The Dinner Party is Alive & Well on the LES

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.
Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

As 2012 drew to a close, I was amused by the number of articles I came across regarding the dinner party. Gourmet waxed nostalgic over dinner parties past, questioning whether the institution could be saved. The Times lamented its passing as a society mainstay. The Post disagreed, celebrating Brooklyn’s young and trendy for recasting the middle class institution. Brooklyn’s the L Magazine saw fit to take a swipe at the Times, reiterating the Post’s stance on the matter. Meanwhile Time reported on SupperKing, a mobile phone app that makes it easy for ambitious hosts in LA and SF to invite complete strangers to their dinner parties.

We may not have our own mobile app yet, but the dinner party is alive and well here on the Lower East Side in a variety of forms.  I’ve seen potluck Shabbos suppers, monthly Wolfgang Puck-themed dinners and a seven course Christmas extravaganza starting with escargots, and ending with Buche de Noel, all served in LES apartments. I’ve heard of serious Italian being served at the Seward Park Co-op Men’s Club, and a dress-up potluck poker night at the Women’s Club. I’ve seen a wonderful evening grow out of a neighbor’s last minute invite for chili con carne.

The dinner party with invitations, a theme, a formally set table and the host outdoing himself/herself in the kitchen is a lovely thing. I’m lucky to have friends who do that. It’s not MY thing as host, but that doesn’t keep me from having those friends over. No one notices mismatched dishes when the food and conversation are good. Decent wine doesn’t hurt, either. As parents of “twentysomethings,” my wife and I have seen family suppers blossom into impromptu dinner parties as a stream of shaggy young people arrived at our door. At a certain point, as long as everyone has food, a drink and a place to sit it’s a success. I like to think what we sometimes lack in form, we make up for in conviviality.

The most important aspect of a successful dinner party is NOT the food, but the guests. The people you have over will hopefully engage in good conversation and general bonhomie. Choose people with complimentary interests likely to appreciate each other’s company as much as the food you set out. Get a good enough group together and the meal itself need not take center stage. I attended a party thrown by a bachelor friend who served beans, rice, salad and table wine to ten, seated at borrowed tables and chairs in his apartment. It was a great evening because he’d assembled a real cast of characters, himself included. But it didn’t hurt that these characters all had a fondness for beans, rice and table wine.

Think about your friends and neighbors when planning a dinner party. Pick a small group you think would work well together, and could comfortably fit into the amount of space you have. Don’t worry about who gets left out this time – they can make the list next time. Or the time after that. Before long you’ll be balancing the evenings you host against the invitations you receive. Because entertaining at home is not just a great way to socialize, it’s also contagious. Many guests will eventually want their chance to play host.

What about the food? If you like pretending you’re Jacques Pepin or David Chang in your kitchen, go for it. Just keep your guests in mind. Not everyone is willing to try your take on Sichuan Fire Exploded Pig’s Kidney Flowers or your homemade morcilla sausage. Guests who will try anything are easy, but be sure you accommodate those who can’t, or won’t. If you’re not an ambitious cook don’t sweat it. This is 21st Century New York – straightforward home cooking is exotic to most of us. Seriously, how many of us can remember the last good beef stew or pot roast we’ve had?

Conventional wisdom says serve something you can make mostly in advance, so you can also enjoy the party. Leg of lamb with oven-roasted vegetables is a brilliant choice a friend recently laid out to a party of seven. This kind of dish doesn’t suffer from resting until the guests eventually manage to seat themselves, making it a good option for entertaining. Another friend insists on doing paella for ten every summer, which leaves her chained to the stove until dinner hits the table. At that moment the guests have to be ready as well, but everyone knows this in advance. Some hosts LIKE playing restaurant. If you’re one of them be sure to draft someone to play server, to keep your guests entertained, and seat them when it’s time to throw down.

On drinks: As a guest I make it a point to show up with a couple bottles of wine just a little nicer than what I normally drink at home. If I know what’s on the menu I’ll show up with wine to match. As host I find I have to be pretty well stocked, regardless of whether the guests bring wine. I figure one bottle of wine per person and some beers, just in case. After dinner drinks are a tough call. Open a bottle of brandy after dessert and you could be in for a long night. (Not that I’d know anything about that).

J.P. Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is also a wine consultant and a serious home cook who scours the Lower East Side for frugal food finds in his free time.