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An Hour-by-Hour Guide on Hosting a Dinner Party

June 29, 2022

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My love of dinner parties started early. I remember an abundant bowl of fruit on my family’s Thanksgiving table when I was little. It was morning, and there were still HOURS until dinner. Still, I asked my mom if I could have an orange. “Of course!” she said. “It’s the day all day!” And that was it for me. From then on, I looked forward to days with big dinners and lots of people coming over because the party really starts in the morning. Eat the oranges! We were saving them for today.

Now, I don’t want to toot my own horn (just kidding — I do), but my dinner parties are pretty famous. I invite an intimate group of friends (six is ideal, and eight is great) at least once a month, and we sit around the table for hours, talking and eating and enjoying. I’ve got it down to a science, and the secret is… It’s the day all day. I wake up EARLY on a dinner party day, giddy about all of the prep and excited to treat my people really well. I’m going to break it down for you, hour by hour. I’m not fussy about recipes, so I’ve kept them simple for you here. The menu is less important than the experience. And the experience starts as soon as you wake up.

8:30 am

Wake up, and pop a bubbly. Whether or not you drink alcohol, put something fizzy in a flute. Toast to the host. That’s you! This is your day. It’s practically a holiday. It’s basically your birthday.

9:00 am

Cut the watermelon. You want one-inch cubes on a parchment paper covered cookie sheet in the freezer. More on this later.

10:00 am

Grocery shop (scroll to the bottom for your list.) Go to the fancy grocery store. Do this leisurely. Get yourself a fun drink and have a romantic stroll through the aisles. Smell all of the flowers and pluck the best bunch for your table. Ponder over the produce. Flirt with the fish guy. Ask to sample a cheese or two. You’re not in a hurry. Here’s why: You’ve hired a cleaning service to come to the house while you grocery shop.

That’s my pro tip. Even if you love to clean! Even if you never hire a cleaning service! You’ll never shop more leisurely than you will when someone is cleaning your house for a dinner party and you HAVE to be out for two hours. You may be thinking: Why would I have a cleaning service come when the party’s outside? Well, the bathroom’s inside. And you’ll feel a special “holiday” thrill while prepping in a party-ready house. Also, it’s like having a clone (who’s really good at cleaning) getting the house ready while you’re tasting cheese, so.

While you’re at the grocery store: Shop the international aisle. Pluck the prettiest packages of cookies (some of those gold foil boxes are attractive enough to serve in their original packaging) and then scoot over to the freezer aisle and get a couple of pints of fancy sorbet. Get one more flavor than there are people coming to your party: There’s a game in your future. Read on.

12:00 pm

Welcome home! It’s time to pull out the linens. Give them a steam or a tumble dry or just throw it over your outdoor table and let the humidity do its job. Any wrinkles or folded seams have usually worked themselves out in an hour. Find a great vase and cut your flowers. Tapers are devastatingly gorgeous, but an evening breeze will keep you relighting them, so when dining outdoors, I stick with hurricane lamps and pillars.

1:00 pm

Grill salmon. This is such a wonderful dinner party fish because it’s easy to grill, and it’s fancy. Brush oil on and season both sides of your salmon fillets. Throw them on the grill skin-side down. Flip them after 6-8 minutes (when the skin has crisped up and isn’t sticking). Finish them off for another 6-8 minutes or until the internal temperature is 140 degrees.

Throw on some zucchini. Either cut them in long planks or half-inch rounds and toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper before giving them those pretty grill marks.

Depending on which salad you choose*, grill some fruit now, too.

Arrange grilled salmon on a serving platter, douse generously with lemon juice, and tuck lots of lemon wedges around the fillets.  Plate the zucchini on another favorite platter (Hot tip: Pick a platter that’s almost too small. It’ll make your zucchini serving feel even more abundant.) Cover and store in the fridge until dinner time.

2:00 pm

Pull together this easy pasta: Chop a bunch of garlic. However many cloves fall off the head — five or six — chop ‘em all. Slice a whole thing of cherry tomatoes in half. Tear a bunch of basil. Grate Parmesan cheese until you get sick of grating Parmesan cheese. Toss all of this together with hot and steamy spaghetti. The ready spaghetti will take a little bit of the edge off of the raw garlic, but not so much that it won’t have a great kick to it. Cover and allow to come to room temperature. (Or throw it in the fridge if you’re a cold noodle person.)

3:00 pm

Set the table with dinner plates, salad plates, and an appetizer plate. Give everyone a water goblet and a wine glass (even non-drinkers love to drink out of stemware). Set the table with elegant place cards that have thought-provoking questions on the back. This will provide hours of table talk. Here are some good ones:

Which movie is better than the book?

