How To Host a Real Dinner Party in a (Small) City Apartment
There comes a time in every cramped apartment-dweller’s life when you have to bite the brisket and host your first real dinner party. Maybe it’s your turn to host Friendsgiving, or maybe you need an excuse to try out some recipes from your (my) favorite big batch cookbook. Whatever the reason, entertaining 6+ people in a small space can feel less like entertaining and more like a doomed game of Tetris if you don’t do it right. But worry not—I’ve hosted enough disastrous dinner parties in my swell of small apartments to have learned a few valuable lessons to pass on.
The great skittish bake-off
First thing you’ll want to do is prepare as much of your meal ahead of time as possible. Good things to cook or make ahead of time are soups, salads, ready-to-bake hors d’oeuvres, pickled side dishes, and most desserts. A general rule of thumb when cooking a ton of food for a lot of people is to go with what you know. I know, I know…we’d all love to wow our friends with double-crust hand pies and savory soufflés. But trust me, attempting even a simple recipe for the first time when you’ve got a handful of dishes in the oven, people buzzing in early, and Derrick who should really have been here like two hours ago with the extra chairs—WHERE ARE YOU, DERRICK!?—well, it can get difficult. If you really want to try something adventurous, just do a trial run the week before and let your coworkers or neighbors reap the results.
Since you’ll probably be limited to four burners and an oven, I highly recommend buying a versatile crockpot. If you use it in advance, it’ll free up some much-needed prep space and you won’t have to worry about things getting cold while everything else finishes (just set it to warm). This should go without saying, but don’t assume all of your guests are gluten indifferent or hungry for animals. Ask first, or be clear about what’s being served in your invite. It’s also just good practice to make a substantial side that everyone can enjoy so you’re prepared.
Speaking of being prepared, you’re going to want to go ahead and clean out your fridge well before game day. People will usually arrive with something in hand (obviously make more room if you’re hosting a potluck) and space runs out quickly. If someone asks you what to bring but you’re dead-set on cooking everything, think twice before turning down a simple salad or dessert. (Yes, even if it disrupts your meticulously planned theme. It’ll get eaten.)
Feng shui for sardines
After the menu is squared away, it’s time to transform your apartment into a high-capacity subway car. That means taking everything that doesn’t add to the form or function of the party and sticking it in a closet or under the bed. This is especially important if you’re having an unprecedented number of guests, because people take up a lot more space than you think. Make enough room, then make some more. Folding tables and chairs are a smart solution for any space, but look around for anything that could support a human’s weight and fit around the table (stools, end tables, milk crates, coffee tables).
It also might be time to buy your first serving utensils, carving knives, or extra plate- and glassware. For the thrifty hosts out there, I can’t recommend visiting your local Goodwill and thrift stores enough. They’re usually teeming with decanters, cloth napkins/tablecloths, trays, and cookware on the cheap. (Double score if you’re into the mismatched or vintage look.) If you’re feeling crafty and classy, check out how to make your own affordable marble place cards and geometric cork coasters.
Jump in the line
When it comes to serving dinner with limited space, you’ll need to be smart about how and where it all goes down. More often than not, that means going buffet-style whenever you can. Depending on your layout, you might want to set up the serving station in one room and the dining area in another. It sounds like it takes up more room this way, but trying to individually plate food for 6+ people almost never ends well. Or you could always enlist the help of a few plating partners if presentation is key.
Another helpful tip: serve your dishes in glassware that you can easily put away—preferably glass Tupperware. That way you can just throw a lid on it and be done!
Do you have a dishwasher? If so, I hate you. If not, I have a revelatory product that will make all of your end-of-meal anxieties go away—the bus bucket! Discreetly stored behind restaurant bars across the country, the humble bus bucket is going to keep your kitchen sink and dinner table from becoming a dirty dish factory. Just ask guests to make sure their plates are clean and then toss them into the bucket after dinner, storing it out of site or draping a towel over it. This will make it easier to move the evening along without an awkward hour-long pause for dishwashing. (Just don’t forget about them.)
End on a high note
A good dinner party isn’t just about the dinner—it’s about the whole night. The more prepared and less stressed-out you are, the more relaxed your friends will be. End the evening with a fun game (maybe avoid charades if you’re tight on space and opt for Heads Up! instead) or some good old-fashioned conversation. Have fun!