolder than the previous one. Otherwise, if you drink a sweet wine before a bone-dry one, that dry wine will taste bitter by comparison.
Which wines should you decant in advance of the dinner party and how much of a difference does decanting actually make?
Decanting, or pouring wine from the bottle into any vessel, matters most with full-bodied tannic red wines, those that have that furry mouth feeling like eating walnuts when you drink them. By exposing the wine to air you encourage those tannins to bind together and those long chain molecules slide over your tongue more smoothly than they do as single molecules that get stuck amongst your taste buds.
Concilio Pinot Grigio 2016
Trentino D.O.C., Italy
When should you decant your big red wines?
Decant really tannic red wines 1-2 hours before guests arrive. You can keep trying tiny sips of the wine every half hour as it starts to breathes and open up–and as you do too as the host. If it’s still feeling really grippy, then do the old double decanting trick: pour it from your decanter into a water jug and back into the decanter for more air exposure.
What about chilling the wine? How do you know which ones to chill and at what temp?
We tend to over-chill whites, serving them fridge cold. That will numb aromas and flavours. If the bottle is showing condensation and your glass mists up as you pour the wine, it’s too cold. You can let it sit in the glass to warm up. Better yet, take a white wine out of the fridge about 15 minutes before you serve it to warm up a little to about 10 degrees Celcius.
Reif Estate Winery Riesling 2017
Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario VQA, Canada
Sparkling wine can and should be served slightly cooler at 7 degrees. Basic chemistry, as a liquid warms up the molecules move faster. The pressure inside a bottle of bubbly is already the same as the pressure in city bus tires at 90 pounds per square inch. If the bubbly is warm, that pressure increases and it’s going to blow when you open it. I know from personal experience.
Once your guests are seated at the table, what wines do you recommend serving with the starter course?
We have the Concilio Pinot Grigio from Italy, a versatile, light-bodied dry white wine that would pair well with a salad as a starter, as would the medium-bodied Reif Riesling from Niagara with its lovely lemon and lime citrus notes.
Then we have a more full-bodied, Carnivore Shiraz from Australia with fleshy ripe plum and dark berry flavours, which is ideal for more richly flavoured starters like the charcuterie we have here.
Carnivor Shiraz 2018
South Australia, Australia
What if your guests have very different wine tastes? For example, I don’t typically drink red wine.
The beauty of serving different wines with different courses is that guests can stick with the wine they prefer. So perhaps you keep drinking the bubbly through the meal, Lainey. That’s why, when I offer pre-dinner drinks, I do offer a choice of two wines, plus beer or cider to get things started.
Should you leave bottles on the table?
It depends on how formal or informal your dinner is. Personally, I love having the bottles on the table as every wine tells a story, and guests can see what they’re drinking. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll place the bottles on decorative coasters. However, it’s perfectly fine not to have the bottles on the table, especially if your table is already full with lots of dishes, cutlery, candles and a centerpiece.
Hester Creek Estate Winery Golden Mile Bench Chardonnay 2018
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia BC V.Q.A., Canada
How much wine do your pour in a glass and how often should you top up everyone’s glass?
I pour about a third of a glass, so there’s enough room to swirl the wine and smell it if guests want to do that. Then I wait until there’s only about a third of the wine left before I top up, and I always ask, because some guests want to pace themselves more slowly, and others may not want more of that wine and prefer to move on to the next wine you’re serving.
You’ve finished the first course, what wines would you serve with the main?
I have a lovely, rich, full-bodied, chardonnay from Hester Creek in British Columbia which would be perfect with a main course of roast chicken as well as a cherry-ripe California Pinot Noir from McMurray that I’d match with duck or game birds.
I’m going to have you all try the 7 Deadly Zins Zinfandel from California, first because I love the name… on the back of the bottle it says it pairs well with a variety of foods including sloth. It’s a deeply concentrated red wine with aromas of black and purple plums and cassis. This is an amazing wine for Thanksgiving trukey and the side dishes as well.
MacMurray Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2015
Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California, United States
How important is pairing the wines to the specific foods you’re serving?
