How to host a successful themed dinner party?
Herewith the madness to the manner of creating surprising, profound and memorable evenings.
I don’t know about you, but my wife and I love to host dinner parties. We love the challenge, the making of the guest list, the preparations and the warm glow when everyone has had a good time. But not all dinner parties are the same, and in today’s environment, they’re both rarer it seems and often less robust in terms of meaty conversation. In this context, I was struck by this ad for Pocket (a fancy online bookmarking service) that popped up in my browser:
I certainly believe that we need to up our game not just at dinner parties but in life in general, with our knowledge, facts and sources. As we look toward the post-pandemic world with all the challenges and dismal prospects (economic, social, climatic, political turmoil…), I believe we all need to stretch beyond our echo chambers, discover new people and enjoy deep social bonds. With intentionality, a good amount of experimentation and a desire to get connected in more meaningful ways, my wife and I have hosted scores of meaningful themed dinner parties. We’ve laughed, cried and hugged. We’ve been surprised, bypassed and exhilarated. Of course, we’ve had hiccoughs. If we didn’t have any failures, you can say that we’ve not tried hard enough (as the saying goes*). Here’s to making the most of the short times we have together, to discovering one another in new ways, and learning, laughing and crying at the same time. It’s regenerative for the soul.
Despite the temptation to continue recounting stories of the wonderful dinner parties we’ve hosted, I want now to dissect and describe how we craft our themed events. It seems important to establish upfront our mindset and objectives, since that will naturally flow through how we do things. My wife, Yendi, and I have made these dinner parties an integral part of our social life. We’ve typically managed to do one per month throughout our marriage (27 years). We look at these parties as much as a way to play together and discover one another through different lenses, as to create meaningful experiences for our guests. Our approach, to be sure, has always focused on the guest experience. We would much rather the guests shine and enjoy the event than toot our own horns. Our objectives, as such, are to have a meaningful gathering, to challenge and learn from one another, and to make new connections.
Making it last longer
One of our observations early in our married life, as we got caught up in careers and building a family, was that time was precious and dinners take time and energy to prepare and host. We wished that each dinner should take up more space than just the short time together around a table. So, while maybe not quite as unorthodox as it is now, we used any digital tools at our access to help make our dinner parties last longer in the form of, what we might call nowadays, a hybrid event with pre-, during and post- activities. Thus, we will send out some kind of prep work for all those involved and then, after the dinner, we’ll send a follow-up of sorts with all the guests, touching on what happened and to help make the continuing connections easier. This used to take, for example, the form a dedicated blog page, called “Diner à Thème,” (it still exists), that was written in French because I started it when we were living in Paris. Here is how it looked back in 2007-2008:
With a dedicated article (or email) for each dinner party, the guests were asked, for example, to read something or submit some comments or clues. These were then integrated into the evening. And, of course, guests were invited to return to the blog after the dinner. However, very few took up the mantle, so we parked that idea.
Guests or theme first?
A question I’m often asked is whether I come up with the theme first and then invite guests or vice versa? Well, pragmatism requires that we first batten down the guests. Between busy agendas, unexpected cancellations and unknown persons (often we will meet entirely new people, for example through +1), it’s more important to secure the guests’ availability. In thinking through the guest list, we always consider the connectability and compatibility. Not that we want everyone to immediately love one another, but we like to think of the complementarity, the yin and yang, the big voices versus the quiet ones. It often leads to serendipitous encounters. High on our radar is making sure not to have too many loud, vocal or outspoken individuals. We also try to avoid too many heavy drinkers or those who have antagonistic personalities. In terms of a target number, our preferred range is 7-8 people in total (including us). Over eight and the table too easily divides into two groups. Under six people and the critical mass – with enough random sparks -- can be wanting. Only once we have the guests confirmed do we then search for an appropriate theme.
Picking a theme
In consideration of the guest list, Yendi and I set to conjuring up a theme. Typically, we will get inspired by what’s happening, dans l’air du temps, in the news, or the season. That might mean picking our favourite flower in the spring, or memory for Remembrance Day. We will bat ideas between ourselves, thinking through both how we might go about answering the question (without going through to the nth degree) and how well the theme might travel with the guests. Once we have settled on an idea, usually I’ll go ahead and craft up the instructions. The design of these emails, other than to confirm the date and time, etc., is to give the guests some homework (“pre-work”). Obviously, the assignment will vary according to the theme and the guests. But the general idea is to make the guests aware that they need to think in advance what their answers will be. Importantly, if the guests are coming with their partner, I strictly ask that they don’t share their answers between each other in advance. That means that the couple will live in anticipation before the dinner and discover their partner’s answer only at the table. Moreover, for those who don’t come with a partner, it levels the playing field.
