A few weeks ago, my chef pal Margie invited me onto her podcast and said something that might make your blood run cold. Ready? Brace yourself: the dinner party is having a resurgence.
Yes, I instantly agreed, because going out has become so expensive. Not so long ago, I told Margie, I went to a London restaurant where the main courses mostly hovered around the £60 mark. Sixty pounds for a main course! Do you know how much heating that is? Not as much as it used to be, obviously. If you live in a draughty Victorian place like mine, £60 is an hour or so with the radiators on. But I’d still prefer to feel my toes than spend £60 on a piece of fish. I know restaurants are struggling, but £60 for a piece of fish feels, if not actually immoral, then very silly. Sides extra.
So, dinner parties are back because people are going out less. Although then I grumbled to Margie that if I’m the one throwing the dinner party, there will be an outlay on crisps and the second-cheapest sauvignon blanc in Sainsbury’s. But you get invited back, she reminded me, so the costs are repaid.
It may make you want to move planets, this news, because the dinner party is a controversial topic. The words “dinner party” alone, for some, are sickening. Too 1980s, they cry. Too stuffy. Let’s not dally too long on the derivations it’s spawned, either – “dins” or a “DP”, or even a “dinny p”, following that peculiarly infantile trend which saw the pandemic rebranded as the “panny d” and Buckingham Palace as “Bucky P”. Imagine someone inviting you for a “dinny p”. It’s happening out there, I’m telling you.
If it helps, you can refer to it as something else entirely. As one friend says on the thorny matter, “Having friends over for dinner, yes. Calling it a dinner party, hard no.” “Kitchen supper” is a bit 10 years ago, but you could just say come for supper. Come for a bowl of pasta. Nothing too frightening or vol-au-venty about that, is there?
A couple of months ago, Nigella Lawson made a single remark on this subject in an interview – “I’ll have a person or a couple of people over quite often, and I keep planning to have people round in a proper grown-up way, but I haven’t” – and everyone instantly screamed that the dinner party was dead. If Queen Nigella wasn’t doing them anymore, dinner parties were out. But the truth is, she was doing them, just in a more 2023 way.
Which means less ceremony. The panny d (sorry) encouraged this, because during those turgid years, we all became very used to eating on our sofas in our pyjamas without any underwear, and now the idea of putting on a bra and eating at someone else’s house on a hard chair is very strange. So it has to be relaxed – no dressing up, no seating plan, and it’s supposed to appear very low-key, even if you started marinating the lamb five weeks earlier.
Fewer people, too, just as Nigella said. “Four guests max,” one well-connected sort tells me. I rather like this number. You can cook more interesting recipes and have a proper conversation with everyone around the table. Last month, three friends came over and, because it was August and therefore raining and freezing cold, I made an elaborate chowder, which required going to three different shops for the various fishy elements. We mopped it up with posh fennel-seed focaccia from the madly fashionable bakery round the corner and washed it down with buckets of white wine. I can rarely be bothered to make pudding, so I threw a large slab of Dairy Milk on the table afterwards (sometimes, if I’m really pushing the boat out, it’s a box of Celebrations), and we sat there, laughing and drinking more wine, until I gave the universally-accepted signal that it was time for them to go by standing and loading the dishwasher. And even though there were only four of us, it was dinner and it certainly was a party. What’s unenjoyable about that?
Some may argue this sort of evening doesn’t count. These are dinner-party stalwarts who still want a napkin ring, men and women sitting alternately like stiff-backed Edwardians, and a decanter of red wine so thick you have to chew it.
One house-hunting friend reports that she recently told her father-in-law that they weren’t looking for anything with a dining room and he thundered that this was “slovenly”. Some hosts spend hours “tablescaping”, which means strewing their table with jam jars of flowers and tea lights. Another friend takes the ritual so seriously that she has a dinner-party notebook in which she writes down everything she’s cooked and who she’s invited so she doesn’t repeat the same combination next time, although laments that she’s lost this notebook while moving (I slightly wonder if her less fastidious husband threw it away).
Deep in the country, a mole tells me, the situation also remains more alarmingly formal. “Since we’ve moved to Oxfordshire, the DPs are a much bigger deal,” she says forlornly. “Sit-downs for 10 or 12, and after spending last Friday sitting next to an adult male complaining about how little his mother did to help with her grandchildren, I was ready to drive back up the M40.”
But as the nights draw in and we retreat inside, why not gather a few friends at home instead of sitting in a noisy restaurant, wincing every time someone else orders the steak while you mentally tot up the bill? It’s the season of mists and burnt pine nuts, but it doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. Don’t feel like you have to go mad with the wine, because nobody notices past a certain number of bottles. Use kitchen roll for napkins, if you like (I often do because it saves washing my posh linen ones). Chuck a ramekin of Minstrels down for pudding, and if they still won’t leave once the dishwasher is full, follow the admirable example of my stepmother, who goes to bed and leaves the guests carousing downstairs.