The old age of white wine with white meat, red wine with red meat is outdated because we no longer live in a meat and potatoes world with fusion and international cuisines. However, there’s still a reason most of us don’t put ketchup on ice cream: it’s a dreadful mismatch of flavors. I think food and wine pairing rules are more guidelines that get you going in the right direction to experiment with different combinations, to see what you like. And if it doesn’t work out, relax, have a bun between the food and wine.
7 Deadly Zins Old Vine Zinfandel 2014
Lodi, California, United States
If I invited you over to my house for dinner, curious to hear what some of your hosting tips are so I’d ensure you’d leave a happy guest?
First of all Jess, you’re going need to spend a lot of money on wine because I know how much just about every bottle on the market costs. I’m kidding. Sort of.
What you can do in advance is ask guests for both their wine and food preferences and/or allergies. I happen to be allergic to homemade wine, so as a courtesy I let my hosts know that.
Call me a control freak, but I like to have name cards to designate where everyone sits because, if not, there’s a dance of indecision as everyone approaches the table
Encourage the best conversationalists to sit near the table ends, with quieter people in the center. This will balance the conversational ebbs and flows, and make the quiet folks feel included even if they say little.
Hosts in ancient Rome, by inviting people designated as “parasites ” – they weren’t wealthy enough to reciprocate the dinner invite so they were seated in the least desirable places and were expected to flatter the host. Of course, today we wouldn’t dream of designating parasites — they tend to designate themselves.
I like to seat the best conversationalists at either end of the table, with quieter folks in the middle so that everyone feels included.
Warre’s Finest Reserve Port
What if the roles were reversed and you had us over to your house? What would we need to do to be your ideal guests?
Respond to an invitation within a day if possible, a few days at the most. Your host is likely trying to coordinate many schedules, including the other guests’, the caterer’s and her own. If you would have liked to join the dinner but can’t due to another commitment, state why you can’t make it. Otherwise, a polite no without explanation is a good signal of not wanting to be invited again.
Don’t wear strong perfume or cologne – it interferes with the enjoyment of the food and wine, and some other guests may have sensitivities or allergies.
Don’t walk into the kitchen unless you’re invited – even to take in dirty dishes. The host may not want you to see the mess and preparation going on behind the scenes.
Within six months of dining at their house, invite your hosts either to dine at your house or, if you’d prefer not to cook, take them out to a restaurant. Don’t worry about matching their meal – it is the spirit of reciprocation that counts.
Inniskillin Niagara Estate Vidal Sparkling Icewine 2014
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario V.Q.A., Canada
Which wines work best for dessert?
We have a rich Port from Warre’s, the traditional fortified wine from Portugal that’s wonderful with chocolate desserts.
We also have a spectacular Inniskillin Sparkling Icewine from Niagara that works well with creme brulee.
I’m going to have you all try Southbrook Framboise from Niagara, which is made from raspberries rather than grapes. It’s still fermented and has about 10% alcohol. It’s a perfect sweet treat at the end of the meal that’s not too heavy and would be perfect with pie or a fruit tart or cobbler.
Southbrook Vineyards Framboise
Note: the article below was published in Ottawa Magazine, the sister publication of Toronto Life, a number of years ago.
Everyone will be here in two hours. Whose idea was this anyway? Surely not mine. As a party animal, I fit somewhere between a desert lizard and a night worm. But now I recall that febrile moment when I thought a dinner party would be a good way to stretch the social skills of an only child. A thread of sweat stitches my chiffon blouse to my backbone.
Have we lost the art of dinner parties, along with letter-writing and afternoon tea? Or perhaps they still happen, but only in Parisian flats where people dressed in black, discuss the decline of post-modernism.
Dinner parties seem to run counter to our modern neurotic need for self-reliance: we live in ever more isolating suburbs, drive cars that allow us to avoid greeting each other on the street, and communicate on the internet. I’m even loath to “bother” my neighbours by asking them to take in the mail when we go away. So was surprised when three couples accepted our dinner invitation – something that will leave them in our social debt.
Every month, it seems, I read some gleefully grim article on The Death of the Dinner Party that labels them démodé, and point out that they have been replaced by the more democratic potluck gathering. But if the recent surge in sales of fine china, table linen and candlesticks is any indication, reports of its death are premature.
