In Good Taste, Vol. 2: The Ins and Outs of Entertaining

Photo credit: Bon Appetit

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As Heidi Klum once said about fashion, "One day you're in… and the next day you're out." The same could be said about many foods, but just as much about how we serve them. The times, they are a-changing for us dinner party hosts as well – and luckily the new trends I'm projecting call for maximum fun and minimum fuss.

So peer into my crystal ball before you plan your next soiree. I've got some tips to make this year's gatherings your very best ones yet.

Photo credit: The New York Times

OUT: Cheese boards // IN: Appetizer course

For years, cheese and charcuterie have had their boots on the neck of the pre-dinner table. They're the go-to starters for any gathering, and yes, they're easy and delicious. But there's also no faster way to fill up, leaving your guests only half-hungry for the dinner you poured your heart into. Let that initial snack be both lighter and also part of the meal itself, whether it's a soup course at the table (maybe in these soup bowls courtesy of Year & Day), or a platter of briny oysters. They're just as make-ahead, but with a little more razzle-dazzle.

OUT: "Wine is plenty!!" // IN: Letting people bring things

Listen: it's 2023, we're all in therapy. We know how important it is to Ask for What We Need. And chances are, what you need at this dinner party is not a sixth bottle of wine. You need limes, you need fresh bread, you need the sherry vinegar you just realized you were out of. Letting your friends contribute to the meal only makes them feel more included – and cuts down on the resentment you'd feel from making four trips to the store. Go ahead and delegate that pint-of-Jeni's purchase: it's cheaper than a Cab Franc and goes down even smoother.

Photo credit: Gentlemen's Gazette

OUT: Wear what you want // IN: Dress code

Running with a theme here: your guests like knowing the rules of the game. Just as they'll appreciate you telling them what to bring, they also want to know just how gussied up to get. No black-tie agenda here – I fully support leaning into cold-weather coziness – but specific cues help everybody get on the same page. You can stick to "dressy casual" or tell everyone to wear a hot pink wig. In this unending era of Zoom meetings, let's take our glamor where we can get it.

OUT: Dimmer switches // IN: Candlelight

Extremely bold of me to invent the candlelit dinner, surely something no one has tried since humans started breaking bread. But let's be real, most of us are still dimming overheads to try and set the mood. The chicest dinner party I went to recently, though, was almost entirely lit by candles, creating that real sense of warmth we all crave during winter.

Go bold with these Wolf & Badger candles or minimalist with Maison Balzac, paired with the delicate or chunky candlesticks of your choosing, then settle in for a meal flickering with golden glow. Everyone's new skincare regime will thank you for the filter.

Photo credit: Saveur

OUT: Pre-batched cocktails // IN: DIY cocktail bar

Imagine my surprise when I brought a batched cocktail to a New Year's Eve dinner party, only to find that everyone made what the hell they wanted instead. That's because the hosts put out a tray with a wide variety of options, wisely clocking just how much our boozy tastes might end up varying.

This year, I'm taking that to heart – but that doesn't mean I have to break the bank stocking every type of spirit. Even having two or three options makes it a Choose Your Own Adventure. Try dueling gin and vodka martini fixings (I like Future and NEFT, respectively), with a lower-alcohol aperitif as a third-party candidate. Just don't forget some non-alcoholic options, like De Soi's canned drinks, Aplos's zero-ABV spirit or Athletic Brewing Company's very good N/A beer. Our Dry January friends deserve to mix and match too.

OUT: Neutral linens // IN: Bold colors

Noticed how cookbooks have shifted from stately white to a kaleidoscope of colors? It's about time our table settings caught up to the trend. I've kissed my taupe tablecloth goodbye and started laying out this rust-colored beauty from Coyuchi, with apricot-colored napkins from Morrow for another little pop. The right balance of hues will make your table feel even more inviting – while still letting that Dutch oven full of pasta rightfully be the star.

Photo credit: Fly by Jing

OUT: Sit-down dinner // IN: Dinner as activity

Here's where the in/out binary can feel a little silly (like all binaries): the sit-down dinner will never be "out," and will always be one of my first loves. But there's been a noticeable uptick in raclette nights, in at-home fiery Hot Pot, and folks… activity dinners are a blast. Just like the DIY cocktail bar, these interactive formats take the sometimes-awkward chill off of sitting and being served. Plus they're a hell of a lot less work for you, the host: just bang out some prep work and let dinner become a big, raucous group effort.

OUT: After-dinner drink // IN: After-dinner coffee

Look, I know this sounds extremely *goes to Italy once,* but a post-meal espresso is your party's secret ingredient for success. It primes the digestion, cuts through any wine fog, and gives everyone a second wind to end things on a high note. If you look forward to kicking your friends out, by all means omit it, but those of us who are addicted to company will love how it keeps the party going. I'm a fan of Intelligentsia's instant espresso, as easy as a grocery-store variety but with a hell of a lot more flavor.

Photo credit: Martha Stewart

OUT: Time in the kitchen // IN: Time spent together

Even Ina Garten's COVID takeaway was that dinner should be about the company, not the food. And I heartily agree, as someone who's spent too many nights solemnly tending the stove. Your gatherings should be just as fun for you as they are for your guests, both because you deserve it and because they'll feel your stress otherwise. Lean into make-ahead dishes, like Sohla El-Waylly's pork or cabbage braises you can finish the night before, and kick back when showtime hits among your closest friends.

This life – and this year – is way too short to miss out on the good times.

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