The Perfect Dinner Party Host

by Lisa Grotts

The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork. - Oscar Wilde

A 19th C. journalist once said, "The dining room is a theater, the table a stage." Party manners are not just about which fork to use or where to place your napkin. Can you launch a lively conversation during a meal? Are you a host who shows interest in your guests' needs?

Etiquette, a French word dating back to Greek and Roman times, is a set of traditions based on politeness and common sense. Would you play a game of tennis without first knowing the rules? Probably not. Throughout history, etiquette has often been labeled as "snobbery," and here's your first rule: Snobbery is bad manners. A well-mannered person always tries to make others feel valued, no matter what the situation.

Your invitation, written or by phone, should be precise as to the occasion, date, time, place, and of course, dress code. If you choose to do a formal invitation, think unique, a heavy card stock, and follow the Journalistic W's: Who, What, When, Where and if pertinent, Why.

Formal invitations not only have the advantage of promising luxury, but they set the tone for the evening. They should be hand-addressed, preferably by a calligrapher if your handwriting doesn't pass muster.

These days, many guests avoid meat, and some can't or won't eat fish. A thoughtful host will always have a couple of vegetarian offerings. (It's usually up to the person with dietary restrictions to inform the host.)

As guests arrive, introduce them to one another so they feel comfortable throughout the evening. Who knows what will come of a chance meeting? (You may even knock yourself off the Gazette's Annual Eligibles List.)

In turn, guests should also expect to shoulder their weight in social duties. Your host will often be busy greeting others, so don't be shy about introducing yourself to others. Be gracious to your host, but don't make the mistake of monopolizing her or him. And always follow your host's lead: If offered a drink, accept even if you only have water. In other words, sing for your supper - that is, if you wish to be invited back.

When leaving, it's your duty to seek out the host to give thanks. Don't forget that follow-up phone call the next day and/or a thank you note. The rule is within 24 hours so the message won't be forgotten.


What If...

  • A toast is proposed but you don't drink. For balance, let a little be poured so you can raise your glass with everyone else, or sip water. Avoid turning over your glass or placing your hand on top of it, which nonverbally says no in the rudest way.
  • You're seated at a formal dinner party, encounter a vast array of flatware, and have no idea where to begin. Contrary to what you may think, flatware isn't designed to trap you into looking awkward. Each piece tells a story. You'll know how many courses and what will be served just by looking at the place setting (i.e., if there's a fish fork, you're having fish; a round, deep spoon indicates soup). When in doubt, work from out to in with your flatware.
  • Your guests arrive with an unruly spray of carnations. Don't panic. Say thank you, take them to the kitchen, and place them (or have your caterers arrange them) in a vase, and if not too unsightly, place them in an unobtrusive spot.
  • Your husband's boss arrives with vintage wine and insists it be opened even though you've already prepared wine pairings for each course. Tell the boss you can't wait to share it with him, and that you'll save it for a special occasion and invite him back. Just remember to do so!
  • You use the wrong wine glass or bread plate. Is it glasses on the left and bread to the right? Guess again. Bread plates go on the left and glasses to the right of your place. Think alphabetical: B comes before G, and left before right.
  • Someone offers you a toast, but you don't know what to do. Never drink to yourself, but do respond with a toast. Keep in mind the three B's of any kind of speech-making: Begin, Be brief and Be seated.
A number of local party-givers offered suggestions as to how to host the ideal dinner party.

Sharmin Bock, a mother and full-time Alameda County DA for the past 17 years says, "The perfect dinner party involves a perfect caterer." Smart woman! The Bocks prefer a dinner party that's overflowing with guests. "The same amount of work is involved for four or 14 guests," she says. As for her favorite menu, Bock prefers to mix the old with the new. "Really fun modern cocktails such as the Lemon Drop (two cups frozen vodka, a half cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, a half cup superfine sugar, one lemon, thinly sliced, ice; shake and pour, with lemon for a garnish), are great, coupled with such trusty hors d'oeuvres as cheese puffs."

Her seating plan is anything but traditional. "I'm really into segregated seating. Women have more fun with women and men more fun with men so I like to separate the two."

Décor is also at the top of this hostess's list. Party planner Stanlee Gatti once told her, "It's a sign of affection and respect for your friends when you take the time to decorate." She agrees. "The most gratifying kind of evening is one spent sharing a good meal with dear friends." As a CPMC (California Pacific Medical Center) trustee, Sharmin will chair their Wishes for Wellness event in the spring of 2007.

Debbie Messemer, a partner at KPMG LLP and Ballet auxiliary member with Texas roots and charm, thinks intimate is the way to go when entertaining. "Jim and I love to dine with close friends, and feel six is a good number to get different perspectives." With a home on Russian Hill and one in Woodside, her style tends to be more informal.

"Even if we're using the family silver or crystal," Debbie says, "our main goal is to make our guests feel at home." There go those Texas roots again! She likes to use place cards for large groups "only to force conversation with people who may not know one another."

Debbie's also a terrific cook and has a secret weapon in the kitchen: her husband Jim. "We often tag team so that our guests are never left alone at the table. He makes the cocktails (wine or pitchers of margaritas) and clears the table, and I do everything else."

Ambitious at work and in the kitchen, Debbie loves trying recipes from local chefs and cookbooks. "On the Fourth of July we had friends over and served an heirloom tomato salad from Terra restaurant in Napa, then pork tenderloin from the Junior League San Francisco Cookbook, followed by a surprise dessert, a recipe from the French Laundry."

Melissa Barber, mother of two small children and wife of Sotheby's International VP Patrick Barber, entertains small groups at their Presidio Heights home. "If the number of guests exceeds 10, it's sometimes hard to keep the conversation flowing."

When it comes to the ideal menu, Melissa prefers to mix it up. "I like to be in control of the evening from cocktails to dessert, so if I start with a difficult first course, the main course will be simple and the dessert is always something I've made many times before.

She also prefers to cook "seasonally," taking advantage of all the freshness the Bay Area has to offer: hearty soups in the winter and fresh vegetables and fruits in the summer months.

The Barbers always have a full bar on hand but they like to serve specialty cocktails such as fruit drinks in the summer and festive red pomegranate juice drinks in the winter.

As for their style of entertaining, Melissa believes a good 60-minute cocktail party sets the tone for a fun evening. "We feel comfort is the key both in dress and atmosphere."

A recipe you can't beat.

Lisa Grotts, president of the SF Ballet Auxiliary, has been a certified etiquette consultant for 11 years and loves to entertain at home. When she is not setting her table, a sampling of her courses include Social Entertaining 101 and How to Make the Perfect Toast. Her clients include Rancho La Puerta Spa and The Ritz-Carlton.