Surely not all of this is stored in cupboards, awaiting a 50th wedding anniversary? Even increased house sales augur well for the dinner party: the third “C” of home ownership, after comfort and convenience, is conspicuous consumption — which requires inviting people over. Plus, food is the new entertainment. Celebrity chefs now have their own books and television shows: you can watch Emeril, then be Emeril, with your own hand-picked home audience.
Picking an audience, however, is no simple cattle call. The first way I offend Emily Post is by inviting people months in advance – and worse, giving them a wide choice of dates. Ms. Post says this doesn’t allow them an easy way out if they just don’t want to join you for dinner.
However, this pleases a Type-A control freak like me – the ingrates should have to work at getting out of it. She also advises against sending invitations too close to the date, or guests will suspect that they’re just fill-ins for last-minute drop-outs. Guilty again — but no worse than the nineteenth-century custom of Paris. A category of young men called “fourteenths” would ready themselves between five and nine each evening in case they were called upon to fill in for a late cancellation. (Today, fourteenths are called divorcées.)
My real assault on decorum, though, is that I don’t personally deliver hand-written invitations. Ms. Post believes that investing significant time, effort and cost honours the guests. But I figure that after dropping my son off at school, working full-time, taking my son to gymnastics after school, working out, picking up the drycleaning, putting plant food in the dead fern’s pot, reading the papers, shopping for a new air filter and defrosting dinner, it’s an achievement to send out e-mail invites at 10 p.m. — with dangling modifiers.
Life’s already busy, so why even host dinner parties? Well, hospitality is one of life’s greatest pleasures: it gathers us together to celebrate special occasions and brightens otherwise ordinary evenings. The risk, though, is that dinner parties put your personal life on display.
Your guests can see whether you have taste (home décor), culture (art, books), standards (housekeeping), connections (family photos) and personality defects (lick-a-maid stick collection). This is why evil guests can trash your reputation – they have so much material to work with. Maybe that’s why I’m feverishly combing the rug fringes with my fingernails right now – just after throwing the People magazine into the cupboard and leaving Anna Karenina bookmarked on the side table. (“Oh, so that’s where I left my book!”)
Even parenting skills are up for review — our three-year-old now knows when to swoop in for an hors d’oeuvre and run out with it between his teeth, skipping the tiresome introductions.
But on the flip slide, personal revelation and vulnerability allows hosts and guests to take their friendship to a deeper level. While restaurant tables can usually be pushed together to accommodate a throng, only a small number of people can sit down at most dining room tables.
This exclusive feeling gives the guests a sense of entering an inner sanctum of friendship. In response, the host feels more responsible for the guests’ happiness during the evening.
The doorbell chimes, and I assume the posture of Casual Elegance as I slouch toward the door. Skip that, I think, straightening up to Confident Simplicity. I’m also mentally flipping through the chapter entitled “The Good Host” to remember how many times to let the doorbell ring before answering so as not to appear more eager than a golden retriever.
Couple by couple they arrive, and our Scottish, Latin American and French backgrounds bump up against each other as we do the pigeon air-kiss dance, unsure of whether to shake hands, kiss, kiss one cheek, or both. Tonight’s guests also come from different generations and work in different fields: Georgina and John are in their thirties and work in high tech; Ted is a lawyer and his wife Janet a teacher, both in their early fifties; Thérèse works for Revenue Canada and Jack is in real estate – I’m guessing they’re forty-something.
“Here you go,” Georgina says, thrusting a potted geranium into my husband Andrew’s arms. Then she bear-hugs him, nearly flattening the plant to a corsage against his jacket. Ted tentatively hands over a bottle of Australian shiraz to me, knowing that I write about wine. “You have nothing to worry about as long as you bought an expensive label,” I reassure him, winking. Thérèse and Jack arrive last, and without a hostess gift – I’m relieved that I’ve been able to put the others away first.
Traditionally, the host gift was part payment and part homage, but the debt wasn’t fully repaid until the guest reciprocated with an invitation. Flowers, chocolates, cheese, preserves, potted plants, coffee-table books, household gifts and bath products are all good ideas. (How do you think Crabtree & Evelyn stays in business?)
What matters is the symbolic recognition of the time, effort and expense your hosts have already invested in the evening. Relax: you couldn’t possibly do worse than the grandfather of the late novelist Kingsley Amis, who, he recalls, once gave his host a bottle of HP sauce.
