Table Talk

Tips to make your dinner party a seamless, delicious affair

There's no doubt that knockout food is key to a great dinner party. But when it comes to entertaining guests, the menu is just one part of the equation. Organization, hospitality and those little telling details make all the difference. Ultimately you want to create a party you'd want to attend.

Here are a few tips to make sure your guests have a memorable experience—and you experience less headaches.

Start early. By getting all of your ducks in a row ahead of time, you can enjoy the evening as much as your guests. It's something of a no-brainer, but first off, establish the date of the party, the number of people, the location and the theme or occasion. These factors will influence everything from the menu to decor. As soon as you pick a date, book your private chef.

Make a smart guest list. Whether you are hosting your closest friends or professional acquaintances, for the sake of lively banter, put together a mix of people who bring a range of ideas and experiences to the table. Be sure to ask if anyone has any dietary restrictions and have them include that as part of their RSVP—as long as you know in advance, it's easy to oblige. And limit your invitations to the number of people your space can truly accommodate: If your table seats 12, don't force people to knock elbows by trying to squeeze in 16.

Get the invites out in a timely fashion. Formal invitations aren't necessary for casual get-togethers—sometimes a phone call will suffice—but they do lend a certain sense of occasion to any event. When deciding whether to send online invitations (Paperless Post is a good one) or printed ones (Tiny Prints offers hundreds of stylish options), consider timing. If the event is more than 30 days away or celebrates a significant life event, it's best to send a physical invitation. Include a way to RSVP (reply card, email address, phone number), so you're not panicking on the day of the event trying to guess whether 20 or 40 people will show up. For dinner parties, the sooner you send out invitations, the better (up to about six weeks). But in today's hyper-social world, it's acceptable to reach out with a week's notice. Just don't ask guests a day or two before the dinner, or they'll assume they are on the B-list.

Make everyone feel at home. Always make thoughtful introductions. Don't assume your guests know each other or risk them feeling alienated simply because they don't know everyone else there. It's always better to err on the side of reintroducing old friends than to make someone feel like the odd man out. Share interesting details, such as hobbies or even a recent trip someone may have taken, as you make introductions. Those tidbits have launched many a conversation. And if someone who forgot to RSVP shows up or brings a surprise guest, be prepared to roll with it.

Have a seating plan. Do not expect guests to seat themselves. Either direct them to a general area of the table or use place cards. By controlling the flow and seating, you can also direct the conversation. If a posse of best friends claims one end of the table, it can be hard to keep the whole group engaged—and you don't want anyone to feel alienated.

Encourage mingling. During a cocktail party, have fewer chairs than people to ensure movement around the room. Avoid the urge to tidy up too soon after dinner; let guests linger around the table and enjoy conversation.

Set the tone. Create a playlist that suits the vibe of the party. In High Fidelity, John Cusack's character spent a lifetime coming up with the perfect mix tape. You don't need to be that obsessive, but make sure songs flow easily into one another (e.g., no EDM into Morrissey). For volume control, a good rule of thumb is to turn the music on, walk into another room and shut the door. If you can hear it with the door closed, the music is too loud. And when it comes to decorations, flowers are always beautiful, but you don't need to limit your centerpieces to floral arrangements. Try using gorgeous pieces of seasonal produce, such as a bouquet of carrots or wands of rosemary, instead.