entertaining at home

Notes on Hosting Friends at Home.

After what felt like a two-year drought, our social lives are at the brim. I made it a top priority to (aggressively!) reconnect with friends and family when we moved back to the D.C. area in July, and we have done a lot of hosting at our new home, which still feels like a delicious novelty after Manhattan living, where (pre-COVID) friends would perch on the arms of the sofa in our living room or we’d drag x-benches in from the bedroom to create extra seating around our tiny drop-leaf dining table. Here in suburbia, there are chairs galore! Space to move around! A porch with both a dining table and a sitting area that have been a God-send during these COVID times! (All the exclamation points!!!). And so we have giddily invited rounds of friends and family to outdoor happy hours and dinners on our porch, and it has been a heady refresher in the logistics of hosting. Below, a few thoughts…

  1. The ideal dinner party size is six. Four is lovely and intimate, but six is a downright festive affair. And eight is too many. Trust me. With six, everyone can still participate in the conversation but there is room to break off in smaller side-chats if appealing. With eight or more, the conversation is inevitably, permanently fractured, or it feels like “ahem, the speaker has the floor” if you attempt to boom over the chit-chat to engage everyone.
  2. If possible, we have a neighborhood teen come by and play with the children during the day, while doing as much meal prep and mise-en-place as possible. This means we can get a lot of the work out of the way ahead of time, without the onus of parenting while attempting to dice onions. I also feel it sets a much more leisurely and enjoyable pace for the event — I am actually able to enjoy the process! Which is the whole point, right? I am having friends over! This should be fun!
  3. If further possible, I use the last hour of that sitter’s time to shower, blow-dry hair, maybe do a mask, and get fully dressed for dinner. I love feeling put-together and being able to enjoy the getting-ready process. It makes the dinner party feel that much more special. My favorite vibe for at-home dinner parties is barefeet with a cinch-waisted midi/maxi dress, loose waves, and statement earrings — pulled together but not too fancy. A few favorite seasonally-appropriate dresses of this sort: this Summersalt, this Mille (I own in a different colorway), this Boden (I own in the “figgy pudding” color), this Veronica Beard, this cord Daydress, this Wiggy Kit, this Ralph Lauren, this Target, this LR, this bronze SEA, and this Daphne Wilde.
  4. I always try to run all of the errands (including purchase of fresh flowers, picking out wines) and completed all the chores (i.e., ironing table linens — some chic fall tabletop finds here) the day before the dinner party. Again, the aim is enjoying the gathering! I hate when I’m running around like a chicken with her head cut off just before guests are arriving.
  5. Mr. Magpie and I always talk through the menu days and days in advance. We prioritize dishes that can be prepared ahead of time or par-cooked, and that will be fairly easy to pull together at the end, i.e., we are not going to be making risotto or grits that need to be stirred and monitored over a hot stove for 20-40 minutes while guests are lingering in the background. We’ve oven outruled pizza because it always feels like a lot of last minute prepping and opening and closing the oven, and then the pizzas come out at different times and Mr. Magpie is never sitting down while it’s hot. Dishes like French potato salad, on the other hand, that only improve by sitting in their own vinaigrette at room temperature, are perfect for this reason. Fresh pasta, if rolled out ahead of time, is also an attractive option because it takes only a minute or two in boiling water to cook and then you can toss with the pre-made condimento and be done with it. (And it’s always such a dramatic presentation! Who doesn’t love fresh pasta?!). I’m a fan of pork loin roast as a fall dinner party dish because you can marinate/brine it ahead of time and put it in the oven when guests arrive and then just tent until ready to eat. (Look up Zuni’s pork loin recipe — the brine is so simple but yields the most succulent, well-seasoned meat!)
  6. I always (!) prepare dessert ahead of time, sometimes the night before, even if it’s a pie — I just return to the oven at 300 for 20 minutes to heat through again. If I’m too busy/overwhelmed to bake from scratch, great ice cream or sorbet is always a fabulous ending to a meal that requires zero work. My favorite ice cream brands are Jeni’s and Ample Hills, and Mr. Magpie’s is Van Leeuwen. Make it fun by serving up in coupe and adding one of those old-fashioned Pepperidge Farm pirouette cookies on the side! Old-school is in! (Trust me — shrimp cocktail is making a comeback!) My sister also sometimes serves up sorbet in a coupe topped with champagne, and it is SO fun and festive and easy!
  7. Mr. Magpie and I indicate to our guests the timing, i.e., “why don’t you come by around x and we’ll eat around y.” This ensures people know what to expect and aren’t wondering if they should load up on the appetizers. It gives a nice structure to the evening, too, and helps us backward-plan the logistics, which usually involves a delicate hand-off around bedtime for the children. We predesignate which of us will own the bedtime routine and which of us will entertain the guests at that time.
  8. Even if we have a proper appetizer planned, I like to set out nibbles by the wine glasses, on coffee tables, etc — things like marcona almonds, olives, cheese twists, Ranch crackers, high-end kettle chips (bonus points if truffle flavored), Virginia peanuts, cheez-its. I love to serve a variety of these items in a little condiment server like this or this. If you’re serving olives, I have a little dish for discarded pits and eat one olive in advance and place a pit in there so people know where they go! If heartier appetizers are being served, these are the BEST tiny plates for nibbles. It’s nice to have plates on hand versus napkins if there are bigger bites served – gives people a home for their crumbs, toothpicks, napkins, etc.
  9. We have music playing and candles lit well in advance of guests arriving. Good lighting and good music make everything feel inviting and can completely change the atmosphere. Plus, the house never feels quiet if there’s a break in conversation! For newer friends and older relatives, we usually put on Apple Music’s “Piano Bar Playlist,” which feels like it was borrowed from Bemelman’s Bar. For younger/closer friends, I put on my more eclectic dinner party mix, which has pieces from Lake Street Dive to Redbone to Taylor Swift.
  10. I pour myself a glass of wine before the first guest arrived — so inviting to come to a house where the party is already started, and I also find that guests have less hesitation in selecting a drink. Easier to say: “I’ll have what you’re having / whatever’s open!” (For example, if I have it in mind that I want to start the evening with a champagne cocktail, it’s easier to make people feel comfortable asking for one if I’m already enjoying one! As a footnote, if we have a specialty cocktail in mind, we’ll try to mix up a batch ahead of time, or at least pre-squeeze the citrus so everything is at the ready and it doesn’t feel like a fuss.)

