A few months ago, a friend of mine recommended that I write a post about how to be a good dinner party guest. Certainly, I spend so much time writing and talking about how to host dinner parties—you know I could go all day and all night on that topic. But I’ve never talked about how to be a good guest…until today!
Here are a few thoughts, and I’d love to know what you think—what did I miss? What makes a great guest in your eyes?
1. Come on time, or let the host know via text that you’ll be late, and exactly how late. This is not the time to say “Be there in 5” if you’re actually 30 minutes away. Your host is keeping multiple things hot on the stove, trying to figure out when to move guests to the table, and knowing for real what time you’ll arrive is a gift to him or her.
2. Don’t show up with someone unexpectedly. Don’t show up without someone unexpectedly. For an open house or a cocktail party, this is totally no big deal. But if it’s a seated dinner party, your host has planned for an exact number, and it’s a hassle to pull plates or add them last minute.
For a while, I was a totally softie about last-minute additions, and then at a certain point, I decided that it had to be okay sometimes to just say—kindly, of course—No, I’m sorry, I can’t add one more this time. It’s hard for me to say that, but as I was planning one particular party years ago, I finally put my foot down.
And then one of the single guys I’d invited asked me day-of if he could bring a date. I took a deep breath, and I said no. I explained that there were twelve of us already, and that I have everything in sets of twelve. I explained that adding one more person would really cause a lot of extra work.
He nodded. He didn’t mind at all, he said, bringing a tv tray and a plate, cup, and fork from home. He’d really like to bring her.
I stared at him. This was my big stand, my look-Henry-Cloud-I-have-boundaries moment. And this dude was going to bring a big gulp cup and a tv tray to my dinner party? I gave up. He brought her, and I sped around after work and before the party, trying to make the perfectly set table for twelve look like a perfectly quirky mismatched table for thirteen, with two sets of dishes and one person who got stuck with a kid-sized fork.
The moral of the story: that was probably eight years ago. I have not forgotten. Don’t be that guy.
3. Offer to bring something, and if the host doesn’t take you up on it, bring a little gift.
My favorite host or hostess gifts: a fancy bottle of jam, a pound of good coffee. A sweet tea towel is a great idea, and as the Farmers Markets open, a pint of berries or peaches would be fantastic.
Flowers are always a treat, as long as you bring them in a vase or jar that you can leave there—the last thing a busy hostess needs is one more thing to do as she’s welcoming everyone, so finding a vase and trimming cut flowers is not something you want to sign her up for.
I would absolutely love a bottle of your favorite vinegar, and if you want to be my number-one all-time favorite person alive, you’d bring me a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, my favorite champagne.
4. If the host does ask you to bring something, bring it as close to ready-to-serve as possible, and if you need kitchen items to complete it, bring them. For example: the host asks you to bring a salad, and you bring the salad with the dressing in a separate container, so when you arrive, you dress and toss the salad. This is lovely.
Another example: the host asks you to bring a flatbread pizza as an appetizer. You show up with flatbread, and a shopping bag. All you need, really, is a cheese grater, a cutting board, a pizza stone, the oven turned up to 500, and some fresh basil, if the host happens to have some. This is a no.
5. Offer to help. Sometimes a host will say no, and that’s fine, but more often, they’ll be thrilled to have you slice bread or pour wine or light candles. When the host gets up to start the dessert process, hop up and bring in the dinner plates, or offer to scoop ice cream or slice cake. The host can always shoo you back to the table, but it’s a great feeling to know that people are willing to pitch in along the way.
6. Show interest in the food. I’m not saying you have to do a full What about Bob? (“Faye, Faye, is this corn hand-shucked?”), but your host did put a lot of time and energy into the menu, and it’s a gift to them to notice it, ask about it, tell them what you like about it. Think about something you love to do–let’s say you’re a photographer. Someone’s looking at your work–does it bother you to be asked about lighting or your camera or whatever? I bet you love being asked about how you do what you do, and cooks are the same way.
Ask where they found the recipe, or why they chose it. Tell them you like how spicy the carne asada is, or how rich the cake is. Enter into the whole experience, and let the cook know that you’re paying attention to what they’ve created for you.
7. Say thank you. I never ever expect a hand-written thank you note after a dinner party, but a text on the way home that says, “Wow! What a fun night! The soup was delicious!” makes my night, and makes all the work worth it. Always, always say thank you.
What did I miss? What does it take to be a great dinner party guest in your eyes? And what are your go-to hostess or host gifts?