To the extent most of our guests are new to the themed idea, I always include a short description. This is particularly important when a guest comes with a partner who’s never even met us. As you’ll find in the annex (for paying subscribers only), the list of themes must come with a little brief. For example, on the theme of TRADITION:
This evening, it's all about TRADITION (or not).
Your task is to think of the tradition you like most as well as an unorthodox activity you deeply enjoy. And why (for both)? Please feel free to bring props if you have any at hand!
Some themes will involve bringing a set of clues to help reveal the person, object or concept. These can include vestimentary items and props. The idea of bringing out a bag of tricks or hidden objects is inevitably stimulating. On the notion of dress code, we may or may not encourage a specific dress code. This will also play into rendering the evening a bit special. Getting dressed up is generally a good idea. One last notion about the invitation is that we like to try to have our dinners start earlier (e.g. 6:30 pm or 7 pm). This means we can have a good long run and still have people get home not too late (i.e. for those who have work, travel or kids to contend with…). All the same, it’s important that the guests realize that coming on time is important in order for us to synchronize the beginning of the theme and the start of dinner.
Marrying theme and people
When we pick a theme, there are a several things we’re looking for. First, we want no one guest to have a dominant view on the theme. In other words, we won’t do a theme on food with one cordon bleu chef in our midst. A second point is that we want the theme to be sufficiently rich that it will possibly lead to us to unexplored areas. Specifically, we would like the theme to lend itself to opening up. So, if we choose the theme of a comedian, let’s say, the answer as to why each guest chose their comedian could lead to more insightful, even soulful reflections. Thirdly, we don’t want to do the same theme twice, such that we are always entertained and surprised. We obviously also have to come up with our own answers. The process of doing that enables us to think about how the answering process may go. This is important in terms of figuring out how the guests will onboard the theme, which becomes useful during the animation portion.
There’s always a form of guesswork to the exercise of selecting guests… to allow the chemistry to work. Sometimes, we end up having to replace a couple that had to cancel which poses the challenge of finding someone available on late notice. On a more humorous note, of all the dinners, I can recall of just one where the guests were all invited, the theme set and then one by one, every initial guest dropped out such that our table was filled at the end with an entirely different roster. Yet, we kept the same theme. And it worked out swimmingly anyway.
Pre-work (in advance of the dinner)
We always formulate the ‘homework’ (sent as part of the invitation) with a degree of latitude. We could say that the assignments are rather enigmatic. We don’t want to telegraph the answers in any way. As a result, we end up with very different interpretations. Inevitably, some will read into the question in ways that completely surprise us. Others will only skirt the topic (“didn’t have the time” or “I didn’t take it that way”…), and there certainly have been many like that. Some guests, meanwhile, take their assignments very seriously. But, the key point here is to allow for all types of answers, because at the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong. I like to believe that everyone gets out of it what they put in.
Setting the décor – A dinner in three acts
There are three phases to our dinners once everyone has arrived. The first is the preamble. Then we sit at our dinner table for the multiple course meal. I would point out that the round shape of our dinner table is important as it really helps to foster greater inclusiveness. And finally, we return to the salon for the final round-up.
Act 1: The preamble
Much like we think of a pre-, during, and post- to our parties, we have three ‘acts’ to the evenings themselves. The first act is the ‘warm up.’ Guests arrive and we break out some nibbles and offer a pre-dinner drink sitting in our salon, adjacent to the dining table. I often like to prepare a musical playlist that has a more or less discreet relationship with the theme. On occasion, the music helps to give an extra zest. For the most part, however, it’s only playing softly in the background. We exchange light pleasantries, sometimes mentioning whom else is coming, but only cryptically, so as not to create undue expectations or ruin the surprise. Most of the time, our guests don’t know each other. In all cases, my wife and I are always hoping that the guests will make special connections. Once all the guests have arrived, I will formally open the evening. This inevitably means breaking the flow of existing exchanges. It’s an important moment, setting the tone and establishing myself as the emcee. In essence, at this point, I’ll explain the ‘rules.’ Once that’s clear, I give a sampler quiz that revolves around the theme, doling out points for answers in proportion to how close they are to the correct answer and/or how hard the initial question was in the first place. Sometimes, the questions are merely a matter of preference. Let’s take the theme “A royal experience.” I might start with: Are you more Queen Anne or Queen Mary? Then I might ask if anyone can name the race of late Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite dogs?** I’d give a lot more points if anyone knew how many the Queen had had over her lifetime? Then even more points if anyone knew the names of any her dogs. I’ll usually have a list of up to 10 questions from which to pull, interspersed with some exotic, if not esoteric facts. The objective of this exercise is to create a little good stress, by piquing the competitive spirit. By the end of preamble, I ensure that everyone has had a chance to speak up. I feel that these pithy questions have a way of opening up the chakras. We then move to the table.