Andrew takes the guests, who haven’t been to our home before, on the Home Toy Tour, showing them the features of which he is proudest, such as the wine cellar. I start medicating those who remain behind with champagne.
In France, the traditional aperitif was the highly alcoholic vermouth, which means “man courage” — presumably strengthening one for the evening ahead. Champagne is a better aperitif, though. It stimulates the appetite, its lower alcohol content reduces the risk of guests breaking out into spontaneous karaoke before dinner is finished, and it’s a drink few hosts think to serve except for special occasions, so it adds a celebratory note to the evening.
People can’t help toasting each other’s health and happiness.
“Did you take these shots?” I hear Jack ask Andrew downstairs, as they look at our African safari pictures. Context influences conversation. From our trip, they jump to travelling with kids and the African-American exhibit at the art gallery.
With no script, dinner party conversation can be more unpredictably entertaining than theatre. The plot thickens tonight when Ted goes on to John, who’s coach of his son’s little league baseball team, about sports being a waste of time . At another dinner party, my husband, a high tech invester, used the acronym VC while discussing the economy. Another guest, who works for a social services agency, asked “Viet Cong?” “No,” my husband replied, “venture capital.”
In fact, the best gatherings are ones where you only know the host. It’s much safer inviting people who know one another, but it’s strangeness and difference that ignite the brightest conversational fires. As the nineteenth-century English dramatist W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) once observed, “It’s not so much what’s on the table as what’s on the chairs.”
At the most vibrant gatherings you can spot the fool, straight man, flirt, voice of maturity, iconoclast, and so on. In high school I went to chemistry class mostly to see what I could “accidentally” blow up.
Now I’m doing it socially, trying to detonate conversations with explosive personality combinations. “People on their best behaviour are rarely at their best,” novelist Alan Bennett noted.
Discussions in restaurants have a different flow. All too often, they centre on how difficult it was to find parking, the 300 percent mark-up on the wines, the cold soup, the crusty waiter, whether the person against the wall has enough room – all of which set the tone for other stressful topics such as work, the stock market and global warming.
Sharing a meal in a restaurant means interruptions from menus, questions from waiters who don’t know your preferences, and long silences as everyone wonders what to order, how the dishes are prepared, and which ones have allergy-inducing ingredients.
All this can be settled in advance of a private dinner party. And when the conversation is flowing, you don’t need to strain your voice over music that’s playing too loudly and is not to your taste. You won’t feel compelled to hurry so that the next seating can come in; and you can even eat in your sock feet – a sensation of freedom you rarely experience with fine cuisine. The best part – for the guests, at least – is that there’s no bill at the end.
Twenty-four canapés later, it’s time to move to the table. “Sit where you like,” I invite the guests. “As long as it’s not beside your partner – you can analyze the evening on the way home in the car together.”
The second dance of indecision plays out, then everyone sits. Hosts in ancient Rome avoided this awkwardness by inviting “parasites” – people not wealthy enough to reciprocate. They were seated in the least desirable places, ate the most meagre food, took the butt of jokes and were expected to flatter the host. Of course, today we wouldn’t dream of designating parasites — they tend to designate themselves.
For those of us who aren’t parasites, however, accepting a dinner invitation means that we tacitly agree to reciprocate. Throughout history, hosts have tried to outdo each other with lavish parties in order to make their guests indebted to them. (What’s the good of money if you can’t wave it under people’s noses?)
But today, being lavish is a form of social isolation: your guests may be so intimidated that they feel they can’t possibly invite you over to their own humble homes. This is a sad loss for hospitality, which is embodied more in the gesture than in the execution.
Now, as each course arrives at the table, murmurs of appreciation escape from the guests like wisps of steam, entwining with those curling off the food.
We start with pan-seared Mariposa foie gras with figs marinated in port and apricots, drizzled with port. I open an Inniskillin riesling icewine, a sweet wine that softens the saltiness of the foie gras but has a wonderful acidic backbone.
