Dinner Party 101: The Host on High

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I have heard it said that the guest list is more important than the menu in determining the success of a dinner party. But either is easily trumped by the behavior of the host or hostess. Even with the best intentions, it is entirely possible to ruin your own soiree. For example, it’s hard for people not to notice that you invited them over, then failed to spend any time with them at all. Why does this happen so often? Well, if you start late enough on the dinner preparations, if you choose too many dishes with last-minute steps, if you reach far outside your culinary comfort zone, you will be stuck in the kitchen all night. Do you care more about the creme brulée than your guests? Don’t answer that, just get out there and entertain.

An equally common dinner party faux pas is telling everyone what is wrong with the meal before they’ve even picked up their forks. If the sesame noodles were better last time you made them, you should conceal rather than publicize this fact. If they really are too awful to serve, don’t serve them. Shut up and let the poor guests enjoy their food without having to devote their evening to rebuilding your self-esteem. Be steadfast: Often I will get through the whole event without breaking down and at the very end blurt, “So no one thought the soup was too salty?” Really, what are they going to say?

One of the most memorable meals I ever had was served by an elderly gent who had my mother and me over for plain microwaved chicken breasts, rawish Minute rice, sliced white bread, and, heaped beside all this snowy white fodder, some violently orange baby carrots, also a la micro-onde. It would have ruined it if he’d apologized, and he did not.

Better to be an Unruffled Slopslinger than a Miserable Faultfinder — or her close relative, the Rueful Dreamer. Because really, you saw this great recipe for Thai noodles in the food section of the paper but you couldn’t get the lemongrass. You might have done your tiramisu, but a simple bowl of berries seemed more seasonal. No, you should not tell people what they almost won, or what they could have been eating. Most people love spaghetti and meatballs, as long as you don’t start raving about the lobster ravioli you saw on the Food Channel.

Speaking of lobster ravioli, perhaps you have met the Insufferable Uberchef. The Uberchef can prepare complex dishes from many different cuisines, and he does. He prepares them all, seemingly, at a single meal. And for each of the many courses and the wines to go with them, detailed notes will be provided. In many cases, the Uberchef will also have an Invisible Man problem, since the reduction sauce with the 30-year-old port can’t be prepared in advance. Perhaps he does not realize Joel Robuchon and Charlie Trotter didn’t make it. Since all but other Uberchefs are afraid to invite the gratuitous gourmet to their humble boards, this condition is its own punishment.

Please note: Because the home team should never be more swoozled than the visitors, or at least not dramatically so, do not start drinking more than one hour before the guests arrive. Once you drop the salad bowl, ladle gumbo all over the tablecloth and knock over their wine glasses, it will be too late.

Worse even than the Sloppy Drunk is the Divorce-in-Progress. It is a challenge to have people over to dinner when you are in the midst of serious relationship issues, and for some of us, this is a permanent situation. Nevertheless, nobody wants to have dinner with the Bickersons. As hard as it is, you have to avoid carping at each other all night and trying to involve people in your long-running arguments. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been guilty of this, but one night I finally saw the error of my ways. We were guests at the home of a couple we knew slightly. He was the chef of the pair, a bit of an Uberchef actually, and was taking his sweet time getting his famous jambalaya on the table. She wasn’t happy about this. Nor did she like the method he used to prepare the rice, or the casserole he chose to put in the microwave, and she liked it less as she finished her second glass of wine and watched the guests fighting over the crumbs in the cracker basket. When, in the final moments before serving, the entire Pyrex dish smashed on the floor, my husband and I worried we might soon be called as witnesses at some sort of trial. I can’t even remember what we did eat, so I hope that’s not one of the questions.

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

Marion Winik

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  1. At what point did the placement of silverware become arbitrary? I have been to dinner recently where very expensive silverware (and dinnerware) looked like they had been pitched on the table. No place setting matched another. Someone should do a nice little graphic review on table settings sometime.

  2. The funny thing about the Sloppy Drunk is that he thinks he’s the Uberchef when actually he’s the Underchef.

    I speak from experience.

  3. Right up with the Uberchef, Sloppy Drunk and Divorce-in-Progress is the (im)Perfect Guest. I’m remember a dinner party many decades past in which the hostess had gone to considerable trouble to prepare a lovely meal of sushi–which was pretty damn exotic in Lexington VA in the mid-70s. Perhaps my date and I should not have ingested acid as a pre-appetizer. (Seemed like a good idea at the time.) Anyway we walk in, great our hostess, hand her a bottle of wine and my companion, an American who grew up in England and was not too familiar with Japanese cuisine, I suspect, spied the lovely place-settings. Stylish plates, chopsticks, chilled sake and a huge platter of raw fish in the center of the table. She was intrigued, charmed, beguiled even by the small saucers of melon ball-sized wasabi scoops beside each plate. “Oh boy!,” she said. “Lime sorbet. I love it.” Before anyone could intervene she scarfed a whole green golf ball. Hilarity ensued.

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