Wednesday, May 16, 2012

10 steps to being a good dinner-party guest

Throwing a dinner party in the 21st century has become a nightmare. Hosts have to keep track of everyone's dietary concerns, which come in more flavors than ever. (Can vegans sit with paleos? Is polenta acceptable on Atkins?)

An invitation to dinner at someone's home is a gift. When you receive one, you also have a role to play: that of the good guest. Here's how to do it.

1. Don't dither on accepting.

Check your calendar and give a yes or no within 2-3 days. There's a grace period for changing your mind, but the hosts need to know if the dinner can happen on that day or not.

When accepting, this is the time to mention your legitimate dietary concerns: you're a vegetarian, or worse, a vegan. You're allergic to (or in my case) physically intolerant of shellfish or nuts or tomatoes. You're kosher.

When is the right time to say you like potatoes, but not if they're too mushy, and you only eat grass-fed free-range meat? Never. This is not your home; it's theirs.

2. If you need to cancel, do so at least 48 hours in advance.

Don't let your hosts waste expensive perishables on a no-show. Emergencies happen; foreseeable problems ("I had to work late") are not emergencies. Leave work on time for once.

3. Arrive on time.

You wouldn't expect a restaurant to hold a table for you for 45 minutes. So why demand that of your friends? They're just standing around watching their carefully planned meal overcook. Show them more respect than that.

4. Bring a host gift

It doesn't have to be elaborate -- and it's a gift, not something you're going to eat or drink that night, unless you were specifically asked to "bring dessert." Flowers you grab at the grocery store will do. A bottle of wine always works; spend at least $15-$20, because you're getting free dinner. If you're running late, it's better to skip the gift and just get there on time. You can always send a gift by Amazon later if you feel guilty.

5. Don't micromanage the menu

If you have actual food allergies or physical intolerances, or a legitimate AND consistent religious/philosophical stance (vegetarianism because you don't want to see animals suffer is legit; not eating rabbits and deer because they're cute is not), you should have announced them when you accepted. It's too late to say you don't like asparagus, so you'll just skip the main course.

6. Turn off your cellphone

If you are a doctor on call, you may skip this step. President Obama, thank you for reading, you may also skip this. The rest of you: Can't you take a message? There's usually a break between courses; listen to and read them then.

No live-tweeting the dinner party. And your poor host is frazzled and has no idea what her hair looks like, so get that camera out of her face.

7. Put some of each course on your plate

This dinner is not about you. You are a guest, not the center of the universe. Be polite, take some on your plate. Nobody will notice if you don't eat everything. Eat something. Smile. You can get takeout on the way home.

The big no-no is to make a scene about something that can't be fixed. If your steak is undercooked and you want it a little more grilled, that's fixable. If the chard is too salty and the host dumped sugar in the carrots, grin and bear it. That's your role. And try the meat with the sauce already. Your friends were cooking that since yesterday.

8. Speak to the people on both sides of you

One day, I will be seated between Jesus Christ, just back from the grave and ready to dig into chicken casserole at my neighbors' house, and an actuarial consultant for a life insurance company. Even on that day, I will find something interesting to discuss with the latter ("So if I smoked, my policy would cost 20% more? What if I lied about it?")

9. Leave when the hosts yawn or look at their watch

Most dinner parties are intended to be over not long after dessert. There are exceptions, where post-dinner entertainment is clearly provided. But if not, assume your hosts want you to leave 15-20 minutes after post-dessert coffee is offered. If they really want you to stay longer, they will tell you. But don't ask them; that puts pressure on them to be gracious, which is your job.

10. Send a thank-you email

A written thank-you note is the old standard and you still can't go wrong with it. But don't waste a few days waiting to buy a card. Email a note the next day, when the memory is fresh on your mind. A text or a tweet might be sufficient to express your entire range of gratitude -- but you don't want your host to know that, do you?


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Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I've had guests show up an hour late with no phone call and one was supposed to bring an appetizer! The other didn't even apologize or try to make an excuse. Needless to say neither have been invited back. I stopped inviting picky eater guests. I refuse to keep track of everyone's eating quirks.

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

Well Written.

Everybody knows that when they come to our house for dinner, they're on their own if they don't eat meat or vegetarian items ( like Vegans ).

Part of being a good guest is accepting your friend's cooking/entertaining styles and bringing your own special dietary needs if you have them.

I've never had anyone leave one of my parties unhappy... there's always enough "adult beverages" to overcome any dietary concerns.

Good call on letting people know when to leave.. I try the yawning technique.. but if that doesn't work, my friends know that I'm not shy about calling last call :)

Unknown said...

Thanks....really useful