How to Throw the Perfect Dinner Party

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Memorial Day kicks off the summer entertaining season. Here's how to make your dinner party a standout:

Be responsible with your guest list: Limit your dinner party to friends, family or clients. Mixing social groups will make hosting more difficult. You wouldn't want to coax your shy aunt into mingling with your boss. That's no fun for anyone.

Find a perfect table, preferably outdoors: Circular tables that seat no more than 14 people are always more conducive to conversation. If you have the flexibility of a terrace, balcony or backyard, you should have your party outdoors. It's summer, after all, and you have the rest of the year to eat in your dining room.

If your outdoor furniture has seen better days or you're using a plywood tabletop on a makeshift base, skip the floral-print linens. Instead, dress it up with a simple, white
tablecloth from Williams-Sonoma. Keep lighting indirect by placing votive candles on tables or hanging tiki lanterns around the party area.

To cook or not to cook: Try to at least make the main course yourself. Start with the easy recipes you know. Now's not the time to try an ambitious dish from the French Laundry Cookbook.

If you're short on time, buy side dishes from a local deli and serve them in your own bowls. Don't go to Whole Foods Market or any chain your guests are likely to recognize, and don't forget to get rid of the cartons.

Try to do as much preparation as possible ahead of time, so you'll be free to spend time with guests before dinner. Reheat and arrange your dishes 10 minutes before serving.

Can I get you a drink? Most hosts let guests get their own drinks from the refrigerator or mix them at a makeshift bar. If you're having more than 15 people for dinner you should hire a bartender. You can find one through local-bar services like Beautiful Bartenders or even Craigslist.

If you're having fewer than 15 people, consider serving only beer and wine. The limited selection will cut your work to a simple cork or twisting of a top.

Be sure that water glasses are full when guests arrive and a full water pitcher is sitting on each table, preferably in a chic clear or silver-plated decanter. It will save you from having to get up repeatedly and give your meal a more relaxed feel.


The perfect dinner soundtrack:
If you don't know your Stephane Pompougnac from your Café del Mar, check out the iTunes Essentials section of Apple's music store. You'll find mixes based on mood, occasion and genre, including "French dinner party," "cocktails at sunset" and "tropical dinner party." You can buy whole soundtracks or pick individual songs.

Plan to adjust your music three times. Start the evening with a playful selection of cocktail-hour songs, such as those from Pompougnac's Hotel Costes collection. Switch to more mellow sounds that are more suitable for dinner and conversation. From there, pick up the tempo or take it down a notch, depending on how you want the night to progress.

Had enough? Nothing says "go home" like turning off the music.

Make the big night perfect: Try to get dressed at least an hour before the party so you'll have time for last-minute preparations. Place munchies like exotic nuts, a charcuterie board or crab dip where you want guests to cluster, preferably outside the kitchen.

If your dinner is cramped, try serving dessert away from the table, especially if the night is warm. The location change will also give guests an opportunity to mingle with new people.

If you have a yard, consider throwing a blanket on the grass with a few pillows and hurricane lanterns to make a chic little picnic under the stars that will cap off a perfect dinner party.

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