The 5 Most Important Tips for Creating Great Dinner Party Atmosphere

(Image credit: D Squared Photography)

This week we’re launching our Gatherings from The Kitchn series, with my Italian polenta supper the first of many dinner parties we’ll share with you this year. What makes a great dinner party? Besides food, wine, and friends, what are the easiest ways to set a dinner party atmosphere? Here are my own top 5 habits for setting a dinner party atmosphere; these are all really simple things — you may do them too without even thinking about them! — but I’m curious to share, and for you to tell me if you do things differently! Here are my top 5 tips for creating a really good dinner party atmosphere…

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Actually, this is the most important thing…

Before I tick off my five most important checklist items for the dinner party table, though, let’s talk about the
actual most important thing. 

I think that by far most important part of a great dinner party is a
relaxed, hospitable host, one who’s game for whatever the evening holds, ready to enjoy the people around the table. Whether you’re spreading a feast or a simple dish and are feeling stressed or utterly at peace, your guests are here to spend time with you in your own household. Great dinner party warmth begins and ends with the spirit of the host. 

I fail in this almost all the time. I am by nature a rushed and harried host, angling for perfection, scrambling for that
just right serving dish I hid somewhere accidentally, chopping a last minute garnish, fussing and bustling to avoid the quieter challenges of relaxing and making myself present to my guests. At my best (rare!) I consciously prod myself to leave that last dish, sit down, and open my eyes to the people at the table. 

Gathering people around the table is an all too rare occurrence these days. The meal is an excuse to practice being yourself in the presence of friends. 

(Image credit: David & Deborah Hopler of D Squared Photography & Video)

5 Tips for Creating Great Dinner Party Atmosphere

In that context — on to the mundane things of the table. Skipping one or two of these will
not make your dinner party fail (and having them all won’t automatically make a great dinner party either — see above). But these are gracious touches that, in my opinion, form the base of great dinner party atmosphere. 

  1. Turn down the lights. When I lived in a little apartment with an eat-in kitchen that had horrible harsh overhead light, I compensated by plunking a lamp on the table and turning off the overheads. There’s nothing like dimming the lights to set a mood, and it’s the easiest thing to do. 

  2. Light some (cheap) candles. Candles add movement and warmth to the table. I keep stacks of them around and burn a couple nearly every night at dinner time. This doesn’t need to be an expensive habit; I buy votives at IKEA, or look for glass jar candles like these, which when bought in bulk are super cheap and will last you a good long time. 

  3. Use fabric napkins. There are eco-friendly reasons to use cloth instead of paper, but they are just a bonus, for me. I like the feel of a substantial fabric napkin on my lap, and it adds a gracious touch to the table. Again, they don’t need to be expensive. I have a huge stack of IKEA TEKLA towels that a friend cut in half and hemmed. That red and white rustic look is perfect for almost every dinner party around here! 

  4. Bring in warm colors. This may just be a personal preference, but I like to have one spot of warm color on the table. Food tends to be warm, and I like to set it off with a flower or two, or a colorful trivet or towel under one of the dishes. Once again — this doesn’t need to be something lavish, like a florist’s centerpiece. Snap a sprig of holly off a bush, or spread a few fall leaves under the candles. 

  5. Turn on the music! Last but not least, don’t forget the music. What’s your favorite dinner party music? We’ve been dining to a lot of Miles Davis and John Coltrane lately, and for larger parties I like to play an iTunes mix of folk and Americana — Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, the Avett Bros. and more of their kindred spirits. We make sure the volume is low enough to easily talk over. The music fills in silences, and adds a sense of motion to the evening. 
Bonus points: Make sure there’s water (and water glasses) on the table (seems obvious but it’s easy to overlook in last minute dinner prep). Also, salt and pepper! 

The best thing about these 5 tips is that you can easily, cheaply do them on any evening, with any company. Alone for the evening with a good book? Spread a napkin, light a candle. Eating with kids and husband? Make it an occasion. These are scene-setting basics that work for 1 to 100. 

Your turn! Do you do any of these things on a regular basis? When you have friends over to dinner, how do you set the dial to