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First, there's the matter of how to properly set the table. The basic setup is thus: Napkin in the center of the dinner plate, forks to the left, knives and soup spoons (if necessary) to the right, water glass over the knife and wine glass to the right of that. Guests eat the first course with the outermost silverware — typically a salad fork or soup spoon, which get removed after that course — and then work their way inward, so set the table accordingly. Dessert is served separately once the table is cleared, and dessert forks and/or spoons are brought out then along with dessert plates or bowls. You may even want to have guests retire to the living room and eat their sweets there.
If you're hosting a formal sit-down, consider place cards. Although they may seem a little stuffy at first, they serve a purpose: No one has to ask where they should sit, and since you seat those you think will have the most to chat about next to each other, your guests should enjoy a more entertaining evening. If you do use place cards, alternate men and women and split up couples; that way, they can't get cliquey and they'll have more to compare notes on later. Finally, to help new friends get acquainted, print place cards with guests' names on both sides.
If you prefer a casual buffet to a sit-down affair, be our guest. In this case, use place cards to identify each dish on the buffet table, particularly if anyone you've invited has certain dietary restrictions, and indicate the flavor of the gathering in your invitation so guests can dress accordingly.
Speaking of, dress for dinner. For all but the most casual early-evening suppers, a dinner party calls for something slightly refined; in other words, best to avoid T-shirts, jeans and sneakers.
Eating is the prime-time activity at any dinner party, which is what makes dinner parties so delightful. You have a primary primal obligation to sit still and consume the free food that's been lovingly prepared for you, and second, that obligation takes the pressure off mixing and mingling from get-go to goodbye. But that doesn't mean the evening has to be strictly dinner and polite conversation. For example, you might throw a murder mystery dinner, incorporate a wine-pairing lesson with each course or ask guests to go around the table sharing their own fantasy dinner party guest list.
Food takes center stage at a dinner party. But that doesn't mean you have to slave away for days preparing a five-course meal. Start with simple hors d'oeuvres like olives, nuts, cheeses, a thinly sliced baguette and/or grapes or sliced fruit. For the main event, think make-ahead with one-dish meals you can assemble and leave to cook (or in some cases prepare in advance), like a roast, pasta, casserole, paella, chili or hearty soup. You could even call in takeout and transfer delivered dishes to your own serving bowls — shh! Add a simple salad starter and ice cream with jam that's been simmered into a sauce and bam, dinner is done.
If you aim to impress, add one showy dish — mixed greens studded with edible flowers, shaved truffles over fettuccine, baked Alaska or bananas Foster. For extra flourish, snip some parsley or chives to sprinkle on your main dish, and garnish your dessert plates with a curlicue, courtesy of a quick squeeze of chocolate syrup. Just don't bite off more than you can chew: Cooking for a crowd demands time and timing, so keep your sanity intact by keeping the number and complexity of dishes manageable.
When planning your menu, take a cue from your table. Lounging cross-legged at a coffee table or makeshift low table? Consider a Japanese or Moroccan menu. Spreading out a picnic blanket? Serve roast chicken and potato salad. Setting a banquet table glittering with crystal and silver? Go fancy and French.
For a twist on the typical vino, switch up the same ol' shiraz for a more festive sangria. You can also make a non-alcoholic version by replacing the wine with grape juice and skipping the triple sec.
Sangria (serves 8)