Act 2: Le dîner
Once supper’s ready, we take pre-assigned seats at the table. Mixing up the spouses, extroverts with introverts, and/or matching saucier partners is all part of the planning. Once seated and the first course is described, we dig in. I will often get some wine that is in accord both with the food and the theme. For that, I rely on a local wine merchant to whom I’ve explained the theme and we go about chatting about the theme and wines. This is regularly an enjoyable discussion that helps me in my introduction of the wines. Very shortly after that I’ll then break in and formally ask who might be the first person to give their ‘Royal’ answer. Nervous anticipation and a little snickering often happen at this moment. If worse comes to worst, either my wife or myself will start off, knowingly trying to set the tone in our answers, and hoping to assuage any worries about there being any ‘wrong’ answers. As the dinner progresses, everyone is invited to speak, describing their choice and, importantly, explaining why they chose it. After someone has spoken his or her turn, it’s not uncommon for some commentary to emerge. I like to let that happen, and if not will try to spark it. With a rhythm of having at least the first two participants completed with their answer by the end of the first course, I try to squeeze in three for the main course and we finish with the last two or three over desert and tea/coffee/digestif.
In the prior Dialogos post, I exposed a few of the dinners that stood out as exceptional. There were many more that I could have explained. As I mentioned, sometimes if not many times, the guests will completely eclipse us and/or be entirely responsible for making the evening unique. For example, we had a theme around LIGHT and one of our guests (unbeknownst to us previously) was the manager of an events company. As a result, we got a light show, complemented by an ebullient entrepreneur, emcee and show maestro in his own right. It turns out she was also a tremendously experienced free-diver who was able to describe the experience of light from some 50 meters below the water’s surface, without use of oxygen. We also had an extraordinary display of light with a Chinese twist. Our salon was transformed, as a result, into a disco club. If you stand back and let it happen, who knows what magic will occur.
Act 3: Nexus to vortex
The third act of the evening is all about seeing where and how the dust settles. The physical move back to the salon inevitably puts in motion another energy. Staying attentive to avoid the falling back into banal conversation, most times I don’t need to do anything as the group consistently settles into more open conversations. When things go well, the connections made through the ‘left field’ entries during dinner will lead to all sorts of wide-ranging discussions, far removed from the theme. With an eye on the energies and ongoing exchanges, the dinner can slip into the “vortex” moment, when time just glides by and the guests will stay into the small hours of the next day. It’s a most gratifying thing to experience.
A flight to safety?
In today’s society, the notion of creating a safe space to hold conversations is frequently invoked. Between political correctness, an evolving vocabulary (not to forget emojis and GIFs), and trigger topics, it can be hard to navigate a conversation with people you don’t know well. And even then, it can be difficult. For our dinner parties, I have pondered the question about how safe a space should we create? It’s a tricky balance since one of the key objectives of our parties is to explore and experiment. If we stuck to polite conversation, we surely wouldn’t get far. As the authors of Crucial Conversations wrote, it’s useful to have a mutual purpose and a mutual respect. For our dinner parties, which are more about entertainment, adventure and surprise, this comes in the form of setting the objective (which I expand on in the preamble) and the tone (that comes through the setting and the careful curation of our guests). From the opening, as the compère, I maintain an eye of people’s moods, reactions and engagement. Something I’ve learned is that by being open and frank at the beginning helps to kickstart the sharing. Whenever I see conversations veering down paths that could be tricky, I kick in to moderator role, paying attention to everyone, especially those whose affinities or feelings could be more prone to offence. But, on balance, I rely on everyone as caring and social adults to go forward and dare to say what’s on their mind. Even, to dare to disagree. We need to learn again how to confront opinions, challenge false “facts” or fake news, and overcome differences without getting overly touchy or irate. I know I get much greater satisfaction and elation by having robust and meaningful conversations in a respectful manner. What about you?
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