The satirist Craig Brown once said:
"Somewhere in the back of their minds, hosts and guests alike know that the dinner party is a source of untold irritation and that even the dullest evening spent watching television is preferable."
I don't know any concrete details about Craig's experience of dinner parties but it's evidently not been a happy one. It's true that people can get pretty nervous before a dinner party and it's true that some of these events don't go smoothly.
Once, in a new job in a new city, my wife and I felt obliged to invite my boss and her husband around for dinner. I don't remember what we served but my wife is an excellent cook, so I'm sure that the meal was delicious. Unfortunately, the evening was not a success. We found that we had nothing at all in common with our guests so my boss and I ended up talking about work while her husband and my wife pretended to be interested in the day-to-day running of our small company.
We've all been there. Guests are coming to dinner, not friends but people you want to impress. It seems to be a task that's well within your capabilities - you just want people to have a good time, enjoy a pleasant meal, and go away hoping that they could stay longer.
You're a little nervous sure, but quietly confident in your ability to bring it off. Then, an hour after your last guest has left, you wish you'd never been born. The evening was a flop, you're guests were polite enough as they left but you know that they couldn't wait to get out of your house.
Things to Chew Over before your Dinner
Your Guest List
If some of your guests are strangers to each other, then you might like to do a bit of homework and see if they are likely to get on. Guests are (usually) polite and will tolerate a degree of difference - often it can make for a lively evening. However, you don't want to invite two people whose views are so radically different and who are pugnacious to slug it out at your dinner table. This will cause one of two reactions. Some of your guests will take sides and some might keep an uncomfortable silence and hope for the best. In either case, your other guests are reacting to just two of their fellows.
Don't be Over-Ambitious
You've always wanted to try your hand at Icelandic goat curry with walnuts but you've never prepared it before and the recipe looks like the owner's manual for a Lear jet.
Your guests have come for a good time. Of course, they expect a reasonable meal but they wouldn't normally expect a culinary masterpiece. They haven't come to your house to be experimented on. Cook something that you know and know how to cook. The more complicated your menu, the more things can go wrong.
The same applies to drinks. Best not to offer people a wide range of cocktails. Wine and beer are fine for most occasions (and have some soft drinks too). By all means, offer your guests a liqueur after dinner but it should be something that your pour from the bottle to the glass without fiddling around.
Don't Leave Things until the Last Minute
You don't want your guests settling down and nibbling your peanuts before you turn the oven on. Do as much as you can in advance. In fact, it's best to choose dishes that only need the smallest of final touches before they are served.
Make Sure You Have Plenty of Drinks
This will depend on your guests. Generally, don't assume that because you can squeeze six glasses from a bottle of wine, your table of six will make do with a small glass each. Get plenty of drink in, you can always get through the excess later.
Know your Guests
For religious or ethical reasons, or because of an allergy, some people can't eat certain things. When you send out your invitations, ask your guests to tell you if there are certain foods that they can't eat. It's not a good idea to serve stroganoff to a vegan.
Choose the Right Music
You should tailor your music to your guests - hard rock isn't to everyone's taste. If the emphasis is on fun, by all means, choose some lively music that is appropriate to the age of your guests. If you want to encourage quiet, civilized conversation, soft jazz or classical music might be better.
I've been to dinners where the lighting was so strong that it picked out every skin blemish. Nobody looks their best under floodlighting. You need enough light so that people can see what they're eating but make it discreet. Indirect, soft lighting and candles are good choices.
With just a little planning, there's no reason why your dinner shouldn't be a roaring success. Most of the mistakes that people make come from trying to do too much and be all things to everybody. You can't do it, so don't try. If you really can't cook, there's nothing wrong with offering cold cuts and salads from the deli.
You're not running a restaurant. Prepare a tasty meal and keep the conversation going.
And keep the number of the local takeaway handy - just in case.