How To Build A Playlist For A Dinner Party With Tips From Kyle Li

How to make the perfect playlist for your next dinner party

When Kyle Linden Webster opened Expatriate, a moody, 30-seat cocktail den in Portland, Oregon, last year, he knew that music would be a large part of what made the bar unique. The former DJ has amassed a collection of over 500 records, about half of which he keeps on shelves behind the bar, arranged "energetically and tonally," to keep momentum going throughout the evening.

"We might start out the evening with some jazz and R&B—Cannonball Adderley or Frank Sinatra, and then move into '60s British bands, like The Kinks or The Rolling Stones," Webster says. "As the evening progresses, we'll break out '70s and '80s American rock like the Talking Heads, or maybe some Prince or Grace Jones. We choose the music based on who's there and what the vibe is."

Pre-Expatriate, Webster spent years creating playlists for restaurants, including Portland hotspots St. Jack and Ox, so I asked him to share a few tips on creating the ultimate dinner party playlist.

Know your crowd: "I used to make a lot of mix tapes—for myself and other people," says Webster. "It was a very personal statement. A playlist, however, is a public thing. Step back from your own preferences and think about your guests. You are making context for other people. Sometimes I'll want to play an amazing song, but I realize that it's not a great fit for the crowd."

Timing is everything: "Four hours is generally a good amount of time for a dinner party playlist, though it's always good to make the list a little longer just in case," says Webster. "Start out with something low-key, like Stan Getz, and then during dinner, play something with good energy, like Afrobeat or Studio One reggae. When it gets later, I like something upbeat like Jay Z's Reasonable Doubt or Piñata by Freddie Gibbs & Madlib. To wind things down at the end of the night, go mellow and moody with London Grammar—they've got really beautiful vocals with synthetic percussion."

Sound check: "You obviously want to keep the volume at a level where you can still talk, but it all depends on your stereo system," Webster says. Spend a few minutes testing volume before your party starts—try having a phone call with music playing in the background to gauge how high to crank your speakers.