What are your hosting secrets?

Post-Scripts.

+Notes on entertaining girlfriends at home.

+Notes on date nights at home.

+A simple and delicious weeknight meal.

+My favorite pasta dish of all time.

+When was the last time you felt really happy?

Shopping Break.

+I had a lot of questions about the tiered corduroy dress I wore on Instagram a few days ago, too. It is this Boden in the figgy pudding color. I took a 2P, and I’m usually a size 0 (5’0, 100 lbs) and it fits perfectly. I went with petite because I thought the length would be better — wanted it to actually be a midi length on me in this style. I have a girlfriend who is bustier than I am who bought her true size and returned it for a size up — just a heads up in case you’re in a similar boat that it runs fairly narrow in the chest.

+I wore the dress with some vintage oversized pearl earrings I inherited from my grandmother and have had a few inquiries about where to find something similar — you can find a treasure trove of fabulous vintage Kenneth Jay Lanes on Etsy like this, this, and this that look very similar.

+Speaking of KJL, I own this exact pair of 1980s KJL gold bow earrings (another pair here) and bring them out every holiday season. So fun!

+I wore the Boden dress with quilted Chanel captoes, but you can get a similar look for less with these discounted Stuart Weitzmans or these Margaux flats.

+Speaking of shoes – I have been hunting for black velvet or suede platform sandals for the winter season to pair with tights and tartan nap dresses — call me fully influenced by Nell Diamond! — but I have some specs. Part of me wants plain black velvet ones from Miu Miu (look for less here or here) but then part of me wants something with embellishment, like Nicola Bathie’s pair for Dillards, or these glitzy Miu-Mius, but I am a little intimidated by the heel height at this life stage. Like, will I really wear those around, even just for an evening here and there? The lower-heeled versions are more compelling. What say you, chorus?

+Another fabulous holiday or wedding guest shoe (under $200) in versatile black.

