Every dinner party host hopes for a flawless evening: delicious food, sociable guests, laughter and good drinks all around. But successful soirées don’t just happen by accident. The perfect party takes finesse and each element must be thoughtfully considered. Figuring out who to invite is probably the most important aspect of an event.
We know, we know — you’re probably thinking that your chef-inspired four-course menu ranks higher on the list. No doubt, food and drink are crucial, but it’s the people that make the party. If you burn the roast and cork the wine, that special mix of personalities at the table can either keep the vibes going or turn the mood sour. We spoke with party planning experts for tips on how to match your space and budget with the personalities in your crew. Host a fête that feels effortless and leaves your guests beaming.
Know your space
Limitations on space and budget are usually fixed. Keep ambitions in check so you can prioritize these two details, said Atlanta’s Charm Etiquette owner Erika Preval. She recommended a minimum of six people and a maximum of 20, assuming you have room. “If you don’t have a table that seats 20,” she cautioned, “don’t invite 20 people.”
Think about quality time with each guest, too. For Kelley Troia, owner of event planning service Peachy Keen Planners, she likes to keep things small to maximize one-on-one conversations. “They’re giving up other events and activities to come to my dinner party and I want to show my respect and appreciation for their time,” she said.
Identify “anchor guests”
Now that you have an idea of party size, it’s time to select one or two anchor guests. Preval said that identifying the anchor in your social circle should be a no-brainer (their role as your anchor is just for planning purposes). “No matter where you take this person to, people seem to gravitate towards them,” she said. While you’re checking on the pie, your anchor guest will keep the convos going, just by being who they are. “They’re going to completely enamor the room,” Preval said. ”You can break away, do what you need to do and come back to be part of the room again.”
Pick a date
Run a few possible dates by your anchor guests, any other non-negotiable invites and your partner or co-host. A dinner party is no fun if no one can make it, so clear a good date for most people before moving forward. This step naturally prunes the list. Weekend nights might be more in demand, but fewer guests will feel pressured to dip before dessert. “You want your friends to be at ease and not watching the clock or having any sort of anxiety about what’s next,” Preval said.
Make two lists
With a better idea of who can attend, it’s time to get organized. Courtney Guthrie of Atlanta-based Peachy Keen Planners advised that hosts keep two lists. List A includes the core people who you prioritize having at your event. List B consists of second choices in case anyone from List A can’t make it. Both lists should overlap socially. Everyone doesn’t need to know each other, but baseline familiarity will help interactions feel organic. Got guest overload? Keep a running list on hand. “If I didn’t invite someone to this dinner party,” Troia said, “I may invite them to the next one.”
Plan on plus-ones
It’s polite to offer each person the option to bring a guest, even if they’re not married or in a relationship. Keep this math in mind when developing List A. Ask invitees to confirm whether or not they will bring someone and choose replacements from List B as needed. Don’t forget that List B guests might have plus-ones, as well. Things could get cozy fast, so keep track. Guthrie recommended making extra food in case of an unexpected attendee. No Southern dinner party guest shall go hungry.
Review your menu
Consider the food options before you lock in your guest list. A traditional Filipino hog roast is probably not a great fit if your anchor guest is vegan. But don’t stress yourself. Once you send invitations, invitees with allergies or dietary restrictions should alert you of their needs. Preval advised that hosts prepare a few vegan or gluten-free items.
Think of your guests as pieces of a larger puzzle. Even in an intimate setting with short guest lists, Preval said that place cards at the table can be helpful. Directions on where to sit can be a relief to newcomers, while splitting up old friends or couples to keep the whole table engaged.
If you’re inviting several strong personalities, let scenarios play out in your head. See how any potential conflict could be assuaged. Sometimes merging two or more groups of friends can be rewarding. “My favorite dinner parties are the ones where I introduce folks that I am close to, but they don’t all know each other,” Troia said. “I know I’ve done a good job when they all walk out as new friends from the dinner party.“