What do people most misunderstand about you?

Who do you sometimes compare yourself to?

What’s your unpopular opinion?

When’s the last time you lost track of time, and what were you doing?

If the world was ending in a year, how would you spend your time?

Do you feel older or younger than your age?

If you could have a second chance at one event in your life, what would you choose?

If you could have the credit for creating any piece of art — painting, or music, or movie, etc. — which piece of art would you choose?

How would you describe the idea of a color?

What is the most life-changing decision you’ve ever made on a whim?

Who would play you in a movie of your life?

4:00 pm

Build the charcuterie board. Start with all of your little bowls and ramekins. You’ll need a savory and sweet dipping sauce — I love a spicy mustard and fig jam. Fill in the cheeses: I like a Gouda, a Manchego, and a Goat. Add a little bowl of sweet gherkins — or Peppadew peppers, for color. Be generous with briny olives. Plunk down some painterly grapes. Tuck in strawberries and cherries. Make little piles of seedy crackers and chewy bread. Add in chocolate covered almonds. (Without fail, at every dinner party, someone says, “Oh, it’s chocolate! I thought these were olives!” A delight.)

5:00 pm

Take a quick shower, and put on fresh clothes (white jeans are both comfy and polished) and a hint of makeup. A little mascara says, “Relax and enjoy yourself. I even had time for hair and makeup.”

6:00 pm

Light the candles.

6:10 pm

Put out the drinks. If you’re not serving wine-drinkers, make sure there are several bottles of red and wine sparkling cider. (Ice buckets for the white.) I always stock as many bottles as there are people coming because I want everyone to hang out for a long time and help themselves to all of the refills their hearts desire.

6:40 pm

Slide all of your frozen watermelon cubes into the blender and buzz them up with lime juice and mint leaves. If you’re feeling frisky, add a splash of grapefruit soda. Pour these into pretty coupes and arrange them on a serving tray to greet your guests. As soon as they finish hugging hello, they’ll have a drink in their hands.

6:50 pm

Put ice water in all of the glasses and fill a pitcher for refills.

6:59 pm

Pull the salmon, zucchini, and spaghetti out of the fridge to bring to room temperature before serving.

7:00 pm

Cue the dinnertime playlist, and welcome your guests. Give them their frozen watermelon drink and usher them out to the table. Follow them outside with your abundant charcuterie board. Let everyone find a seat and start snacking.

7:45 pm

When everyone’s winding down on the charcuterie board and the questions — Don’t worry; you could enjoy this for a good hour — sneak into the kitchen to make the salad. A summer salad is easy: fruit + salty cheese + nuts. I love grilled nectarines* with a wet card of Feta and pistachios. Or peaches with Burrata and pine nuts (feel free to dash a little hot sauce on this one). It’s best to put this together just 15 minutes before serving. Drizzle with olive oil and flaky sea salt.

8:00 pm

Serve the salad and top off everyone’s drink.

8:30 pm

Clear the salad plates, and bring out the salmon, zucchini, and pasta.

9:00 pm

Turn your string of lights on, signaling a transition.

Serve the sorbet. These are adorable in little crystal dessert cups, and feel free to flood the table with them. (More cups than there are people!) If you’re ready to throw in the towel on serving, go ahead and populate the table with pretty pints and gold spoons. (Don’t worry — those who are not keen on sharing will claim a favorite quickly.) Pass out little golf pencils, and make it a taste-test/rating card system. Your guests can use their name/question cards for this.

Grocery List: (a loose list! everything is optional!)

  • bubbly
  • watermelon
  • mint
  • limes
  • lemons
  • basil
  • cherry tomatoes
  • zucchini
  • nectarines or peaches
  • grapes
  • strawberries
  • cherries
  • salmon
  • Burrata or feta
  • Gouda
  • Manchego
  • goat cheese
  • Parmesan
  • garlic
  • spaghetti
  • flaky sea salt
  • pistachios or pine nuts
  • spicy mustard
  • fig jam
  • olives
  • Peppadew peppers
  • crackers
  • a Baguette
  • fancy cookies
  • sorbet
  • chocolate covered almonds
  • sparkling cider
  • grapefruit soda

What do you think?

  1. Tracey E says:

    Entertaining for me is anxiety producing. I’m not organized, and I’m not good at thinking of the food. Do you have any idea how helpful this post is? Thank you so much for this. I’m planning on having some cottage neighbours for dinner, and if I follow your plan pretty closely, I think I can actually pull it off. I like that you’ve prepped everything ahead of time. Who says the salmon has to be hit off the grill?! I like cold salmon better anyway! Thank you!! Wish me luck!