+A smart travel accessory for a husband — good gift for a frequent traveler.

+If you missed out on the cord overalls from Old Navy last week (sold out in a flash), Boden has some really cute ones in navy cord that feel kind of dressy/festive!

+I adore this velvet green ribbon – I bought a spool last holiday season and it’s the perfect shade of olive.

+Adore this burnished silver tray.

+Tempted by this $27 wrapping paper station with close to 13,000 five star reviews. I currently use a combination of plastic bins to keep my bows, tags, paper sorted…

+This puffer jacket is so, so good.

+Devastated that these gorgeous napkins in the “allure” color won’t be shipped until late December. Talk about the perfect napkin for a Thanksgiving table! The “cozy christmas” print is pretty fabulous though (so unexpected with the gray) and I’m eyeing the “english ivy” color for my Thanksgiving table now.

+Did you get what you wanted from the HHH launch? I did manage to snag the burgundy Jasmine velvet (!) — it was a game-time decision, because I was tempted by the Akilah but at the end of the day my girlfriend said she thought the statement sleeves on the Jasmine were really fun and I thought — you know, it will be winter, and the sleeves will make it more wearable…so went that way. I want to pair with the velvet/suede platforms I end up buying for Thanksgiving and probably these velvet and pearl drops, which I own in burgundy.

+A lot of us missed out on the HHH cropped cable knit cardigan (too cute) — some similar options below:

THIS REFORMATION

THIS ALICE AND OLIVIA

THIS PEARL-STUDDED ZARA

THIS J. CREW

THIS BOXY SOMETHING NAVY

THIS & OTHER STORIES

LOVESHACKFANCY

+Everlane liner jacket season is upon us. Have been wearing this coat daily.

+Speaking of Everlane, their iconic alpaca crew is on sale for $75 today only. And this sweater of theirs is my favorite sweater of the season. So chic in the kalamata color. Also eyeing this cropped cardigan in the brown.

+It’s hard to buy out of season right now because there is so much good compelling stuff for holiday, but this summery dress from Emerson Fry is a ray of summer sunshine.

+This quilted, cropped puffer is technically from the “teen” collection but…j’adore!

+This etched glassware set is so pretty.

+This rustic bell set reminds me of the ones I was eyeing at Ballard — cute attached to a garland/swag for the holidays.

+More fab holiday decor here.

+Statement evening look: this blouse with this pearl hair clip.

+A serum stick! Genius!

+This dress has just enough sauciness to balance out the little house on the prairie vibes. Love the nipped-in waist.

17 Comments

  1. Wow, I love this post so much! I would love to hear more about what dishes/menus are your ‘go-tos’ – I find choosing the menu is always the hardest part!

    1. Thank you, Lauren! Will do – going to try to share more recipes and menus in the future, especially now that we’re hosting a lot more frequently! Glad you enjoyed 🙂 xx

  2. Great tips. Here’s my tip for the other side, the party-goer. After first asking if I can help (and usually getting turned down), I’ll go fix myself a drink and introduce myself to someone I don’t know. Takes a bit of stress off the host and helps get the party atmosphere going. Or offer to pass a plate of appetizers , which also helps facilitate chatting.

    1. Oo! Love a guest like you. But also, will remember to pay this forward next time I’m hosted by a friend!

      xx

  3. This is so inspiring! I love hosting and these are great tips.

    Semi-related question (that maybe you have already answered in a previous post…) — if you had to choose one cookbook, what would it be? Want to throw one on my Christmas list 🙂

    1. Oo great question. If you love pasta, go with our favorite pasta book:

      https://bit.ly/3B5o0aG

      More generally, I have never made a single thing out of the Southern cookbook that hasn’t been superb and many of the items have been repeats in our house, which is truly a high form of praise:

      https://bit.ly/3ngMsB2

      Finally, Zuni!!!! For technique mainly. I mean, you learn how to make the best roast chicken and the best pork loin on the planet, among other things.

      https://bit.ly/3B8FKln

      xxx

  4. The make- and shop-ahead tip is such a sanity-saver! Last weekend, I ordered the Blue Ribbon fried chicken dinner kit from Goldbelly and that was even easier (eyeing the bo ssam from momofuko next!). And agree on having the music and drinks going beforehand. My husband tends to play DJ, which means ALOT of country (turnpike troubadours, kasey musgraves, tons of Dolly), but I’m bookmarking that piano-bar playlist for thanksgiving! One recent wrench in our hospitality has been my daughter’s new preferred bedtime of 630, which means that our guests either have to come later (and thus need to find sitter), or I miss the meat of the gathering whilst putting her down. As you say, it’s just a season of life! But one I’d like to address before the holiday season really ramps up.

