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Formal Dinner Party

Updated on September 18, 2011

It seems as though much of the gracious entertaining that used to be commonplace in society has gone by the wayside. Elegant get-togethers have largely been replaced by casual "hanging out". Nonetheless, the art of gracious entertaining has not been completely lost, and with the right information, anyone can pull together a special party. Whether you are hoping to host a stylish Thanksgiving dinner, celebrate a birthday or anniversary, or simply round up your friends for a pleasant evening, this is everything you will need to know about how to throw a formal dinner party.

The first question that arises might be, "why bother?". Why put in the time and effort to throw an elegant party when everyone could just as easily sit on the sofa eating a pizza right from the box? The answer is that treating an occasion as a special one will make it special. We have not completely lost sight of that fact as a society; look at the enormous amount of time that is devoted to planning the "perfect" wedding. A formal dinner party follows the same principle on a smaller scale. Not only that, but it is just plain fun to have an occasion to dress up, bring out the good china, and serve an elegant meal.

The Guest List

The most important part of planning a formal dinner party is establishing the guest list. First, determine how many guests your table can accommodate. A novice host or hostess should limit the number of guests to six or eight, which will make a total of eight or ten at the table if the party is being hosted by a couple. Then there is the matter of whom to invite. A good balance and lively conversation should be the goal of the combination of guests chosen for a party.

A very important point of etiquette is that couples are always invited as a pair to social occasions. In some cases this may mean weighing whether or not is it worth it to invite a friend who has a boorish husband or a wife that you dislike. It is never acceptable to invite one but not the other, and a potential guest should decline a social invitation which deliberately excludes his or her spouse. This is not to say, however, that a married couple should only accept an invitation together, if one of the partners has a legitimate reason not to attend, such as a business trip. However, it would be rude for only one half of the couple to accept based on anything less than a pressing prior engagement (for instance if your husband hates the hostess' cooking!).

The general categories of potential dinner party guests include: those to whom you owe return hospitality, your dearest friends, old friends whom you have not seen in ages, an interesting person you just met at a class, a lonely widow or widower, and anyone you think would like to meet one of your other guests. Having a few guests present from the different circles of your life will add a dash of spice to the dinner conversation, as will including a friend from another country or of a different generation. One should, however, be careful about inviting guests whom you know have strongly held opposing views on "hot button" topics. Although etiquette states that the two subjects which should never be discussed at a dinner party are politics and religion, not all guests are able to hold their tongues on these topics. If you see a potential clash brewing, invite one set of friends to your next party and the other pair to the following event. Nothing ruins the tone of a party like a heated argument over the soup course.

Speaking of dinner party guests, they play an important role in the success of the event, and have certain responsibilities of their own. The first of these is to respond to a party invitation as soon as possible. If the invitation has been accepted, the guest has a few other responsibilities. One is to plan an attractive outfit that will add to the festive nature of the party. Casual clothes will bring down the elegance of the ambiance that the host tried so hard to create. Dinner party conversation should be kept light and pleasant, even if another guest is clearly trying to draw you into a debate. In addition, a polite guest will offer to help her hostess, though she will also accept it if her hostess graciously declines her assistance (some people cannot stand to have others work in their kitchen!). Above all, a dinner party guest should be on time to the party.

A polite guest will also pick up some sort of small hostess gift. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a good idea to bring a bouquet of flowers to a party, as the hostess has to drop everything to find a vase for them and a place in which to display them. Flowers are always a lovely hostess gift, it is just that they should be delivered either in the early afternoon before the party or the day after. Gifts that require no action, such as a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, or a designer scented candle can be brought to the party. The day after the dinner party, a thoughtful guest will take a moment to dash off a quick note of thanks to her hostess, and will mention what a smashing success the whole thing was (because the hostess may well be nervous about that!).