The second course — roasted loin of Ile Vert lamb with black trumpet mushroom crust – is complemented by a Chambolle-Musigny, a pinot noir from Burgundy, which has an earthy quality that some affectionately refer to as barnyard by-product. Roquefort trifle with pear relish and walnut dacquoise is paired with a 1966 Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou and followed by a palate cleanser of champagne and red grapefruit sorbet. The Valrhona bittersweet chocolate tart with creme fraiche and blood oranges slides down easily with a Bava mosacato d’asti.
Entertaining at home means great wine as well as great food. I can open those special bottles I’ve been holding on to for too long – and that are rarely found in a restaurant. There is no more luxurious feeling than opening my best wine with friends – a rare opportunity to get magnanimously tipsy.
Generals lead with the sword, philosophers with the pen, and dinner party hosts with the fork.
The guests eye Andrew and me to know when to dig in, and we do so immediately and with relish. Food is the only entertainment we truly consume, despite what diehard thespians would have us believe. Unlike attending the theatre, ballet or opera, eating is something we need to do – but when we infuse an animal need with camaraderie and creativity, we move from sustenance to cuisine. It becomes part of us, and we turn it into blood, bone and gesture, as Rilke would say.
It reminds us of how fleeting life is — no record of the food, wine or conversation is left, only memory.
Food also helps celebrate the seasons, making us aware of nature’s gifts. Be forewarned, though: mastering seasonal menus can metastasize into a manic-thematic, Martha-sized obsession. The table centrepiece becomes a five-foot harvest horn filled with plastic produce, or eight blinking-nosed reindeer chasing each other around a candelabra.
Now, after telling you about the food, I wish I could also tell you that I lovingly julienned the carrots myself and sautéed the lamb shank to perfection. But, as with other domestic skills, I outsourced.
Julie Krawchuk, a freelance chef, prepares the most extraordinary meals in our own kitchen. And before you condemn me as a less-than-authentic host, let me say that I like to spend time with my guests rather than in the kitchen, where I can only catch snippets of conversation as I unplug the smoke-alarm battery.
It’s enough work to run the scheduling software required to coordinate eight professional calendars and arrange this evening. And let’s face it: hiring a chef (though more expensive) is no worse than subcontracting your meal to your friends, in the guise of potluck. At the end of the meal we get to chat with Julie, who gives us details about how she prepared the dishes.
After tea, coffee, and more port, each couple makes their excuses and leaves.
The next day, I wake up still radiant with generousity. Over the morning papers, Andrew and I chat about how John reacted to Ted’s diatribe, wonder who left the cell phone in the bathroom and contemplate when we’ll do the next one. It seems the night worm has found pleasure in coming to the surface; the desert lizard has found comfort in the sheltering shade of friends.
• Invite six to eight guests. This number works well in terms of the group dynamic: any more and you don’t get to chat with everyone; any fewer and there are fewer viewpoints in the conversation. Plus, the logistics of preparing dishes for that size of group is more manageable than for ten to twelve, which is the breaking point at which you need more than one person preparing it.
• When you send out the invitations, ask guests to let you know about food allergies and preferences and religious and other dietary restrictions.
• Let people off the hook – many guests feel an obligation to stay late in order to “pay” in conversation the debt they feel for the evening. In your invitation, let them know what time their babysitter can expect to go home. Of course, you should also be prepared for those night owls who want to hang on later.
• Check your oven the day before the event. We once had a sprocket thingie blow a gasket in the oven two hours before everyone arrived. The fix was just in time, but it took me all evening — and a lot of port — to recover.
• Ignore Martha and Emily. You don’t need hand-embossed place cards, matching plates, or monogrammed napkins. Focus on what’s important – ensuring your guests have a good time, and that the meal is well prepared.
• Start early – invite guests for 6 pm rather than 7 or 8 pm: a leisurely pace sets a relaxed tone. You’ll need time for hors d’ouevres, three courses, and dessert, followed by tea, coffee and liqueurs afterwards.
• Don’t wait for a late guest. It’s not fair to the other guests and may ruin the meal. Late arrivals can join the table when they get there, and they may feel less stress because they didn’t hold up the meal.
• Introduce the guests to each other – not only with their names, but also with their occupations and any interests you know they share to jump-start conversation. Take responsibility for flagging conversation during the evening (though short silences are perfectly natural). Politely cut off the drone or dominant talker and draw quieter guests into the conversation without putting them on the spot.
