What makes a great dinner party?

dinner with friends
CC BY 2.0 Seamus Holman

There's something that matters even more than the food.

Good food is crucial, of course, when planning a dinner party, but that's not the only thing that matters. A second, often undervalued contributor to success is the social dynamic, the particular blend of guests that you, as a host, have chosen to invite.

Research shows that the best dinner parties are the ones where no one knows each other. Something special happens when people can't get stuck on small talk, asking about work, family, and recent vacations. Instead, the conversation drifts naturally into a neutral third zone, where the really fun and engaging debates can occur. As Daniel Menaker, author of A Good Talk, calls it, the goal is to talk about “not me, not them, but something else.”

As someone who loves to host dinner parties, I've had both ends of the spectrum at my dinner table -- awkwardly quiet groups that make me feel like I'm pulling teeth trying to get conversation to flow, and dynamic, exciting groups that get on a roll and don't stop for hours. The question is, how does one always ensure the latter, which is the most desirable?

Chances are, you'll eventually run out of people within your social circles whose paths have not yet crossed. That's when you need to get creative to keep that exciting, novel vibe alive when hosting. I did some digging to find out whether or not there's a magic formula to success.

1. Bring stories

I first heard this on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, when he feasts in an ice hut in Quebec with Fred Morin and Dave McMillan, chefs from Montreal's Joe Beef. They tell him that one of their rules for being a good dinner guest is to come with stories. Bourdain seems surprised, but it's good advice. A person who can regale and entertain, without monopolizing the conversation (this is key!), is a real pleasure to host.

This is the foundational idea behind a project called Bring Your Own Story. It's a membership-only dinner party club with chapters in New York, San Francisco, and London. The host asks guests to prepare ahead of time:

"Come to dinner party centered on a single-word theme (examples: energy, faith, adrenaline) and bring a true five-minute story from your own life on that theme, that you’re willing to share with strangers."

2. Play games

Follow dinner with a group board game to get things loosened up. At that point the wine will be flowing, stomachs will be satisfied, and people are willing to relax. A friend recently brought over Code Names and it entertained four couples very well for several hours.

Molly Rubins of Quartz has an amusing suggestion. She likes to play a game called "For It or Against It." Guests are asked to "take a definitive stance on everything from velvet to mechanical pencils," the more neutral the thing, the better.

"If you ask your dinner guests to share their opinions about polarizing, frequently debated topics like private schools or Brexit, the ensuing conversation will likely follow a predictable course. 'But if you do bread,' Rubin says, 'who knows?' The other key rule: No waffling. 'There’s no in-between. You have to say why and justify your reasoning. We always had fun trying to pull people onto your side.'"

3. Have some emergency topics on hand.

As a host, your duties extend beyond food preparation. You also should prepare some good conversation starters and keep them stashed in a metaphorical back pocket, in case the conversation lags. Do so with gusto, and everyone will be impressed and engaged. Some curious suggestions via Rico Gagliano, author of Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World By Having a Dinner Party:

"Science stories — for example, a study that involved playing music to cats in an attempt to calm them down — tend to intrigue the room. (Cats prefer classical.)

Portmanteaus — new words made out of smashed-together vocabulary — are indicators of cultural trends. 'The example we give is blowtox,' Gagliano says, 'people getting botox injections into their scalps so their blowouts won’t re-curl.'

And new art exhibits are bound to make people’s imaginations run wild. "'There’s an art installation called "Everything," where these two Dutch artists put together a sample of every perfume released that year, which they put into a giant bottle.'"

Before you know it, you'll have a house where people are lining up to come for dinner because they've heard it's that fun! If you have any tried-and-true entertaining strategies or ice-breaking suggestions, please share in the comments below.

What makes a great dinner party?
There's something that matters even more than the food.

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