By Suzanne Pollak
Planning a dinner party is like building a house. Both are designed to meet people’s needs for comfort, pleasure, and connection. An architect drafts a series of rooms within a formal structure, while a host or hostess imagines a sequence of moments. There is an art to throwing a great dinner party, yes, but there are architectural details to consider as well.
Step one for a building is site work; for a party, it is choosing your guests. These might be people with whom you are excited to reconnect or simply those you would like to get to know better. The right mix injects the host with a boost of energy—a prerequisite for planning and executing a successful soiree.
The foundation of a dinner party is the main course: the crux of the meal. A host must decide on a dish that will please the majority. Cooking for a dinner party is not about showing off your culinary skills! It’s about picking a menu that most people can enjoy. Today, the most significant challenges are real medical issues and self-imposed food restrictions. You must consider your guests’ dietary needs so people can eat dinner without you having to sacrifice any essential details.
People with severe allergies will let the host know in advance. However, if you ask guests their preferences during your planning stages, you are likely to step into a minefield. Beware! I recently asked guests coming for a Friday-night dinner party to let me know if they had any food issues. I got five responses: pescatarian, no raw shellfish or fish, no seafood high in mercury (mostly tuna, mackerel, and swordfish), avoid anything unpasteurized (raw eggs and cheeses made with unpasteurized milk), and no cod. Because hosts are not nutritionists, doctors, or physiologists, you should probably avoid this question altogether. Instead, plan a meal with choices: a meat, two or three veggies, and two desserts.
If you are asking yourself, Why bother? Let’s just go to a restaurant, wait! The delights of a private dinner party cannot be replicated in the public arena. No waiting, no crowds, no loud party next to you. No feeling that you have to give up your table before you’re finished talking or eating dessert. At home, you can linger as long as you want under flickering candlelight. You can set your own pace, free from any pressure to give up your seats to those waiting.
You can and should move your guests wherever you please. Summer is for drinks on the balcony and dinner in the garden. Winter means cozy cocktails by the fire and dinner in the candlelit dining room. Spaces help set up moments that soothe, excite, and seduce, creating an atmosphere for meaningful connection.
The right mix injects the host with a boost of energy—a prerequisite for planning and executing a successful soiree.
Decide on your main course—go for what is not usually served in a restaurant. It’s a pity to cook your guests a steak because no matter how good it is, they will have their preferences based on countless times of ordering it out at their favorite spot. The ideal main course for at-home entertaining is something made in advance; it allows the host to remain calm and focused, concentrating on guests. Examples are roast chicken, lamb, pork, or a whole side of salmon, all of which you can enjoy at room temperature. These can be brought to the table on large serving platters and do double duty as a centerpiece or sideboard decoration.
Roast chicken is my go-to because almost everyone loves it. A chicken roasted in the afternoon can be sliced and slipped into a low-temperature oven during predinner cocktails. For the “no meat” guests, a gigantic salad will do. Two choices will make everyone happy (and delight you, because you can prepare them both ahead of time).
Once you establish the foundation with entrées, customize the structure of your dinner with interesting sides. You only need to master a handful of dishes; these will become your signatures. Repetition is chic! There is nothing wrong with serving the same main course at each dinner party. Family and friends look forward to your signature dish, plus you will always be comfortable cooking it and can make adjustments according to the season or even your mood.
In August, roast chicken with a plain green salad, juicy tomatoes, and fresh corn is delightful. During the colder months, swap the salad with cooked greens (spinach, mustard, or collards), and serve roasted potatoes or butternut squash in the fall and ramps or peas in the spring. If you are feeling adventurous, insert thinly sliced oranges under the chicken skin and carry the citrus theme to dessert with a Grand Marnier soufflé. Add a cocktail hour with old-fashioneds—garnish with a sliver of orange to really drive home the motif.
Finally, there is the roof: dessert to top the whole experience off and cap the evening. The roof has to cover everything done before, encompass everything you have served. Following a roast chicken, dessert should be equally homey because the roof has to be in the same element as what is underneath it. If you serve a chicken pot pie, then baked Alaska is not the right finish. Apple pie is apt, and so are cookies. No one asks for demitasse anymore, so pull out your coffee cups and make soufflés. That elegance would be most unexpected!
For an unforgettable dinner party, all you need is a plan and the right materials—just as any great architect does.
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Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal “Mansion” section and Town & Country magazine.
1 chicken, around 3 1/2 pounds, well rinsed
1 orange, halved
1 whole head garlic, halved crosswise
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Freshly ground black pepper
1–2 tablespoons water or Grand Marnier
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Pat the chicken dry. Season the chicken with salt and pepper inside and out. Slice one half of the orange as thinly as possible. Slip the orange slices in a single layer under the chicken skin, covering the breast and thighs. Place the other half of the orange in the cavity of the chicken along with the garlic.
Heat a roasting pan or an ovenproof sauté pan over high heat on the stove. When the pan is hot, place the chicken in the pan, breast side up, and put the pan into the oven.
Roast the chicken until crisp, about sixty-five minutes. Test for doneness by piercing the chicken leg—the juices should run clear, and the legs should move loosely in their sockets. (A meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh—and not touching bone—should read 165 degrees.)
Transfer the chicken to a cutting board. Remove the orange half from the chicken’s cavity and set aside. Carve or cut the chicken into four or eight pieces.
Squeeze the orange half into the pan with one or two tablespoons of water or Grand Marnier and simmer on low heat for two minutes while whisking the butter into the sauce. Pour the orange sauce over the carved chicken.