An Introduction to Formal Entertaining

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After watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians and scrolling through Pinterest at 2 a.m., everyone can become inspired to plan the next “it” event. Though many think the keys to a fabulous celebration are only in gold-gilded castles (while that does sound fabulous!), with a little imagination and a lot of love you’ll find that the perfect occasion is actually a carefully curated experience. Whether you’re dining under the stars or in your formal dining room, the recipe for a wonderful evening is made of the same ingredients!

Imagine the feeling of walking into a luxury hotel—the doors open and a welcoming face immediately greets you. You enter into a grand lobby that is filled with a blended scent of vanilla with some other familiar notes, and a tune with a tempo to suit the energy of its space. The countertops are kissed with fresh blooms and, without knowing it, you’re experiencing a sensory overload that fills you with joy before your stay has even begun! Like so many delightful things, you cannot analyze it—you can only feel it.

These subtleties, which hospitality experts have mastered, leave us with massive inspiration for entertaining in our own homes! As we embark on the summer months, ideal for entertaining, ladies and gentlemen of luxury may be wondering:

“How do I plan the perfect dinner party?”

Invitations: to send or not to send?

Duh, yes—send! Your party begins the moment your guests open their invitations! So much is said with the invitation—it should set the tone of your party that’s to come. Is there a theme? Is it formal or festive? Is it an open house with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres or a sit-down dinner? These questions will be answered with a proper invitation, and the insinuations given will guide your guests on what to wear and what to expect of the evening. Consult with your local stationer for guidance on customizing invitations and etiquette.

Size matters: or does it not?

“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” Contrary to Jordan’s opinion in Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, we love smaller dinner parties, too! Depending on the size of your party, you should start by making a list of items you need to purchase or rent. This includes everything from tables and chairs to dinnerware, barware, table linens, service trays/chafing dishes, et cetera. 

If you are planning to serve more than 12-16 guests, we recommend hiring a caterer (unless you’re like my fabulous Armenian mother who cooks for 36 people no matter what the guest count is). If you do choose to hire a caterer, still make something…even if it’s just one appetizer. There is a special essence derived from the laughter and aroma that fills a kitchen, which makes it feel like home—don’t give that up, no matter how large your party becomes!

Eating vs. Dining: yes, there’s a difference.

Americans are accustomed to quick service and instant gratification. Leave this ideal at the drive-thru! Even if you are serving a basic menu, don’t rush! You didn’t go through the trouble of planning “an evening in” to race through it. Instead, draw inspiration from collective European culture, which enjoys several prolonged courses paired with flattering beverages and an intermission palate cleanser. Three hours to dine is commonplace in this style of entertaining because when you’re dining with friends and enjoying life’s little luxuries you can savor each moment, which then become treasured memories. 

The love is in the details: make them count.

Much like how a grand entrance into a boutique hotel creates a feeling of welcomeness, the fine details must be done with love. Here are six ideas to make your guests’ experience special and memorable:

When guests arrive, offer them a light wine or a beautifully garnished signature cocktail.

Music and entertainment is a must for all parties—make a playlist and let it roll! If your party is inching above 50 or more guests, consider live music, dancers, or some type of interactive entertainment. 

Have hors d’oeuvres prepared and staged in advance so they feel welcome upon arrival, avoiding a last minute dash to help. Hors d’oeuvres and cocktails should be enjoyed for 30-45 minutes before sitting down to dinner. Note: avoid serving sweet foods or fruit first—it dulls the appetite.

Personalize their place setting. This surprise element holds dual purpose: 1) People love any and all things personalized to them—it makes it even more special when the place card is attached to their favor gift at their place setting. 2) Pre-selecting where guests should sit will eliminate the 15-30 minute lingering conversation of “where should I sit?” Which leads us into our next loving detail:

Watch the clock! While we mentioned how important it is to savor each moment and avoid rushing through your party, it’s equally important to not let any stage of your evening linger too long. Lead your guests through “movements” during the course of the evening—it will keep an element of surprise and continue to pique their interest.

Table decor is key. Fine accents of fresh flowers, full place settings adorned with napkin rings, table runners, candles, and the like create a beautiful setting. These elements make everything feel more special and memorable.

Well played: we’re talking board games and card games. 

It’s what people did before they had appendages called smart phones and tablets. Not every group is up for Spoons or Pictionary, but push the envelope and play a game at your next dinner party. The original soul that comes out with a light-hearted game is a refreshing reminder that there is a kid inside everyone!

In all of these suggestions, let it be most notable that, as the host, you also must be able to enjoy your party as a guest! If that means hiring an event planner, then do! Your energy is inspiration for how your guests should live in that particular moment and will ultimately set the tone of your entire evening. With thoughtful preparation, an occasional reference to Emily Post, and a refresher of your butler’s pantry, you’re on your way to mastering the art of entertaining this summer!