There's something special that comes over you when you're halfway through the perfect dinner at a friend's house. He always manages to do this, your friend — make you feel like the evening could go on forever and you wouldn't mind. His last dinner was like this, too. You just really enjoyed yourself, and you're not sure how he did it. Was it the food, the lighting, the people? You didn't feel the need to pull out your phone even once, and that never happens.
True hospitality is subtle, as I've written before. You don't realize you're getting it until after you're already comfortable. One way to crack the secrets of a superb host? Start with the end result, the good feelings that you, the guest, experience. Here are five things a good host makes you feel, and how they (slyly) do it.
1. You feel totally relaxed and comfortable.
The evening is well underway, and if your shoulders could talk, they would say "Thank you for finally removing me from your ears, for the love." You're mingling without obligation, you're talking without feeling self-conscious, you're laughing because, well, laughing is the best and it makes you feel awesome. You may even be dancing — and you're doing it all spontaneously! (And no, it's not because of the alcohol.) What is happening.
How your host does it: It starts with the basics, like making sure the house is clean and playing good tunes. After that, it's all about fine-tuning. Everyone has a different definition of what's comfortable, but a good host creates a vibe that works for anyone. It may be lounge-y and informal or glammed up; it may be communal or funky. But she lets her guests know what to expect, if necessary, and then helps them tune their inner stations to the vibe she's working.
The key to making that work is the next point:
2. You feel pampered.
Someone just helped you take your coat off and is now offering you a cocktail, while your host just came around the corner with a plate of appetizers. Your friend ushers you out to the patio, where she tells you to chill out for awhile while she finishes up in the kitchen. You offer to help, but she refuses. Not a chance, she says. Go get a drink!
Out on the patio you settle into an Adirondack chair, which she's plumped with a squishy pillow. The setting sun sends pink streaks across the sky. You put on your sunglasses, lean back, and take a sip of your Old Fashioned. You think you hear music, but it may just be in your head, since you are clearly in a movie scene right now. A bird chirps.
How your host does it: As outlined above, from the moment you walk through the door, your host has set up the Path to Pampering. There's a place to put your things (or someone to take them), something to eat and drink, somewhere comfy to do it, and someone to talk to while doing it.
That in and of itself is good enough for most people, but a good host keeps it coming. The cooler gets refilled before you even notice it's empty, appetizers are replenished, a new wine bottle corked and set on the table. All the while the music keeps playing, and you never, ever have to ask for a roll of toilet paper. (There's a full basket of readily available TP in the candle-lit bathroom.)
And yes, the pampering extends to accommodating special diets, but even there your host has a few solid options. How can things get any better? Well, at this point...
3. You're a little buzzed.
You're feeling really, really good about life right now.
How your host does it: "Would you like a glass of wine? Red or white? I also have a rosé and some sparkling wine, which we can pop open. There's also beer in the fridge. Oh, and I just stocked the bar!"
Given this, thank goodness...
4. You're well-fed the entire night.
Sometimes it's a sit-down dinner, sometimes it's just pizza on the porch, but no matter the occasion there are always plenty of snacks and nibbles, little bowls and platters set around to satisfy the munchies and keep your hands occupied when you don't know what to do with yourself. (Which is not often at this party, see #1.) The main meal itself is totally tasty, and there's always dessert, even just ice cream or a little dark chocolate.
How your host does it: Too much alcohol and too little food is a recipe no host wants, ever, at any time. But also, food is festive! People like to eat, and eat together, and a good host offers plenty of opportunity to do that.
If that sounds stressful from a host's perspective, it doesn't have to be. You can do things ahead and cook things ahead, like small bites, roasted nuts, and other easy appetizers. You can also look to the magic of Trader Joe's for awesome party snacks.
Having a little food available throughout the evening is also the good host's trick to making sure...
5. You're not rushed.
This dinner started three hours ago, and now the mood is totally chill. This is when the best conversations happen. Someone's making coffee or tea, and you've booked the babysitter for another two hours. You look at your host to see if he wants to wrap things up, but he's not sending out any signals. So you help yourself to another cup of tea and exhale a deep sign of appreciation.
How your host does it: Your host has worked hard, and after dinner is also his time to sit down and relax, especially if he's kept busy throughout the party. You try to clean up the plates, and he tells you to forget it (he's decided to leave the dishes to the next morning), grab your wine glass or coffee mug, and come into the living room, where he plops down and motions for you and all the other guests to do the same. The night is still young!
What are your takeaways as a guest from your most memorable dinner parties?
(Image credits: Leela Cyd; Kristin Teig; Kristin Teig; Faith Durand)