The simple request, “You must come to dinner,” once a cheerful indication of intimacy, has become fraught with social dangers. How straightforward it was when all you needed to do was put on your best suit or frock, spend the first half of the evening speaking to the person on your right, the second half to the person on your left, jump into a cab by midnight, scribble a thank you note the next day, and we all got out of there alive.
Our newly casual way of living means we hardly know when we’ve strayed over some mysterious line in the sisal matting. In the latest edition of The Lady magazine, etiquette and modern manners expert, Thomas Blaikie, describes the new dinner party rules, which include leaving by 10.30pm on a weeknight and 11.15pm at weekends, never bringing wine that costs less than a tenner, and, if you’re the host, never making plated starters.
Personally, I’ve thrown so many dinner parties, my dishwasher should be receiving some sort of award for its contribution to community relations. Here are my notes from the dinner party front, to ensure both happy hosts and guests.
Ten dinner party commandments
1. Don’t be on time This is the act of a monster. The only people worse than those who arrive bang on time are those who arrive early, when you’re still in your pinny and haven’t had time to soften your more frazzled edges with your first cocktail. For the very best in civilised behaviour, arrive between 10 to 15 minutes after the appointed time.
2. Bring wine if you must but now it’s highly acceptable, not to say fashionable, to bring craft beer or cider instead. You look terribly cutting edge and no one has to drink it.
3. Don’t take flowers Because rattling out dinner for eight isn’t soothing enough, let’s add having to find a suitable vase to this evil game of party peril? Send flowers afterwards, or take a potted plant – no cacti though, chances are there are enough pricks at the table as it is.
4. No one cares what you like If you are vegan, vegetarian or have a deadly food allergy, of course you should let your host know beforehand. If you’re just not eating dairy this week, flirting with gluten-free or drearily carb-phobic, do keep it to yourself, there’s a love. There’s honestly nothing more boring than the pick-and-mix culinary peccadillos of others.
5. Do talk politics and religion. It’s so prissy to skirt around the really interesting stuff in favour of what? House prices and minor illnesses? Do also pay close attention when speaking about your children to anyone who is not a blood relative in case of terminal eyeglazeoveritis.
6. Don’t help Of course, do offer, but you can be too casual. Unless invited, don’t start clearing tables or washing up. It’s your job as a guest to sit there and be absolutely fascinating, damn it.
7. Accept that last drink If I’m pouring the hard stuff, or that weird digestif I dragged back from my hols, it’s because I want you to stay. If I suggest tea or coffee, I am mentally calling you a cab. Please don’t expect me to actually make the tea or coffee.
8. What time to leave? Mr Blaikie speaks perfect sense when he says weeknight dinners should be over by 10.30pm. We aren’t 20 anymore and being in (you own) bed by midnight is one of the cornerstones of civilised life. But if anyone left my house at 11.15pm on a Saturday night, I would hang up my hostess apron forever. Do stay. Have another drink. Laugh. Gossip. Drag out the old vinyl and let’s dance around the kitchen. Don’t leave me this way. Not just yet.
9. Do say thank you Of course, a letter is delicious and people will remember your impeccable guestitude forever; a postcard is good and an email is fine. The most dreadful thing you can do is to resist sending an email or making a phone call as you absolutely, positively are going to write that letter. Just as soon as you track down the perfect stationery, buy an ink pen, find a stamp and master calligraphy. And suddenly you’re bumping into your hosts at another event and it’s 10 months later and they’re wondering why they never heard from you again and is it because you hated their cousin Bert or the syllabub, or, in fact, them. Send the bloody email.
10. If you’re the host, don’t show off. You need to make it look – or at least feel – effortless if you want your guests to be relaxed and have a good time. No one cares that you spent the whole weekend watching YouTube videos of how to make swans from choux pastry. Bowls of bought ice cream taste sweeter than any amount of culinary braggadocio.