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Whether you're used to playing host or just have social anxiety (shoutout to my girlies who fall into both camps!!), being a dinner party guest can be nerve-wracking in its own right. You're thrown into the fray with strangers, you never know what to wear, and you want to show up with something nice that won't be totally cumbersome.
So for this month's In Good Taste, consider me your guide to the social mores of guest-hood: the Hector Elizondo to your Anne Hathaway, as it were. The fact is, even the most laidback get-together has a bit of choreography to it, but the traditional dance we all perform is unhelpful to guests and hosts alike. Rather than asking, "Anything I can bring?" at the moment of invitation, when your host has no idea what the hell they'll need come party time…
The pro move is checking in the day before the party, when dress rehearsal jitters set in and the tasks start to overwhelm them. And because people-pleasing hosts will always revert to asking for vino, gold star guests will clarify even further by asking, "Is there anything I can bring besides wine?"
So below, you'll find my recs on how to fulfill their most likely asks: both what's been helpful to me when hosting and has gone over well when playing guest star. If you get a random curveball, we can talk through that too (just drop me a line), but these will get you through almost any shindig with a little extra panache.
IF THEY RESPOND…
"Nope, wine's plenty!"
Then listen, but also ask what they're making. Chances are your bottle won't get opened until everyone's gathered at the table, so you'll want to bring something that complements the meal. Old-school wine pairing rules won't steer you wrong – white wine is great for chicken, fish, and citrus-y dishes; go red for heavier meats, cheeses and tomato sauces – but they needn't be so black-and-white either. Especially in shoulder season, a lighter, chillable red works perfectly with chicken, and you can save the whites and rosés for when temps start to climb.
Depending on the menu, it's also worth choosing your wines regionally. If you're in for Italian food, Italian wine is a natural sidekick, since many recipes were influenced by the taste of local grapes anyway. I love the lighter Umbrian red Rossofongoli or a Sicilian white like Donnafugata's, but if you've got a wine store you trust, tell them what the meal is and let them work their magic. They'll know what kind of funk, fruit or salinity you need.
But while we're talking bottles: if you're showing up as a couple, one bottle is still fine… but bringing a bottle from each of you will earn you endless brownie points. Especially if it's a holiday party, birthday, or anything that might go late, do everyone a favor and make sure it stays well-stocked.
"Could you bring a cocktail?"
This is one I've had several friends delegate to me, and it's super important to know your audience here. Make sure there aren't any no-go spirits, since some people have die-hard aversions ("no brown liquor," for example.) But you'll also want to read the room a little when it comes to drink strength.
If your crowd can knock back martinis, then go off and make a high-ABV drink – maybe one of my favorite freezer door recipes if you've got the lead time. But chances are they'll want something a little gentler, in which case I turn to a Paloma (for mezcal or tequila), a Gimlet (for gin), or Kay Chun's Vodka Rosemary Lemonade Fizz, which is exactly what it sounds like. You can also class it up with something like the Milano-Torino, my new favorite drink that's basically a Negroni without gin: a perfect, lower-alcohol marriage of Campari and Cocchi Vermouth.
Don't forget to check in on any guests who'll be abstaining. While the hosts should really have something non-alcoholic on hand, you can always make a smaller batch of your cocktail with an N/A spirit like Optimist. Nothing will endear a non-drinker to you faster than treating them like every other guest.
"Maybe a snack for before dinner?"
Olives and almonds, folks. They'll never do you wrong. (Just make sure you get the green light on nut allergies). I'm Team Green Olive all the way, specifically Castelvetranos – but make sure it's a brand like Divina that leaves them whole. Pitted olives sound better and less messy for a party, but their taste and texture is often muddled and mushy. Oily, salty Marcona almonds, like the Matiz brand direct from Spain, couldn't be a better counterpart.
I'm opting out of the cheese and crackers game these days, since it ends up getting everyone full before dinner. But if those are your marching orders, then honestly for the price I'd beeline for Trader Joe's cheese section – or grab two of the delicious, spreadable marinated chévres from CHEVOO.
"How about a salad?"
Every meal can benefit from a salad on the table, and every host wants to jump into traffic when they remember they have to make one. It always falls by the wayside during other intense kitchen prep, but if you end up on salad duty, you've still got a chance for wow factor.
The great news is, you can build your dressing right in the serving bowl – like this earth-colored one from Year & Day – allowing you to save your host the hassle of re-plating your handiwork. And for any meal, a simple vinaigrette will fit the bill. These days I'm mixing a few tablespoons of one of Brightland's bright, zingy vinegars with a scoop of Dijon mustard to emulsify, and then drizzling in Graza's cult-favorite olive oil as I whisk. Then a few pinches of Maldon before I layer the lettuces on top of the dressing. As long as you don't toss them, they'll stay wilt-free until serving.
"Can you tackle dessert?"
This whole article was basically an excuse to rave about my favorite dessert. The one I bring to every party, the one my grandma now demands I make two of before visiting: this buttery, sharp, divinely sour Whole Lemon Tart. Tart is so, so much easier than pie, especially this one with its simple push-in crust. It's got barely any ingredients, is perfect for any season, and all you need is a tart pan with a removable bottom to make for easy serving.
Claire Saffitz's Chocolate Tart with Salted Oat Crust is another banger that's 100% vegan, so keep that one in your back pocket depending on the guest list. And if you're accommodating gluten-free friends, make sure to grab King Arthur's Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour. They're the gold standard when it comes to baking, and for very good reason.
If your host is making dessert and just wants you to bring ice cream, don't try to upstage them: just get a good vanilla. But if they want ice cream to be eaten on its own, I've never had a better pint than Jeni's Brambleberry Crisp.
If you've been given no task at all, you're left in a funny position. Showing up empty-handed just feels wrong, and bringing wine is more than enough but feels a little rote…
So you've got a prime opportunity here to bring a "host gift": anything from a bouquet of flowers to a pack of their favorite edibles, to the candle you wanted to buy for yourself but didn't because you're Such A Good Friend. Throwing a party is a labor of love, and I promise the hosts will feel your appreciation with even the smallest token.