Invitation Time

After the guest list has been determined, it is time to get the invitations in the mail. For a formal dinner party, the invitations should be mailed about four weeks in advance. It is perfectly acceptable to have a "B" list of guests who can be invited closer to the event should one of the "A" list decline, so long as you do not make them feel like an afterthought. If the party is more spur of the moment, a telephone invitation can be made, but e-mail is never a polite way to send an invitation to a formal event, and it detracts from the special feeling of the party. The most traditional way to word an invitation to a formal dinner party is as follows:

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Holt / request the pleasure of your company (or less formally, cordially invite you to)/ at dinner/ on Saturday, December 15/ from six to eight-thirty o'clock/ 5501 Primrose Path/ Greenwich.

In the lower left hand corner, you may wish to include the notation R.s.v.p., along with a telephone number. Many people these days use the form "Regrets only", but a request for a response is really more elegant, as well as more certain when it comes to knowing exactly who plans to attend. If the dinner party is in honor of a special guest or occasion, be sure to mention it in the invitation. The above sample could be amended to a dinner/ in honor of their twentieth wedding anniversary... (or in honor of Mr. Charles Grant, or a birthday, or some other occasion.) For a holiday dinner, the wording would read: for Thanksgiving dinner, etc...

While this is the most proper form, many people prefer to design more creative invitations, both in terms of style and wording, which is absolutely fine and proper. The two main purposes of a dinner party invitation are to covey the specifics of the event (the who, what, when, where, why) and to generate excitement and anticipation for your party. Feel free to use any style of written invitation that will best suit the style of your party, from a formal engraved invitation, to an intimate handwritten note, to a pretty fill-in-the-blank invitation from your local stationer.

Dinner Time!

With the guest list set and the invitations in the mail, it is time to move on to planning the dinner itself. Organization is essential to hosting a great party, so start by designating a notebook in which you will keep every single detail relating to your dinner. Not only will this ensure that nothing is overlooked, but it will be a useful reference tool for future parties. You will find that the more often you entertain, the easier it will become, and having the notes from previous parties is a big reason why this is true. Things to include in the party planning notebook include: the guest list with space to note whether a person will attend or not, the menu, the decorations, the music, and a to-do list. Do as much as possible in the days and weeks before your party. You can stock the bar, iron the tablecloth, and polish the silver well in advance, which will spare you infinite last minute stress.

Make A Checklist

It may seem extreme, but experienced hostesses know that the best way to keep their parties organized is to make a checklist of every last thing they will need to have on hand, from the ice for the bar to the new guest towels for the powder room. Once you have planned your dinner menu, make a list of every ingredient needed for every dish so that you can easily make up your shopping list. When planning a dinner with a lot of dishes (such as Thanksgiving dinner), it is also extremely helpful to make up a timeline of when each dish needs to be started and put into the oven to ensure that the whole meal is ready at the same time. It is far better to do as much of the prep work as you can the day before the party so that once your guests arrive, you will be able to spend time with them, rather than fussing in the kitchen the entire evening.

The Courses!

The typical formal dinner party might include the following courses: cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, a soup or salad course, a main course with a side dish and vegetable, dessert and coffee. Sounds simple enough, right? It truly is, once you get organized. There are wonderful books and websites available to help a novice host with everything from the menu selection to the decorations and the right music to set the mood. Kate Spade's "Occasions" covers everything from what the hostess should wear (something really pretty with great cocktail jewelry, like a bold ring or layers of Swarovski crystal necklaces) to coordinating the colors of the flowers to the season. "The New Basics" cookbook has excellent menu suggestions and recipes, Lilly Pulitzer has a marvelous book on entertaining, and if you are wondering how many hors d'oeuvres to plan for each guest, consult Emily Post. The hostess who is looking for creative ideas to dress her table will find them courtesy of Martha Stewart's books, magazine, website, or television show.

Cocktail Hour

The cocktail hour preceding dinner should last approximately 45 minutes. Plan on only a couple of appetizers to ensure that your guests have room for dinner (unless it is Thanksgiving dinner, in which case everyone will come planning to eat way too much anyway!). For a small dinner party of eight or ten people, it is not necessary to stock a full bar. The basics will suffice: vodka, gin, and rum, along with mixers like cola, tonic, and fruit juice. Be sure to have plenty of ice on hand; an ice bucket with a set of tongs is the most elegant way to hold the ice, and it means that you can set up a small bar in the living room instead of running to the kitchen for ice from the freezer every few minutes. Other bar staples include: tall and short cocktail glasses, coasters, wine trays, small plates, cloth cocktail napkins, a cocktail shaker and strainer, and garnishes like olives, lemon slices, and pearl onions. The host and hostess can pass the appetizer trays every five or ten minutes; it is also a great way to ensure that you are circulating and chatting with each guest before dinner.

