How To Host A Killer Summer Dinner Party

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
9:00 am
08/11/16

Photographed by Maria Del Rio, Styled by Natalie Bowen, Cutting board by Josh Podoll.

The days of summer are dwindling. And if you haven’t thrown a dinner party at your place yet, what are you waiting for? Whether a big production or something super casual, it’s really all about breaking bread with loved ones and taking on the challenge of playing hostess. If the idea of throwing a party freaks you out, we understand. Which is why we recruited cult-followed San Francisco florist Natalie Bowen Brookshire, an ace hostess herself and someone who has been an integral part of hundreds upon hundreds of events and weddings, to give us her best (and super-easy-to-follow) advice. Read ’em all below, and get ready to send out those invites!

Planning The Menu: “At my house, the dinner is less about what I’m serving and more about the presentation and thought. I know I am a good cook, but I am not the best cook. In the end, I find that people just like to be invited over, so don’t let the idea of cooking for others overwhelm you. I have made elaborate multi-course meals in the past, and now realize that everyone felt awkward with me getting up and down prepping for the next course. I like to serve something simple, seasonal, and forgiving. I’ve found that perfecting a one-dish meal, such as sakshuka, and then spending more time on a thoughtful appetizer spread is always a hit. It’s visually pleasing yet the timing is flexible, so you can enjoy the party without being completely consumed in the recipe. I also always ask if guests have dietary preferences or aversions. And, if you don’t like to cook at all? Order take-out from a local restaurant and re-plate it on your own serving dishes.”

Crowd-Sourcing The Food: “If a friend asks you what they can bring, instead of asking for the standard bottle of wine, you can ask for something more pointed, like, ‘That amazing salad you always make!’ Note, however, that it’s important to think through the menu when asking people to bring something. That way you don’t end up with three jello salads and no pie, as I did when I hosted Thanksgiving a few years ago. People want to bring something, so give them a task when they ask. Also, don’t ask your friend who is always late to bring the appetizer, give that dish to your most punctual friend.”

Creating An Instagram-Worthy Tablescape: “For a table that every guest will be snapping the second they arrive, make sure it is set and ready to go before your guests get there. Setting the table is my favorite part, and I often do it the day before the dinner, so that I have time to enjoy the process before everyone comes over and I am rushed and distracted. Flowers are always the centerpiece on my table, as it is expected at my house. But, colorful candles can do the trick if you don’t have time to get flowers. I always play with colorful cloth napkins set on the plate, to add color and turn my table into a thoughtful design. Keep paint chips around so you can make quick place cards. I find that having assigned seating, even for a dinner of 4, can be a special touch both in thought and visual presentation.”

The Florals: “Flowers don’t have to be elaborate to make a statement. Get two bunches of tulips and simply chop and drop for a simple centerpiece. My dining table is small, so we often move the arrangement after everyone sits down. I have a second location designated so that transition is smooth and doesn’t feel like the arrangement was in the way. Finally, my two biggest tips are keep the arrangement low enough that guests can see over them easily and avoid allergies by steering clear of flowers with scent. A sneezing guest could kill the vibe at any dinner party.”

Accommodating Kids: “When we have kids over we always set a pretty place at the table for them, too. I don’t want them to feel like they are not part of the dining experience. I have a straw drawer where I keep cute straws so the kids get special drinks when the adults get their first cocktail. If I set a separate kids table, I’ll cover it with butcher paper so they can color directly on the table.”

The Soundtrack: “I like softer music when I entertain. I hate it when music is too loud or abrupt when I’m eating. We usually play a Nina Simone or Bebel Gilberto Spotify station that is the perfect background for dinner. After dinner we’ll transition into something a bit less ambient.”

Appetizers: “My number one tip is have appetizers waiting before your guests walk in the door. I think most guests expect you to be cooking when they arrive, but you need to get a drink in their hand and an appetizer in their belly as quickly as possible. My go-to appetizer is a simple but nice cheese plate. It can be served at room temperature and it will please almost everyone in the room. Add nuts, so even the vegans and GF’ers are happy. My go-to appetizer recipe is this one, which is also gluten free.”

The Drinks: “If you have a large group and want to cut down on everyone using a fresh glass, mark the glasses, but don’t use the cheesy options. I like to tie different colors of string or ribbon or place bindi dots on the glasses so everyone has a different color marking their glass. It’s so simple and totally works. As for the drink itself, cocktails that take a long time to make are not a good idea. I served pisco sours at one party and they just took too long to make. If you want to make cocktails, pre-batch them so it is easy to refill glasses. Margaritas with fresh herbs from my studio garden and jalepenjo is a favorite in our house right now.”

Seating Assignments: “I’ve poured over the rules on seating assignments, but in the end, it’s all about conversation. Think ahead to who will get along with whom. It’s good to put the chatty person next to the shy person, but you also don’t want to have the overbearing one dominate. I also like to change things up at dessert to get the conversation mixed up. If you do place cards, write a different name on the back and then have everyone flip the cards and find their new seat for the final course. By dessert everyone is relaxed, so it will be fun.”

Stashing Their Stuff: “If you don’t have a coat closet, think ahead to where the coats and purses will go. A bed in the bedroom is the perfect spot. When guests who have not been to your home first enter, they need to understand their bearings, so a little sign that says ‘Coats on the bed’ with an arrow can be helpful.”

After Dinner Fun: “We have a fireplace and after dinner we often invite our guests into the living room to eat dessert casually around the coffee table by the fire. We throw pillows on the floor and keep it informal and cozy. We have a cupboard of games for all ages and personality types, from Cards Against Humanity to Uno. But my favorite game is charades because all you need is some paper, a pencil, and a couple thinkers. If your guests are not the game type but you want to mix up conversation, Google the Proust questionnaire and go around the table and take turns answering.”

Taking It All In Stride: “Remember that if something goes wrong at a party, it can make for fun memories in the future. Our cat was skunked and ran through the house in the middle of dinner once, and those guests still laugh about it to this day. It actually made for a funny experience that is now a memory.”

For more tips on setting the perfect table, check out Natalie’s inspiring styling ideas here.

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