How to Throw a Slamdunk Dinner Party

When Alex and I were first dating, we threw a dinner party together. We were young-ish and in love and got everything totally wrong. We served boxed pasta with pesto squeezed from a tube, plus a cheese plate that was already half eaten from the night before. It makes me laugh to think about it — our poor guests! Luckily, we’ve improved a little since then, and here, we ask 15 genius hosts for their tips on drinks, dinner, music and decor. We’ll never throw a dinner party the same way again…

DRINKS

We get more wine than we need: This might be terrible but I used to think that having each friend bring a bottle of wine was the best way to outsource dinner party schlepping. Now, we know which reasonably priced wines we like and get a case delivered from a neighborhood wine shop. — Deb Perelman

Get sparkling wine in everyone’s hand as soon as they walk in the door. It’s always a celebration when we manage recreational adult human interaction! — Courtney Klein

I make this easy punch. People LOVE it and can serve themselves. — Emily Henderson

MUSIC

My go-to is the questionably-named Rich Girl Pop playlist on Songza — it’s all chill, too-cool music that I’d never be able to put together on my own. —Claire Mazur

My favorite Pandora station is Sister Nancy. Cool old school reggae. — Kendra Smoot

After dinner, I love putting on the VH1 Classics channel! It’s crowd-pleasing background music, and the hilarious 80s music videos are a fun talking point as the night winds down. — Diana Moss

SNACKS

Making candied nuts is the fastest way to jazz up a cheese plate, and this recipe for Chinese five-spice pecans is my go-to. They have an unexpected (but totally addictive) flavor that works with everything. — Erica Cerulo

I’m never quite ready when guests come, so having snacks is crucial so friends don’t get hangry while we finish up. We lightly toast baguette slices, and top with fresh ricotta, a little black pepper and a drizzle of truffle oil. Oh, and a pre-game drink before guests arrive is a real help to a harried cook. — Anna Hoffman

These marinated olives are incredibly fast/easy, but make everyone feel like they are dining at a restaurant. — Lucy Popkin

DINNER

You know what makes for a great dinner party? A giant pot of the best meatballs and a giant pot of spaghetti and a giant salad. You’re only going to make three things, and everyone will have the coziest meal in forever. — Deb Perelman

My parents taught me that fish is not a great dinner party entree, because it’s finished too quickly and doesn’t allow for the same lingering, slow meal that is picked at over the course of an hour. — Lucy Popkin

If I’m super busy, I’ll get rotisserie chickens from a gourmet grocery store. I’ll ask them to cut the chickens up neatly into quarters or eighths, and I’ll arrange them nicely on a platter with herbs and sliced lemons when I get home. Another fast but special meal is fresh pasta. It costs a bit more, but it’s still cheaper than making a fancy entree from scratch. Plus, the pasta is so good, you don’t need a complicated sauce to go with it. — Erin Jang

We love dinner party recipes that strike a nice balance between delicious, easy to make, and “seems impressive.” So our favorite is Sam Sifton’s Momofuku-inspired Bo Ssam, which is phenomenally good, yet requires the skill level of a precocious toddler. — Anna Hoffman

DESSERT

I feel strongly about serving dessert. The key is to always make dessert first, like first thing that morning. Lately I’ve been obsessed with this Salted Butter Apple Galette from Bon Appetit. But in a pinch, when I haven’t had the time or bandwidth to make dessert, I serve a sundae bar with all the fixin’s. — Anna Hoffman

Recently, I’ve been making this insanely delicious chocolate cake, which we’ll serve with two flavors of ice cream (vanilla and berry sorbet). That way there’s something for everyone and our friends leave our place full of sweetness. — Brooke Williams

AMBIANCE

Candlelight makes the entire apartment feel magical. We bought around 100 thick pillar candles for our wedding (13 years ago!), and we are still using them. — Brooke Williams

Keep a quick game on hand. Monopoly Deal is our latest favorite, and Cards Against Humanity is hilarious. It’s always a fun way to end the night. — Diana Moss

I love getting a couple bunches of bodega flowers and putting them together in cool ways, inspired by this post. Flowers are one area where quantity trumps quality in my book. — Anna Hoffman

If children are there, having a separate kids table (even two feet away) is a treat for grown-ups and kids — they love having their own space and extra love having their own condiments (gravy boat, parmesan cheese sprinkles, etc.) and a water pitcher. It’s not as messy as you’d guess. Or maybe it is, but it’s worth the fewer interruptions. — Linsey Laidlaw

We’ll have a fire going. It smells so good and creates immediate ambiance. And even adults love to roast marshmallows for dessert. — Kendra Smoot

We use cloth napkins. My husband and daughter got really into napkin folding after studying this napkin folding guide. — Brooke Williams

Our table can seat eight comfortably, so we usually try to squeeze in 10. With good friends, coziness is a virtue! I love when there’s a single conversation going instead of several separate ones, but of course it’s fun when people break into smaller chats and the volume level rises to a boozy buzz. — Anna Hoffman

GUESTS

As a guest at a friend’s home, I usually offer to wash dishes after dinner, and I like when they say yes instead of refusing! — Lena Corwin

I’m a terrible conversationalist, so I keep a running list of anecdotes or stories I’ve heard on my iPhone. I know it’s lame but it’s better than being a boring party guest! (I also love the book What to Talk About!) — Jordan Ferney

When it comes to host gifts, olive oil should be the new wine. I mean, think about it: When you get a bottle of wine as a host, generally, you drink it that night or at some point within the week and generally, you sort of forget who gave it to you. The gift of wine is a wonderful gesture — I’m not saying it’s not — it’s just that olive oil can sometimes be more wonderful. Because it usually catches you by surprise and because it can be stretched out for weeks, forcing you to remember the giver’s generosity every time you make a homemade vinaigrette or a eat a bowl of Sunday Minestrone, which demands a high-quality drizzle upon serving. — Jenny Rosenstrach

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I’m so inspired to have a dinner party! What advice would you add?

P.S. The #1 thing to have when guests come to your house.

(Top photo by Orlando Suero. Second photo by Time & Life Pictures. Last photo by Owen Franken/Corbis.)