How to Throw the Perfect Dinner Party

When the head count expands to more than five, planning a feast can become a nightmare. Do yourself (and your guests) a favor: hire a small-scale caterer so you can handle the finishing touches

Number of guests: 6 to 12
Save the date: 4-6 weeks in advance
Invitations: 2-4 weeks in advance


Service with a Smile

In case you’ve never had a pro take over your kitchen, Tara Maxey, cofounder of the catering company Heirloom L.A., serves up a few tasty tips

Kick things off with a killer app: Greet people at the door with single-bite snacks that are napkin friendly, like spicy tuna on polenta or bacon-wrapped dates. Follow the rule of five: When sketching out your menu, you’ll want one salad, one protein, two side dishes (one vegetable, one starch), and dessert. If overwhelmed with options, let the caterer decide. “Tell us what you don’t like,” says Maxey. “That’s how we work best.” Select a style of service: Passing around dishes family style is good for groups unfamiliar with one another (ladling gravy onto somebody else’s mashed potatoes is a low-stakes trust exercise). Buffets are best for larger gatherings (10 to 12) and for ensuring all those hot dishes don’t go cold.

Illustration by Kirsten Ulve and Maurice Vellenkoop

Chat Room

Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam, hosts of public radio’s The Dinner Party Download, explain how to get the small talk bubbling like a bottle of Veuve Clicquot

What’s the best way to start a conversation with a stranger?
RG: Say hello and listen. During our interviews, we say “uh-huh” more than most radio hosts. Guests are excited to share with us.

Do you have a go-to icebreaker?
BFN: “What’s the best thing that happened to you today?” forces someone to give you an answer that’s not “Hi, my name is Judy, and I’m a publicist.”

If somebody famous is present, should you cop to recognizing them or pretend
you don’t?
BFN: Acknowledge you like their work, but don’t ask them what they’re working on next. RG: Sebastian Junger put it this way: If a woman just gave birth, you don’t ask, “When’s your next one coming?” And Daniel Radcliffe once said, “Don’t ever ask a 20-year-old if his career is over.”

A Trio of Caterers to Match Your Mood

party_brothrowdownThe bro throwdown:
Caramelized Productions
When they’re not manning the kitchens at Animal and Son of a Gun, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook prepare custom meals for parties of any size with the catering company that launched their careers.
party_athleteThe aesthete:
Valleybrink Road
Chef Barrett Prendergast whips up photo-perfect dishes that are inspired by the farmers’ market, such as pearl couscous with baby spinach, leeks, plums, pine nuts, and champagne vinaigrette.
party_athleteThe hyperlocavores:
Whoa Nelly! Catering
The company of A.O.C. vets Elizabeth Griffiths and Stephanie Bone doesn’t have a set menu. The two create something special for each event, like striped bass with wilted escarole and parsnip puree.