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On the List

How to plan the perfect guest list for your next dinner party
The pefect guest list

Dinner parties aren't just for warm nights and rooftop rosé. The right time to host a proper, everyone-around-the-table dinner party is all year round.

As you prepare for your next evening gathering, now is the perfect time to cover some hosting basics. Let's start with the one thing that can make or break a party: the guest list. Sure, the food is important, but at the end of the day, it's the guests that make a party memorable.

One of my all-time favorite dinner parties involved inviting over the entire staff of a travel magazine I was working for. My husband and I didn't have a table at the time, so we borrowed a couple of card tables (which we covered in newspaper) and folding chairs, and set out loads of candles all over the apartment. I made a big pot of boeuf bourguignon, everyone brought wine, and the mix of guests was so interesting and animated that no one even noticed the lack of a proper table.

There isn't one right way to plan a guest list, but here are a few helpful guidelines:

Don't worry about everyone knowing each other. One of the best things about hosting a dinner party is introducing your various friends to each other. This summer, I drove across the country and hosted dinner parties in eight cities. Guests were meeting each other for the first time, and every single time, people lingered at the table so long we practically had to kick them out!

...but make sure there's at least some overlap. Sure, a group of strangers can potentially connect over dinner, but it's best if you're not the only common denominator. I try to make sure that everyone coming knows at least one person besides me. That way they have someone to chat with when I'm checking on the food or talking to other guests.

Namecards make it less awkward for everyone. [Photo: Eric Ryan Anderson]

Mix it up. My favorite dinner parties are the ones where guests have a range of different backgrounds, careers, and interests. I'd rather not go to a party of all bankers or all doctors or all writers—it's fun to get some different voices around the table.

Have a plan B. Think about how many people your table can seat. Invite that many—plus maybe two extra—to start, but go ahead and create a list of alternates so you can invite others as soon as you get regrets for the first group. Don't worry about having extra seats—people are always happy to come over for a home-cooked meal, even if you're texting them on short notice!

Assign seats. This may seem a bit formal, but I'm a huge fan of name cards, especially when guests don't all know each other. Otherwise, people relive that awkward high school moment where they're staring at the table and wondering where to sit. You're the host: Think about what will make your guests most comfortable. Put everyone by or near at least one person they know, and then seat them besides or across from someone with whom you think they'll really connect. Also think about the flow of conversation—place your guests in such a way that you won't end up with a quiet end and a rowdy end.

Break up the couples. Add another element of intrigue to dinner parties by alternating male-female around the table and by intentionally never seating partners together. The logic? Couples see each other every day, and a dinner party is a chance for everyone to meet new people.

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