The best entertaining tips I’ve learned from those who know their way around a well-set table.

When one reminisces on a wonderful evening at a friend’s home, the scene is usually set something like this: convivial company, inviting atmosphere, incredible menu, and just enough charm to disarm even the prickliest guest. The art of entertaining, and it really is an art, is best mastered by learning from hostesses of yore like our grandmothers and their contemporaries while also observing the rituals of modern day mavens. Practice makes nearly perfect and my ever-growing list of mantras and tips gleaned from expert entertainers will keep any
hostess—even the most hapless—out of a bind.

Cat Max Photography

1. Entertaining is fun! So says popular hostess of her day, Dorothy Draper, in a book on dinner parties aptly titled just that. If your guests are enjoying themselves it doesn’t matter that the roast is burnt to a crisp, that’s what delivery is for. It’s often these humorous hiccups that make a great party tale years later sp pour a cocktail and set yourself at ease.

2. Confidence comes from within. You do not need to have the grandest house to be the most gracious hostess. Never be discouraged from having people over because your formal dining room isn’t quite complete or space is just a little too tight. Inexpensive seating and a patterned tablecloth will do wonders aesthetically while playing up elements like fresh flowers and delicious cuisine will deflect and distract from what you perceive as shortcomings. Psst…no one will notice but you!

3. Highlight your strengths. The oldest trick in the book: Take pride in what you’re adept at and delegate what you don’t relish doing. Reach out to friends for tried and true recommendations for florists or caterers and if your tabletop library is lacking, rent a dreamy scheme from Freshly Set.

4. Lists and more lists. Planning ahead is the key to any successful soiree!

One to two weeks ahead: Invite guests, plan the menu, curate your tablescape and order flower arrangements.

Five days out: Make your shopping list, procure dry goods, and get a start on the groceries.

Three days out: Shop for perishable items and flowers, iron your linens, polish the silver, and set the table if you’re able to.

A couple of days ahead: Make dishes that are able to keep and plan your ensemble. Day of: Buy lots and lots of ice, set up the bar, direct the caterers or plate your dishes, and pick up by tossing toys, miscellaneous
items, and discarded shoes into an unseen closet or armoire.

5. The makings of a menu. The beauty of feeding a crowd is that there are so many ways to slice that cake. Choosing a theme—Swiss chalet raclette, All American grilled goods, Southern fried anything, or New England lobster rolls to name a few—lend themselves to easy meal planning. For the holidays, you can never go wrong with traditional offerings mixed with a trendy hors d’oeuvre and fresh salad. We all know by now to stick with
recipes we’ve made before and the simpler the dish, the better it will perform. I like to outsource either the main event or side dishes and make a few things from my arsenal that I know play well. While I love to cook, baking isn’t as enjoyable for me so my go-tos are a beautiful fruit tart from Whole Foods, lemon bars from Trader Joe’s, or a pie from The Pie Shop here in Atlanta. Oh, and I prefer a buffet set up so no one sprains a wrist passing a rib roast around the table.

Mary Catherine Brownfield Photography

6. Dinner by candlelight. Whether a formal affair in your dining room or an al fresco feast in the backyard, you’ll want to make it very warm and inviting. Set the stage with plenty of lit votive candles (not vanilla scented for heaven’s sake!), a fun playlist in the background (I’m partial to Bossa Nova and Della Reese), and a few personal touches such as calligraphed place cards (Love Louise Designs is my forever favorite for these).

7. The company you keep. The right mix of guests can set off your dinner party in a smashing manner. Select your seating arrangement according to the chemistry you want to achieve. Some old-school hostesses like to put everyone on the spot with a wild game like creating a character to introduce yourself as, it’s cringe-inducing and humorous plus it breaks the ice. My spin on throwing in an element of surprise is putting a cheeky table topic question under everyone’s napkin and then going around to hear the answers. Try it out next time you host!

8. Always be prepared. Impromptu guests are never a hassle as long as you have these pantry staples on hand: A jar of cornichons, cheese straws or crackers, and nuts such as marcona almonds. As for tabletop, one can never have too many serving dishes in varying sizes and shapes, salad servers, or cheese knives. A healthy assortment of glassware, silver, cocktail napkins, and tablecloths won’t hurt either! There has never been a better season to celebrate as the excitement of receiving a dinner party invitation will be all the more special this summer. Happy hostessing and remember, you are creating a most memorable experience for your nearest and dearest—there is no greater gift.

My go to recipes for summer entertaining