The most comforting point to remember when preparing a dinner party is that nobody comes for the food. There are so many excellent restaurants around that really, if you want to eat exceptional food, you might as well head to one. A dinner party is a pleasure because it takes place in the privacy of a home. Nobody should be expecting you to cook like Ottolenghi and nor should you try. So my first rule is this: you are not running a restaurant. Even if you are an excellent chef — I am not — it will still make your life stressful if you try to show off too much. Cook something simple, like roast chicken or shepherd’s pie, and serve it with a salad, plenty of fresh bread and homemade mayonnaise.
My second rule is that nobody will eat the salad, but a table without salad looks undressed. Everyone will feel obliged to scoop a few leaves on to their plate and pick at them, but you will always be left with a bowl of salad, which you cannot do anything with because, by the next day, it will have macerated in the vinaigrette. It is wrong to serve the vinaigrette on the side, however. It looks mean. Put the vinaigrette in the bottom of the bowl, toss the salad leaves by hand, add a few radishes, because people seem to love pink and green together. But accept that you will always have salad left over.
Part of the reason nobody ever eats the salad is because dinner parties are about booze rather than food, and rightly so. Salad is not a food you want to eat even when slightly tipsy. Some people frown on drinking, but you don’t want those people for dinner. So invite people you like and can do whatever you damn well please with. Which brings me on to rule three: no Instagram, please – not of the food (even the pink and green salad) and certainly not of the people there. Dinner parties must be private.
To set the tone for an amusing evening, serve fizz to start, ideally alongside oysters, which you can buy fairly cheaply from a local fishmonger. If somebody isn’t drinking, offer them elderflower and fizzy water. Champagne feels decadent, but when you can get an excellent bottle for just over £10 from Aldi, it doesn’t need to be costly. Crémant is also delicious. Do not serve prosecco, which is sweet and vile, like the worst sort of dinner party guest.
When it comes to guests, pick carefully. Sometimes it can be enjoyable to gather together disparate friends who do not know each other, although I have done this before and it has been a disaster. Do not gather six people who all went to school together, and your new friend whose girlfriend paints portraits of dogs. They will feel excluded and probably bored. Either put together a group who know each other well and can reminisce, or a group who do not know each other at all, but share common interests. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the balance of men and women quite right. Never invite three couples and one single friend.
Guests should come armed with gossip, not long lists of eating habits. If friends are picky about food, be picky about friends. A fussy eater who doesn’t complain and instead drinks the night away is welcome. So is a guest who brings good wine or fine cheese. Serve the good wine first. The same goes for anything else you might serve throughout the evening.
Do not bother with pudding. Instead, bring out chocolate at the end. A friend of mine often serves vanilla ice cream with melted mars bars poured over the top, and she says she has never had a complaint.
If people want to smoke, let them. The number of people who smoke these days is dwindling, but for those who do, it’s gracious to allow smoking at the table. There is no better way to kill a dinner party than to force your guests out into the cold. Open a window and the smell will disappear by the morning. Memories of your cordiality will linger much longer.
Do not allow even a whisper of Covid. If anyone brings it up, politely suggest a change of direction. Bring the conversation round to sex, if necessary, which everyone can normally agree is a good thing.