How To Throw The Perfect Dinner Party... It's Easier Than You Think
Updated: Mar 6
If there is one thing the Portuguese do well, it is entertaining. Food, of course, plays a huge role in that statement. I love to entertain. I hold dinner parties for friends a few times a month. Friends have told me they simply are afraid to entertain, stating they can't cook or that their flat is too small. That is non-sense. You should never use that excuse to get out of having friends over.
My dinner parties are always elegant, relaxed and effortless...or so they seem.
I am going to give you my best tips, including a foolproof recipe, on how you can get that Portuguese cool, domestic goddess vibe, even if you've never tried. I promise you will bask in the glow for weeks. Make sure you read this weekend's follow up post for the recipe.
I have always been a natural at hosting. I had my first dinner party at 17 and have done them ever since. Oddly, my love of entertaining, didn't come from my mother.
It was my beautiful, late aunt, Ana who inspired my love of feeding people. My childhood summers spent sitting under a grape laden pergola, in Hartford's city neighbourhood. Bread, olives, cheese and the red wine always flowing. Cigarette in hand with a silk scarf atop her head, she was as glamourous as any Hollywood starlet.
She made entertaining look effortless.
From my mother I inherited her good taste. She had an eye for fashion and decor. Always poised and graceful, she set a beautiful table and created the most beautiful centrepieces. Sadly, she never shared them with anyone.
A great dinner party is unpredictable, and much more than the sum of it's parts. You can't predict everything will go smoothly, but just like my aunt taught me, it will always work out if your willing.
So, with that my friends, let's begin. My best tips, on how you too, can be a great host.
You don't need to be a great cook to throw a dinner party. There is no shame in outsourcing! I will let you in on a little secret. I hate baking! Gasp! There I said it. I will, 90% of the time, buy excellent quality, pre-made, desserts and add my plating flair.
Don't rule out weekdays
Lots of us work varied shifts, including weekends. Why not have a few friends over on a Wednesday? It will be nice to get through the mid-week hump, with some good food and grown-up conversation. A 7p.m. dinner is perfect and your guests will most likely leave by 10. Win,Win.
Write everything down. Guest list, seating arrangement. Buy all the drinks a week before. Preferably online and have them delivered. More on this later.
The less you leave to chance, the more relaxed you'll be come the big day.
DO NOT!! Cook anything new. Trust me. You do not need the pressure or anxiety. Cooking something tried and true is your best bet. If you are absoulutly adamant about trying that new dish, then please give it a go a few days before.
Work with what you have
Contrary to popular belief, I don't own endless amounts of dinnerware sets. Buy one good set, preferably porcelain and white. It is simple and unlike stoneware, that starts to look tatty with just a few uses, think ugly marks from the cutlery over time, buy good, buy once is my motto. Avoid metallic rims, as that makes them not dishwasher and microwave friendly.
You do not need to spend a fortune. Hit up local charity shops for interesting plates and crystal stemware.
Always buy an extra set of everything.
I am a relentless cup breaker. You'll thank me later.
Set the place
Start with a charger and placemat. Dinner plate, salad plate or soup bowl if serving. I do not usually bother with a tablecloth. personal preference. If you like it, use it. Please make sure it is ironed. I will usually set the table a few hours before.
Focus on texture
Play it up with unusual plate borders and rims. I love showcasing my food on white plates. The food always looks incredible. If I had to choose a plate colour to shy away from, it would have to be red and green. I just don't care for them.
How many? Two. One for wine and one for water. That is it. I don't get technical with, red or white wine, cup sizes. I always use red wine cups. They are just prettier and more dramatic.
For champagne, I prefer coupes over flutes. Again, personal preference.
Resist the urge to use paper plates and napkins. This isn't a backyard BBQ. Sure you will have some washing up to do, but your guests will notice you've made an effort. Iron the napkins! Tea towels make great napkins. Just look at the ones below. The pack of 4 cost me ￡1.50 on clearance.
If this is your first dinner party, keep your guest list small. No more than 4 guests. This will give you the confidence to expand.
I like to send out personal, hand written invitations. This is just my personal touch. Life is busy, I get it. If you must get digital, then pick up the phone and personally invite, do not send a text or email. This isn't a business luncheon.