• Encourage the best conversationalists to sit near the table ends, with quieter people in the center. This will balance the conversational ebbs and flows, and make the quiet folks feel included even if they say little.
• Start with an aperitif – offer a choice of wine, beer, soft drink, sparkling or spring water. Not everyone likes the same drink. Similarly, don’t force people to drink wine during the dinner — even though it seem de rigueur for a sophisticated dinner party.
• Keep the hors d’ouevres small, and limit them to two or three per guest – you don’t want them stuffed with shrimp canapés by the time they sit down at the table. Similarly, keep each course modest in size. And don’t try for more than three courses plus dessert.
• If guests haven’t been to your home before, point out where the washroom is and let them know they can visit it whenever they like during the evening. You don’t want them gripping Maslow’s biological rungs while you’re discussing issues of self-actualization.
• Ensure the lighting is adequate to see the meal and the other guests. Candlelight is romantic, but you don’t want people feeling as though they’re talking to disembodied night spirits. For this reason, keep centrepieces and flowers low enough to see over them. Scented candles may interfere with the aromas of the food and wine.
• Keep refilling the water glasses throughout the meal. Drinking any type of alcohol is dehydrating, as a responsible host, you don’t want your guests having to quench their thirst with only alcohol. Offer sparkling or still water. Similarly, keep the bread basket stocked – guests shouldn’t have to ask for refills of either.
• If you’re doing the cooking yourself, choose dishes you can make ahead that need only to be heated and served. Cold entrées, such as salads, cold soups and smoked salmon, also minimize your time in the kitchen.
• Use fresh seasonal ingredients. For the sake of variety, avoid repeating ingredients throughout the meal. If you wish to economize but still appeal broadly to all palates, try pasta dishes with flavourful sauces and fresh vegetables rather than meat.
• Consider buying extra sets of silverware, dishware and glassware, rather than scrambling to wash everything between courses. Use cloth napkins that adequately cover the diners’ laps – paper is for picnics. It’s worth the investment if you plan to host more dinner parties.
• Keep the stain remover handy. Someone is sure to spill wine or a sauce on your tablecloth or on someone else.
• Respond to an invitation within a day if possible, a few days at the most. Your host is likely trying to coordinate many schedules, including the other guests’, the caterer’s and her own. If you would have liked to join the dinner but can’t due to another commitment, state why you can’t make it. Otherwise, a polite no without explanation is a good signal of not wanting to be invited again.
• Let your host know of any dietary restrictions well in advance of the dinner – announcing your aversion to beef at the table isn’t fair.
• If you need to cancel, call your host at the first opportunity you can, apologize and explain why. Send flowers the next day.
• Treat your hosts as you’d like to be treated. Arrive on time, be gracious, contribute to the conversation without being adversarial and don’t get completely sozzled.
• Don’t arrive too early – the host may still be completing last-minute preparations. Ten minutes before or after the stated time is acceptable.
• If you take wine, don’t expect it to be opened immediately. The host may have planned the wines to match the dishes and may already have decanted several to breathe. For casual meals, a $10-$15 bottle is fine; but for serious dinners $25- plus is more appropriate – and please, no homemade stuff.
• Don’t wear strong perfume or cologne – it interferes with the enjoyment of the food and wine, and some other guests may have sensitivities or allergies.
• Make an effort to introduce yourself and converse with other guests, especially if your host is preoccupied with dinner.
• Try not to focus only on work-related topics, even if you share the same field as another guest. This excludes others at the table. And frankly, work is something most people would rather forget while socializing.
• Don’t walk into the kitchen unless you’re invited – even to take in dirty dishes. The host may not want you to see the mess and preparation going on behind the scenes.
• Do send a thank you afterwards – whether by phone, e-mail or a handwritten card (the latter is often most appreciated, since it requires the most effort and time). Follow-up gifts and flowers are also a nice touch of appreciation for a truly special evening. (That’s the traditional gesture after a Parisian dinner.) Your bouquet will also arrive at a time when your host doesn’t have to abandon the guests to put them in water.
• Within six months of dining at their house, invite your hosts either to dine at your house or, if you’d prefer not to cook, take them out to a restaurant. Don’t worry about matching their meal – it is the spirit of reciprocation that counts.