Every Southern host and hostess hopes for flawless evenings: 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. The dinner party guest list is probably the most important aspect of an event. Here are six tips to getting it right.
We Southerners have our reputations to protect. Our hospitality and ability to throw seemingly easy parties are legendary. We take a lot of pride in our ability to bring people together over food or football — or both. So much thought and energy goes into making sure parties are a success.
If this is your first time putting on a party you’re probably thinking that your chef-inspired four-course menu is all you need to make sure you're guest are having a great time. Without a doubt, food and drinks are crucial, but make no mistake: it’s the people that make the party. Even if you happen to burn the roast and forget to by 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. These tips will help you 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 Erika Preval, owner of Atlanta’s Charm Etiquette. 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, it's helpful 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,” said Troia.
Identify “anchor guests”
Now that you have an idea of party size, it’s time to select one or two anchor guests. Anchor guests are friends or associates that have dynamic personalities and naturally hold other peoples attention. Here Preval believes that identifying the anchor in your social circle is not only essential to ensuring a fantastic party, it's a no-brainer. While you’re checking on the pie or making cocktails, your anchor guest — or guests — will keep the conversations 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,” said Preval.
Make two lists
With a better idea of who can attend, it’s time to get organized. Courtney Guthrie, also of Peachy Keen Planners, suggests 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.
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 also recommends making extra food in the inevitable case of an unexpected attendee. No Southern dinner party guest shall ever go hungry.
Review your menu
Consider the food options before you lock in your guest list. For example, it's probably not a good idea to throw a New Orleans-themed party complete with seafood, pork and chicken dishes if the majority of your guests are vegan. But don’t stress yourself. Once you send invitations, invitees with allergies or dietary restrictions should alert you of their needs. Still, it's probably a safe bet to go ahead and prepare a few vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free dishes.Prioritize balance
Think of your guests as pieces of a larger puzzle. Even in a more intimate setting with a smaller group, place cards at the table can be helpful. Directions on where to sit can be a relief to newcomers, and splitting up old friends or couples will 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,” says Troia. “I know I’ve done a good job when they all walk out as new friends from the dinner party.“
Which ever of these tips you chose to implement remember first and foremost that it is the people gathered around the kitchen table or happily chatting around you that make your party a success. Prioritize them, make them feel special and you'll have a fantastic party no matter what.