Flowers. You can add other decorative flourishes if you wish, but flowers are a must.
My mother always said, "flowers are for the living"...nothing could be more true. They will instantly bring life to the table. Try to shy away from very strong smelling ones.
As opposed to one large centrepiece, a few smaller placed arrangements create a beautiful focal point directly in front of every guest. Think julep cups, of single coloured roses, placed in front of every two guests. No one likes to have to keep tilting thier head to speak across the table.
Attract interest with charger plates and pattern. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. If I have fewer guests, I will leave the white space in the centre of my table free. That way I can add gorgeous tall vases.
Candles and lighting
Yes, PLEASE!! Candles are obligatory. Too often, lighting is overlooked in the home and in restaurants alike. Fluorescent lighting? No thanks! Every light in my home is on a dimmer. Lower lighting is flattering and forgiving on the skin and the food. My only rule? Make sure the candles are unscented for the table. Scented ones are fine in any other part of the house, like the bathroom.
I can't stress enough the importance of fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. Portuguese people are simple and our cuisine is too. Seasonal food will be cheaper, fresher and taste amazing.
Braises and roasts are easiest. The gorgeous recipe that will follow, lets you prep, marinate and roast all in one pot. Can it get any easier?
Extra credit...create your menu and then have menu cards printed. It is the icing on the cake.
Portuguese people love their cheese and meats. Follow suit and save hours of fancy appetiser non-sense. A gorgeous Mediterranean style spread is impressive and delicious. Most items are store-bought and ready to go. The hardest part is unwrapping. Think, cheese, chouriço, melon, grapes, figs, breads, savoury crackers, olives...the list is infinite.
Why not top some grilled bread with honey infused ricotta and ripe figs drizzled with a balsamic glaze? It is elegant, impressive and delicious.
Win, win...these flavours pair beautifully with most aperitifs and cocktails.
Create a signature cocktail to welcome your guests as they arrive. You do not need to splurge on "top shelf" liquor.
Trending big right now is Vermouth. This often overlooked tipple is the perfect mixer to many of your favourite cocktails. Why not let it be the star player and surprise your guests with something other than a Cosmo. My follow up, fool proof menu will show you how to make a Parisian. It is an elegant and delicious cocktail that uses Sherry. Remember, or not, that very 70's aperitif? Well, it's back, and here to stay.
Prep as much as possible
Chop, dice, cut and portion as much as possible the day before. That leaves you more time for the good stuff like mingling with guests. Nobody likes a stressed out host who's hidden away in the kitchen.
Please, please save yourself some piece of mind and outsource this. Really. No one will notice. Decadent desserts are everywhere and you can plate them beautifully and add some finishing touches. Some crumbled cookies, a quenelle of ice-cream. Fresh berries and a dusting of powdered sugar.
My last dinner party had guests talking about my rum banana cheesecake for days.
I bought the best cheesecake made with real cheese, eggs and vanilla. I them caremelised some bananas with brown sugar, gave the pan a big glug of rum and a little flambé...and drizzeled them on top of the cheesecake with some chopped pecans. It was delicious. Below, store bought lemon tarts. Pretty.
Clean your house
Yes...Portuguese people are clean and tidy by nature, but if a tight ship is not your forte, then please make sure you clean it the day before. Bedroom doors can be closed, but dirty toilets can't be unseen. Bleach is your friend.
I like to have a tea light wax melt in my bathroom. The light is pretty and it smells amazing.
Do remember to set out fresh hand towels as well.
Music sets the mood. Choose your favourite playlists ahead of time. Sites like Spotify and Amazon Music, make playlist selection, easier than ever. I am a Latino music lover myself. Lots of genres fall into this category. Keep it authentic with a soulful Fado playlist or get a bit more contemporary with some "hot right now" Kizomba.
Whatever you fancy, keep the volume low. Guests will want to converse without shouting over the music.
I will usually stream in the kitchen and let the living room become a quiet place for guests wishing to talk one on one, cocktail in hand.
Coats and bags
If your home isn't huge or you don't have a coatrack, most Portuguese hosts will take your belongings and safely store them in thier bedroom.