  2. Harper says:

    This is sooo needed! The art of entertaining is just that, art! Thank you for sharing! I would love to read another on a different themed party! Good job lady!

  3. Amanda says:

    Absolutely loved this! Would love to see more written by Victoria. She has a beautiful way with words.

    I’m curious Victoria, do you family style your dishes or do you serve everyone individually?

  4. Juliet says:

    More Victoria. And invite me next time. ;)

  5. Jules says:

    Darling little article! I gave a little chuckle at the “ready spaghetti.”

  6. Molly says:

    Great post! Would love to know more about the plates in the pic. We’ve been searching for simple melamine plates for outdoor dining (four sons, stone patio, ceramics aren’t going outside for us). I hate all the busy/bold melamine designs! If these are melamine, would you link please?

  7. Marta says:

    This was so good! Love Victoria’s writing and love the idea of making the preparation feel like celebrating already. And not focusing too much on the dishes either! Nigella Lawson once said (I’m paraphrasing) that there is nothing worse at a dinner party than a pompous silence and anticipation as you bring out the food. Food is supposed to be in between all the laughter and conversation, and not a show-stopper. Ok, off to flirt with the fishmonger!

  8. Pat Smith says:

    I love to entertain so of course your hour by hour seemed something I would enjoy. I never expected to be transported by the delightful description of a long day of prep lived so well. Thank you 🌸

  9. Amy Parsons says:

    Sounds lovely! Just to understand, the entree is not a hot dish correct?

  10. Barb says:

    This was fabulous!!! I loved this!! I’m a big entertainer, and I really love these tips and ideas. Can’t wait to try! Victoria should post more often!!! :) Happy 4th y’all! :)

  11. Erin says:

    Sounds like so much fun! This was a great read!

  12. Sheree says:

    I loved this – a road map to a perfect night!! I tend to stress so much having people over and just reading made me feel like I can do it with calm and ease. Thank you!!!

  13. Jess Cudzilo says:

    Ok this is EVERYTHING! I am inspired! Thank you. ❤️

  14. Leah says:

    This was amazing!!
    What a beautiful description, makes you want to host a dinner party ASAP!

  15. Suzanne says:

    What a perfect evening! I love all the prepping ahead of time. When the host is relaxed everyone is relaxed. Thank you for sharing!!

  16. Brittany D says:

    I absolutely loved this! It read almost like a narrative. I so wish I was a guest at this dinner party! I agree with a previous comment that it needs to be a regular feature with different kinds of parties.

  17. Karen F says:

    Loved this post!!!

  18. Rebecca says:

    One of my favorite posts! This is great & will def use these ideas. I have a friend who is the most gracious host & she always says the last thing she does to prepare for a party is throw on a bra 😂

  19. Janine says:

    This was delightful!! I’d love it if you shared these seasonally. Now that I’ve seen your summer, I need your autumn, winter, and spring!

  20. Gemma says:

    This was a fab read, thank you Victoria! I’ve always been such a stressed out host, I can’t think why I’ve never had a cleaner in for the day. We don’t have one usually but what a great idea, to just add it to the party budget!!!

  21. Mariela says:

    This was AMAZING. 🤯 Regular series, please?

  22. Carolyn says:

    Victoria has the most poetic way of writing and I can’t get enough. I love her approach to hosting and the idea of making the whole day special.

  23. Aunt Sharon says:

    What no talent show!!!

    (Also What is wet feta?)

  24. Molly Johnston says:

    One of my favorite CLJ reads ever! Great ideas and really well done!

  25. Val says:

    Loved reading this. I love a good timeline. 🙌🏻 Thank you for walking us through your thought process and how to keep things moving in the best possible way.

  26. Grace Davis says:

    This is one of the best things I’ve read in a very very long time!

  27. Allyssa Birth says:

    I am so bad at cooking and I have questions about the menu! With everything cooked ahead of time and in the fridge. Is nothing heated up again? Everything still tastes good at room temperature?

  28. Lindsey says:

    I voted casual get together but this is bringing me back to my childhood when my parents and their friends would take turns hosting. I cannot wait to do this. Thank you!

  29. Laura says:

    Amazing! Love to entertain but dinner parties scare me. This makes it accessible. Thank you thank you Thank you!

  30. Tracy says:

    I loved this post! I am totally stealing some of these ideas!

  31. Denise says:

    I am in love! Fantastically written with incredibly helpful tips. Dare I ask if we can see more posts from this magnificent woman?!

    Perhaps a dinner party play by play per season or holiday events?