    1. Love the idea of ordering ahead from Goldbelly — brilliant! My parents have ordered amazing things like truffle mac and cheese and lobster rolls using them. Tucking that away for a future gathering idea — thank you!

      Oh I know — the bedtime routine can be so disruptive to having guests. It is a short season but it does complicate things, doesn’t it??

      xx

  5. Call me fully influenced by you Jen, because I also bought the figgy pudding corduroy dress (my first Boden purchase)! I know we are always eager for fit notes so just wanted to share I’m a true 10, broad shouldered and a 34D, and I did not need to size up! The 10 fit me perfectly and the buttons did not gap at the chest. I wore with black tights and black booties on a chilly day and even my hard to please sister conceded I looked “fall chic”!
    From HHH I ordered the Jasmine in emerald and I’m so anxiously awaiting its arrival because I really want to love it…

    1. Ooo we truly are twins! Love both of these dresses and similarly excited to receive my Jasmine!! Will you wear on Thanksgiving?

      xx

  6. Arrrrrgh! Dying to wear a pair of platforms for Thanksgiving, but I’m hosting 27. And I’m probably your mothers age. So probably not? What are our more practical options? I’m definitely wearing a dress maybe the clay colored Mille? Please help!

    1. Hi Kim! I so hear you – I’m not sure the platforms are practical for me, and I’m hosting much fewer and not doing as much of the legwork in the kitchen as you probably are (my husband will be doing most of it). I LOVE that Mille dress!!! If you want to go with a flat, I love the ones in either velvet or the rust Schumacher print from Margaux:

      https://bit.ly/3B4cpsf

      https://bit.ly/3B4cADV

      They are festive and chic but also comfortable! If you want something dressier, I would do the Manolo Maysale in a fall suede:

      https://bit.ly/3C1LjmV

      You can get the look for less with these:

      https://bit.ly/3m7a7EG

      Although I do want to caveat that I bought the flat variation of this shoe (https://bit.ly/393TqCw) and though I love them and wear them, a reader pointed out that the picture is not the same as the shoe that arrives, which is slightly wider and has a slightly higher heel. Not a problem for me but do want to point out that the picture is not 100% accurate. This brand also has a fun flat “inspired by” Aquazzura’s powder puff style that would be cute:

      https://bit.ly/3vBljMC

      A bootie could also work with that dress — I love these ones:

      https://bit.ly/2ZbEUHp

      Last but not least, I’ve been seeing a lot of chic peas wearing velvet Mary Janes, which feels just right for the holiday:

      https://bit.ly/3C7ZWVU

      https://bit.ly/3vAQFmI

      https://bit.ly/3aYr8KO

      https://bit.ly/3B3X2Qr

      xxx

    2. Thank you so much for all the fabulous shoe suggestions! I hope you and your adorable family have a wonderful Thanksgiving! Xx

  7. What wonderful tips to remind me of many things I’ve forgotten in this two-year hiatus (and to teach me things I haven’t known before!) I’m keeping many of them in mind for the black tie dinner dance we have for work NEXT SATURDAY, which seems so surreal…! that it’s finally here after three years of planning. So many can translate well to that, as I am the unofficial hostess, I suppose, as the Director of the organization.

    Also, I *love* that Zuni pork loin. That was the first cookbook that truly prompted an interest in cooking. I have many fond memories flipping through it in the kitchen of my aunt’s house in Eastern Market, and learning to cook with her.

    I’m bookmarking this post for when we start entertaining again! 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend, Jen!

    1. Yay!! Your black tie event sounds fabulous! I’m so glad you agree on the Zuni recipe. It’s truly a marvel — so easy and simple yet yields the most succulent, complex flavor.

      xx

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