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Expert Advice: How to Throw an Impromptu Summer Dinner Party


Expert Advice: How to Throw an Impromptu Summer Dinner Party

July 27, 2021

There’s something about summer that invites spontaneity: one last quick dip in the lake before dinner, an afternoon drive to nowhere in particular, spur-of-the-moment dinners taken outside in the garden. Some of the most memorable summer evenings start out this way: an impromptu dinner party, just because it’s too beautiful to call it a night. (Or because company drops by unexpectedly.)

How to pull off a festive dinner—to make sure there’s something to eat, and that it’s just a bit special—when there’s no time to run to the grocery store, the florist, or the farmer’s market? (Or, when you’d rather spend the hours before a party reading in a hammock, not running errands?) We asked Jill Donenfeld, a chef and cookbook writer who, as a co-founder of in-home chef company The Culinistas, knows a few things about throwing a party. Here are her easy last-minute tips.

1. Keep essentials on hand.

 photograph by nicole franzen from how to crowd source a garden. 12
Above: Photograph by Nicole Franzen from How to Crowd Source a Garden.

To be ready on a moment’s notice—or, so that you can invite the gang over straight from the beach and avoid a stop at the grocery store—keep a few essentials on hand. An instant dinner? “Pasta, anchovies, tomato paste, lemons, walnuts,” Donenfeld says, almost all of which you can keep stocked in the pantry. “Finish with a simple salad: Bibb lettuce, mustard, honey, olive oil, lemon, raisins.” As for the bar, keep it stocked with the basics: “tequila, gin, vermouth, Pellegrino equals tequila and soda, gin martinis, and sparkling water.”

2. Shop the house.

photograph by heikki aho for remodelista, from steal this look: tiina 13
Above: Photograph by Heikki Aho for Remodelista, from Steal This Look: Tiina’s Summer Tabletop Setting.

Once dinner’s started, scour the house for what you already have: “Any textiles, bright and patterned, that can be used as a tablecloth or runner,” Donenfeld says. “Light all the candles you have and dim the lights.”

3. Add bits and bobs from nature.

If you have a few extra minutes, add a simple, small detail to make it just a bit more special than any old weeknight dinner. “If you are a collector of rocks or shells like I am, find your prettiest pieces and place one at each person’s table setting: plate, napkin on top, a piece of coral to secure it,” Donenfeld says.

4. Float flowers.

 photography by natalie weiss and styling by alexa hotz for gardenist 14
Above: Photography by Natalie Weiss and styling by Alexa Hotz for Gardenista, as seen in In the Garden and Atelier with Cécile Daladier in Paris.

Don’t feel like you need big, lush flower arrangements to make it a party. “Float flowers in bowls—anything you find on a walk, forage, or get from the grocer,” says Donenfeld. “My favorites in season now are rhododendrons: big pink pompoms. If you prefer a cleaner, upright look, one calla lily and one closed peony make for nice small arrangements that you can source from the deli.”

5. Let food double as decor.

 photograph by aya brackett for remodelista, from a seasonal celebrat 15
Above: Photograph by Aya Brackett for Remodelista, from A Seasonal Celebration, Creatives Included.

“I like a functional table, since room is often limited,” Donenfeld says. For example: “I am always a fan of baguettes between the guests. Lay them perpendicular across the table between each ‘two-top’.” Or, line the center of the table with “a long trough of steamed clams”, Donenfeld says. It’ll do double duty as a first course and give a sense of summer, in all its fresh-from-the-sea abundance.

More summer entertaining tips:

N.B.: Featured photograph by Simon Bevan from London’s Best Below-Stairs Lunch, Hoxton Edition.

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Frequently asked questions

What are some tips for throwing a last-minute dinner party?

1. Keep the menu simple and focus on a few key dishes that are easy to prepare.
2. Use what you have on hand to decorate the table, such as candles, fresh flowers, or seasonal fruit.
3. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time.
4. Enlist the help of your guests by having them bring a dish or helping with setup.
5. Keep the guest list small to ensure that you have enough time and resources to pull off the party.

What are some easy and impressive appetizers?

Some easy and impressive appetizers include bruschetta with tomato and basil, crostini with whipped ricotta and honey, and a charcuterie board with a variety of meats, cheeses, and crackers.

What is a good cocktail to serve?

A good cocktail to serve is a simple and classic one, such as a Negroni or a gin and tonic. You can also make a large batch of a signature cocktail ahead of time to save time and impress your guests.

What is the best way to set the table?

The best way to set the table is to keep it simple and elegant. Use white or neutral-colored plates, simple silverware, and glass stemware. Add a pop of color with napkins or a table runner. Don't forget to have plenty of water and wine glasses available.

How do I create a cozy atmosphere?

Create a cozy atmosphere by dimming the lights or using candles. Play background music that is relaxing but not distracting. Use soft blankets or pillows on chairs or sofas. Consider adding some plants or fresh flowers to the room.

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