This is a tough one. As a mother of 7, I know first hand how many a soirée I was left out of. Do not shun your friends with kids, I say. They are usually the easiest to please. Portuguese culture has us bringing our kids everywhere we go. Have you ever been to a Lisbon café at 10:00 p.m., on a school night? I rest my case. If you absolutely must say, NO KIDS, do it in a positive way, using words like adults only, is always far nicer than do not bring your badly behaved children.
Can't live next to them and can't kill them. I live in a semi-detached house. I am Portuguese. I am loud. I am not shouting. That is how I speak. Now imagine a dinner party. It is enough to get any neighbor to dial up the police...even before 10 p.m. My advice, break the ice. People can't be mean to you if your nice. Well, not usually. If I am having a dinner party on a weekday, I will always let my neighbors know and give them a bottle of bubbly with a cute note. It saves the awkward stares in the morning. Just say'in.
Portuguese people do not concern themselves with wine and food pairing, other than the common, red for meat, white for fish. Even having said that, red is the prefered wine of choice. Meat or fish. Many fish dishes are hearty enough to handle a red. Again, it is all down to personal choice. I would never impose such strictness upon my guests. In wine, there are no rules, I say. I prefer red.
Decanters are your friends, especially for cheaper wines. Nine out of ten times, my guests will rave about a wine I have decanted and most of the time it was under ₤8.
No wine snobbery...lol.
We all have that one friend who thinks they know everything about wine.
Portuguese wine is very easy drinking and you can't go wrong no matter what you choose. Aim to spend less than ₤8, on a decent bottle. In my house, my guests are pretty thirsty. I always allow one bottle for every two guests. This is very generous, but it's better to have too much than too little. As they are friends, I pretty much know what they prefer and buy accordingly. If in doubt, ask.
For white wine make sure you have a wine cooler in the freezer. That way it can be placed on the table to keep your guest's wine at the perfect temperature.
Dessert apple, blueberry and strawberry crumble. Peach yogurt cookie crisp crumble vanilla ice cream chocolate truffle
Sometimes my guests are exclusive beer drinkers, even with their mains. I will usually allow three bottles for every beer drinker.
You will need 1 litre of liquor for every 10-12 guests. Don't forget the mixers. Diet Coke, Diet Sprite, Slim-line lemonade, Slim-line tonic water, Light cranberry juice, etc. Notice the Diet theme....yup...we drink, but we must watch out for those sneaky calories.
Still, bottled and room temperature.
1 litre per every 2 guests
Ice can be added, if chilled is preferred.
Sparkling is rare. I will usually have a litre available, just in case.
Always have plenty! Most bags of ice here in the U.K. are sold in 2 kilo bags. I will usually buy 2 bags, for parties up to 8 guests.
No one I know. Kidding.
Make sure you have plenty of options for those who abstain from alcohol
Give yourself time to get ready. Nothing worse than early bird guests who catch you still in your P.J.'s. True story.
I will usually pour myself a glass of wine and change into my jeans and kitten heels. Slap on my signature red Dior lippy and I am ready and confident. I can't stress enough how important it is to be yourself. If you do that it will certainly transpire. You will put your guests at ease and set the mood for a fantastic evening.
Last but not least
When guests start to arrive, welcome them individually. Two cheek kisses please, as Portuguese culture dictates. Take thier coats. Offer your signature cocktail and direct them into the living room to mingle. The charcuterie board should keep them busy, while you finish preparing the fantastic dinner.
My last and final tip....
Have a vase ready. Many times I have been caught off guard by guests bringing me flowers! You do not want to be scrambling on a step ladder, trying to reach the back of the cupboard , to pull out a vase. Trust me.... have one to hand. Don't sweat it.... it will get easier :) and remember to have fun. When your guests call you to accept your lovely invitation and ask the burning question, "What can I bring?" The answer darling is always, "Wine!"
Here are a few more pictures of my dinner party tables and dishes.
Use cute little minutures to serve
Mix patterns and materials
Tie a napkin around the bottle to catch drips
Caught without a vase!
Guests having a blast!
My previous house