"They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts." - Acts 2:46
In the midst of renovating our home and living in chaos, I have held onto the hope that one day we would be able to host parties and get-togethers again. A couple of months ago, after we returned from our trip to France, I had the lavish idea to host a four-course, European inspired dinner party for a few close friends once the house was a little more put-together.
One of my biggest take aways from our trips to Europe is the way that Europeans linger over meals. Here in the States, we serve everything at once, eat, and move onto the next thing. Waiters work off tips so they like to turn over tables. In Europe, it's not unusual to spend three or four hours dining over multiple courses and the waiters aren't tipped, so they don't mind if you idle at the table.
I love sitting around a table with friends. I love the camaraderie and community that is built around sharing food and drink. A four-course dinner party was just the thing to celebrate the renovation progress!
Six of us sat around our newly built farmhouse table for four hours and simply enjoyed each other's company. We hardly looked at our phones, and there was no pressure to rush off anywhere particular. We laughed and caught up on life and talked about personalities and families and reminisced on old memories. I felt like this home that we have put so much blood, sweat, and tears (so many tears) into was being used to its fullest potential, and that satisfies my soul in a deep way.
I did enough preparation in advance (even though our oven stopped working mid-day...another story for another time) that I was able to relax and just enjoy the company when the evening arrived.
When you open your home to friends and put your time and energy into creating a space that makes them feel cherished and welcome, it is always rewarding. I find that even if there is a level of stress in the preparation, I am always grateful that I set aside the time to prioritize hospitality.
I did some Pinterest searching for dinner parties and surprisingly couldn't find much. I guess it isn't that common to throw a fancy dinner without a specific cause, but I say let's change that! So here are my tips for throwing a fancy dinner party just because! Many of these tips may seem obvious, so just skip over the things you already assumed. :-)
1. Make a guest list and pick a date
For a small dinner party, it can really throw things off if people don't show up or have a conflict, so before you shop for groceries or make big plans, decide who you're going to invite and check their schedules. I recommend keeping it small: six or eight people maximum.
We have a long list of friends we wanted to invite (and who we have invited over for other meals), but we wanted to keep this particular dinner party down to a size that would comfortably fit at our table and that wouldn't require doubling or tripling any recipes. So we chose two couples who are dear friends of ours and who we knew would have a fun time together, and I checked their schedules before finalizing plans.
2. Decide on a theme
It can be fun to pull your dinner together around a cohesive idea. For us, as I mentioned previously, we were inspired by our trip to Paris earlier this year, so everything was French-inspired, and because it's the end of Summer, I also choose ingredients that felt summery. I guess you could say it was French summertime.
3. Choose a Menu
There are lots of ways to divide your courses. We chose a salad, main course, cheese and meat course, and dessert. You could also opt for an appetizer, salad, main course, and dessert. Or some other combination; you're the boss!
Keep your guests in mind. Does anyone have a food allergy? Are there any strong preferences you know about?
Think about how much preparation you can do in advance. Because you're serving several courses and I'm assuming you don't have a maid or a butler, it helps to plan foods that can be prepared in advance over time and kept warm or cool while other courses are served.
Because everything was tied to a French summertime theme, and I wanted to have balance between light and heavy dishes, we greeted everyone with a summery, Parisian-inspired apple champagne cocktail and served simple white and red wine options with dinner. We then chose a summery watermelon and arugula salad to start, a rich mushroom risotto and salmon for the main course, a wide array of meats and cheeses from around the world, and a French take on an American dessert classic: creamy custard apple pie.
4. Plan your grocery shopping
Read through all your recipes and double and triple check your grocery list before you plan a trip to the store! Try to plan shopping the day before the event so the food is fresh but you aren't running around picking up ingredients the same day you're cooking.
5. Keep decor simple but elegant
Of course you can take the table setting to any level you so desire, but you can impress your guests with a tablescape without spending a lot of money or time. Here are a few of my favorite ways to dress up a dinner table:
- Choose different plates than your everyday service. If you don't have plates you want to use, visit a few thrift stores, yard sales or flea markets and hunt for mismatched vintage plates. It's an affordable way to collect plates that feel special and add color to a table setting. We used vintage plates for the main course and to set the table, but I used smaller plates we already owned for the other three courses.
- Buy one bunch of greenery and one bunch of flowers. This time, I picked up a large bunch of olive branches and a bouquet of tulips. Spread the greenery down the table like a runner and use it to fill bouquets. Use pitchers, mason jars or vases to house the flowers and keep the arrangements low so you don't block conversation.
- Light some candles. Small tealights in mason jars are an easy and cheap way to make a candlelit table without worrying about wax drippings.
- Invest in some fabric napkins. It automatically elevates the event!
6. Take a few minutes to print a menu and placecards
Your guests will probably be impressed when they walk in and see a pre-set menu on a menu card. I spent about five minutes typing out a menu and printed it on some card stock. I then printed my guests names on the same card stock, cut each one out and folded out placecards. A few minutes of work automatically made the evening feel like an event!
7. Set aside time to cook!
I definitely underestimated the time it would take to make so much food (and let's be real...I was a little ambitious with my recipe choices). It felt like Thanksgiving! I spent most of my day preparing food, and while it worked out fine for my schedule, I will definitely be more mentally prepared for the time it will take next time I try something like this!
8. Plate your food for the guests instead of serving family style
This is a simple way to make the night feel a little more special and out-of-the-ordinary. Take time before each course to plate everything for your guests and serve it to them like a restaurant!
9. Don't sweat the small stuff.
This is true in every aspect of life and every single day, and it is something I constantly have to remind myself!
Halfway through the day as I was cooking the pie for dessert, just starting the sauce for the entree, and hadn't even started the salmon, our oven completely stopped heating. We discovered it was a problem with the old outlet from the 50s that was still in the wall, but we thought for a solid hour that we wouldn't have an oven to use the rest of the day, and we would have to skip half the food I had planned.
I kept reminding myself that the point of the evening was to spend time with friends, and even if the food didn't work as I hoped, we would still enjoy it and laugh about the mishap.
10. Allow yourself to enjoy the quality time
The point of a "just because" dinner party is to make memories and soak in time with those you love. Don't let the details distract you from what really matters. And when your guests arrive, make them the focus and let everything else happen as it may!