Dinner Is Ready

Then it is time for the hosts to announce that dinner is ready and to invite everyone to the table. A dinner party is your opportunity to use all of the best items you own but which you rarely get to enjoy (in fact, that alone can be reason enough to throw a party), so bring out your best china, crystal, silver, and linens. Candles will add ambiance, and some sort of centerpiece is a must for a dinner party. It can range from a traditional display of flowers in a crystal vase to more eclectic handcrafted items that suit the season or occasion; it is really a matter of your personal taste and level of creativity.

Proper Etiquette

The concept of setting a formal table is intimidating to some potential hosts, but the place settings actually follow a simple standard format. The dinner plate is in the center (with a decorative charger plate underneath, if you wish), with the bread plate in the upper left corner and the glasses in the upper right. If chargers are used, they will remain on the table as the plates for the courses come and go. When multiple glasses are being used, they are arranged with the water goblet nearest to the plate, followed by a red wine glass, and then the smaller white wine glass (if both are being served). A large red wine glass can be used for water, if you do not own separate water goblets.

As for the utensils, the whole "which fork do I use?" question is easily solved: the utensils are set on the table based on the order in which they are to be used. It works from the outside in; to the left of the dinner plate will be the forks, with the salad fork to the outside, the dinner fork in the middle, and the dessert fork closest to the plate. Many people today do not have sets which include that many forks, in which case the tables would be set with the salad forks and dinner forks; at the end of the meal, the salad forks can quickly be washed and brought back out with dessert. On the right side of the plate live the knife (closest to the plate, with the cutting blade turned towards the plate), then the spoon or spoons. Two spoons may be set out if there is to be a soup course, otherwise just use one. The napkins may be folded under the forks, to the left of the forks, or creatively folded and placed on top of the dinner plate.

Something else that will often be found on the table at a formal dinner party is placecards. For some reason, people groan at the thought of making seating assignments, but it is an important part of your role as the host. Traditionally, the male host sits at one end of the table, with the female host at the opposite end. The female guest of honor is seated to the right of the male host, and the male guest of honor sits to the right of the female host. The remaining guests are filled in around the table, alternating male and female, whenever possible. Married couples are not seated together, but rather across from one another. This may be one of the most difficult points of dinner party etiquette for people to understand. The idea of a party is to stimulate an engaging flow of conversation and to socialize with others; when a husband and wife sit together, they tend to speak primarily to one another, which can destroy the ebb and flow of conversation around the table. It is the duty of the hosts to engage all guests in conversation, especially the shy ones who might otherwise feel tongue-tied in a social setting.

Winding It Down

The meal at a dinner party without servants (or children being pressed into service as serving staff) is generally passed on trays. The male host traditionally serves the wine and carves any large pieces of meat, such as a roast or a Thanksgiving turkey. If you are an inexperienced carver and nervous about attempting it in front of a crowd, it would also be acceptable to carve the meat in the kitchen and bring it out already sliced on a pretty platter with garnish. Once the meal has ended, the hosts will clear the plates and begin to bring in the dessert course. Usually at this time, coffee, espresso, and perhaps a small digestif will be offered. There is no need to completely wipe off the table, but it does look better to discreetly remove any big chunks of food while clearing the dinner plates.

As the evening begins to wind down, the hosts may invite their guests to linger over coffee in the living room, or they can start to send subtle signals that the party is ending (like starting the dishes). A polite guest will take these cues and depart before they have worn out their welcome! As the guests take their leave, the host should see them to the door and thank them for coming. After that, the host and hostess can collapse onto the sofa, pat themselves on the back for a job well done, and wait for the return invitations to start rolling in!


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      7 years ago

      Very nice article!!! My dinner went very well...thanks for the help!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      very informative and helpful


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