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Special Design Issue | Cover Story

The Art of Entertaining

Dinner parties are back, but formality is not. Think intimate late-night gatherings with an eclectic guest list and a surprising presentation. In the pages that follow, Southern Californians show us the next wave of party-giving.

November 10, 2002|DAVID LANSING | David Lansing last wrote for the magazine on home offices.

There's this actress, I tell Tim Hosier, manager of the boutique home store Maison Midi, who, according to a story I read in the New York Times, throws 15 dinner parties during her season in New York City, which runs from September through May.

"Yes?" Tim says, only half-listening as he pulls from the shelf two delicate Moroccan tea glasses I am purchasing for a dinner party of my own.

"She never plays music at her parties because she thinks it's distracting, and she doesn't serve hors d'oeuvres because she thinks they just fill people up."

"And?" Hosier says, holding up the glasses for me to admire.

"And she always serves the exact same dinner menu--chicken, rice, and peas."

I tell Tim this story because, like a lot of people, I'm finding more excuses to entertain at home these days rather than go out. But I worry that my parties are not structured enough--not as formal as they should be.

"She sounds like the party hostess from hell," he says, wrapping my new finds in brown tissue paper. "That's not at all how we throw parties in Los Angeles."

I ask him how it's done. "A good party should be casual but elegant," Hosier says.

The fact that people are doing more entertaining at home seems indisputable, though whether that's a result of a softening economy and a born-again passion for smelling the roses along the way or simply the logical offspring of Martha Stewart-cocooning and smart retail marketing, as trend analyst and retail consultant David Wolfe contends, is up for debate. "People definitely are buying more of what's known as 'tablescapes'--all those accessories for setting the table: napkin rings, very ornate napkins and place mats, huge wine glasses and goblets. We now have to have a whole wardrobe of table settings. And with so many gourmet prepared foods available, it's easy to give a really nice dinner party."

Hosting a dinner party may be easy, but there's still an art to entertaining and anyone who's ever left a party shaking their head while mumbling to a companion "What was that all about?" knows exactly what I mean. "A good host or hostess is like a movie director or the choreographer for a show," says David Tutera, who, in addition to writing "A Passion for Parties," has made a name for himself as an event planner to the stars.

Like Hosier, Tutera sees a big difference in the trends between East and West Coast entertaining. "We don't really go for the three-hour dinner with multiple courses in LA," he says. "People want to move around and mingle. And chicken and peas would never do. I go for fun food."

Which is why he recommends late-night dessert parties, particularly during the holidays. "That way people don't have to be so time conscious about when they get there, and it allows them to sneak out of some other party if it's bad." A favorite Tutera concept is to host a party with a self-service bar stocked with specialty dessert drinks, such as peppermint martinis, and let the guests help themselves. "I'll put the recipes in frames and prop them on the bar and watch while everyone plays bartender. It's hilarious."

Cocktails, of course, remain the fun element at a good party whether you're serving sparkling wine or something a little more interesting, such as a black martini.

In today's market the demand is increasing for wine goblets that are 16 or even 24 ounces; updated Casablanca highball glasses tinted purple, in a nod to retro styles; and oversized martini glasses named Garbo or Rhapsody that look like angular flower vases on stems.

But bigger doesn't necessarily mean splashier or gaudy. "Entertaining is all about fun these days because people aren't trying so hard to impress anyone," says Bette Kahn, a spokeswoman for Crate & Barrel's corporate headquarters in Chicago. Toward that end, the company has reintroduced housewares--such as red enamelware from Dansk--that it hasn't carried in more than 30 years.

Diane Worthington, a food writer and author of 15 books on cooking and entertaining, including her newest, "Seriously Simple: Easy Recipes for Creative Cooks," agrees that "casual elegance" best sums up her favorite dinner parties. "Entertaining in Southern California is definitely less uptight," she says from her home in the San Fernando Valley. "People don't want fancy sterling at the table and they don't want to eat big, heavy meals. We want fun dishes. I'll make a Mediterranean chicken with olives, which can be made ahead, and serve it with roasted vegetables. Or butternut squash soup with chipotle cream in bright, colorful bowls."

Remember the purpose of hosting any sort of party, says Worthington. "You want to provide an intimate setting that encourages lively conversation. You want people to enjoy themselves. And nobody will have a good time if the host is stressed out."

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