  32. Ashley says:

    This is so beautifully written that it makes me want to host a dinner party! I have 3 young boys though, so I might need to do it on a weekend that my mother can watch them. I love the idea of spending the day preparing and savoring the moments! Well done!!

  33. Julie says:

    I didn’t know I needed to read this, but this was amazing, and so nice that it was an outline, and not a tight recipe. I love the thoughtful questions. I want to be a dinner party hosting once a month person, and this gives me a boost.

  34. Emh says:

    Was this written by another member of the team? It’s very different than the usual “parties with friends don’t have to be fussy” message given.

  35. Alicia says:

    I enjoyed every word of this! Such a fun read with great ideas!

  36. Nupur says:

    Love this! Thanks for all the tips! <3

  37. Rachel says:

    Wow, a glimpse in the mind of a professional entertainer. I learnt a lot.

  38. Angelique Silvestro says:

    Amazing! Please do an encore blog for a larger party size PLEASE! We have regular pizza parties to enjoy our wood fired oven and I would love to be able to relax somehow and actually enjoy the process, hahaha!
    I always feel stressed out, thank you so much for sharing this, so much inspiration!

  39. Robin says:

    We love throwing dinner parties, they are so much fun! Some really great tips here. I can’t wait to try out this menu!

  40. Shantell says:

    One of my favorite posts of all time and I’ve been reading since the waterfall wood countertops years ago in your first house! This was wonderful. Please do this again!

  41. Christin says:

    What a fun post! I’d love to host but then feel overwhelmed and I don’t ever do it. This was very helpful!

  42. A.B. says:

    Great post. how about suggestions for a ladies night, family BBQ or fall get-together, etc – in this same fashion? This would be a great layout for a book . . .

  43. E says:

    I loved reading this! Inspired!

  44. Debra says:

    We’re cut from the same cloth, Victoria; haven’t entertained since Covid but love the ease of this gathering. I’ve not hired cleaners but adding that to my budget for future gatherings. Lovely post – looking forward to hearing more from you!

  45. HS says:

    Love this!!! So so helpful!!

  46. Tara Lynch says:

    I LOVE this. Every tip, hint, and timing guidance. Thank you!

  47. Katie says:

    This sounds like the most wonderful evening. How do I get invited?!

  48. Siel says:

    This was a fun read! It felt like reading a book, I was completely immerged in your world.

  49. Amy says:

    “It’s the day all day!” Love this.

    • Trisha says:

      “Flirt with the fish guy” I loved this so so much! Felt like a mini vacation.

  50. Julie says:

    This was a really fun read! I will be incorporating some of your tips. Thank you so much for sharing!

  51. Trisha says:

    This is amazing thank you. Could you give tips for finding a cleaning service. I have a lot of trouble with this. Thanks

  52. Lucy says:

    This was such a delightful read

  53. Patricia says:

    Thumbs up to relaxed entertaining! I love make-ahead recipes. When I’m not serving outside, I set the dining table the day before. I usually make one fabulous dish from scratch, assemble an easy appetizer (sometimes it’s just bowls of nuts and hummus and veggies) and dessert is simple, like gelato or roasted peaches with vanilla bean ice cream. Love your suggestions about questions on the place cards. I’m stealing that idea!

  54. Anon says:

    Love this. Question though, you are serving the salmon and zucchini and pasta cold? Or are you reheating?

  55. Elisha says:

    Oh my gosh I love this!! I think my husband will be the house cleaner as I grab the goodies. Divide and conquer? Great ideas! I’m already relaxed just thinking about it. Do you have any fall/winter regulars!?? I’m picturing family over for thanksgiving with champagne and pomegranate seeds and a soup instead of a salad!

  56. Taylor Gayhart says:

    Victoria please write more, this was a joy to read! I would love to hear more about your art as well as your experience as an artist, whether that’s here or on your Instagram!

  57. Stephanie says:

    This is such a great post! Thank you for sharing!

  58. Jenny B says:

    Heaven!

  59. Chelsea says:

    This is the best! A joy to read, plus easy to implement a step-by-step – thank you

  60. Meredith says:

    This could not come at a better time for me. I’m throwing a (big!) dinner party on Saturday as a housewarming. I was getting nervous about logistics, but now I’m going to follow this plan, including this fresh easy menu. Love this! Thanks, Victoria.

  61. Pat says:

    I love everything about this post! So so much fun! Thank you for sharing.

  62. Mara says:

    Love this! What excellent ideas

  63. Lavinia says:

    Well, this is adorable.

    • Linda says:

      Well now I need a regular series on hosting from Victoria (like the Chris Cooks series), for all the seasons and all the holidays and special occasions!!

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