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Modern manners for supper parties

In the olden days, the rules for entertaining were all very clear-cut. Guests arrived promptly at 7.30pm. They were offered sherry, sweet or dry. They sat where they were told and were served three traditional courses. Everyone complimented the hostess and, in a timely fashion, collected their coats and tootled off home.

But these days, supper is a less formal affair. For which we rejoice. But it does bring its own set of quandaries. Do you serve or stash the wine they bring? Who should sit where? And how on earth do you steer the conversation away from a topic that can split the table?

Here’s our guide to managing the manners of a modern supper party. So your evening is memorable for all the right reasons…

Get the right mix

The number one ingredient for a fantastic evening is your guests. Tempting though it is to invite the same old favourites every time, adding to the ranks is what keeps a dinner party fresh. A gentle mix of people with some common ground (but not so much that they’ve said it all last time) is the aim.

Sitting comfortably

Think about who sits where too. You don’t need place cards – unless it’s a big event, or you have a legendary talent for calligraphy. But do guide people as they sit down. Got a quiet friend? Sit him (or her) next to a more outgoing guest who loves a listener. Avoid two extroverts next to each other; they can end up dominating the table.

Girls and boys

Seating your guests as girl, boy, girl, boy is a reliable order. Asking everyone to swap seats is no longer de rigueur: it interrupts the natural flow of the evening’s conversation and always feels a little too forced. There’s always opportunity for more circulation when you move onto coffees in the sitting room.

Cheers to that

Get things off to a sparkling start by serving cocktails as guests arrive. It makes an evening feel that bit more special. Have a drinks tray or trolley at the ready. Bellinis are perfect in summer or Old Fashioneds as the nights draw in (see our favourite Old Fashioned recipe).

Don’t forget the non-drinkers. Sparkling water with ice and a slice, or elderflower cordial with fresh mint and lime are good standbys.

Bottle etiquette

It’s a modern-day conundrum. When guests arrive brandishing a fine wine, do you save it for yourselves? Tempting if it’s a lovely vintage. Or open it to share right now? This is one time when it’s good to refer to the etiquette of the past. Historically, bringing a bottle was to replenish the host’s wine cellar. It was never intended to add to the evening’s wine menu, which would have been carefully selected in advance. Times have changed, but this is still a useful rule of thumb.

Say it with flowers

A bouquet is a tried and tested gift. Only problem is, they're presented just when you are trying to make sure everyone is introduced and has a drink. Tricky, while also juggling a bunch of blooms. Solution? Brief your spouse/a friend/spare child in advance so they can whisk them off and put them in water. As a guest, consider giving an original, edible gift instead. A jar of special, local honey or a box of beautiful artisan biscuits are nice alternatives.

Serving with a smile

The key to a relaxed supper party is dishes that are largely prepared in advance. If the meal lends itself, lay side dishes along the table and a gorgeous salad or a bread board in the centre. There’s something very generous and welcoming about presenting a shared bowl to the table. It fosters a mood of caring, sharing, chatting and passing things along.

Stormy waters

Brexit. Schools. Bike lanes. Dogs. If you’ve got an argumentative type, any subject is like a red rag to a bull. So have a diversionary tactic at the ready. Before people arrive, have a mini brainstorm: Things We Can Talk About. New films, books, local events, planned holidays. Then, if things get a bit heated, you can say something like, ‘Sorry to go a bit off-topic, but I was wondering what people thought of…’

Finish with a flourish

“The fire is lit next door, shall we take our coffees through?” People generally need a prompt – and a reason to relocate to the comfier seats. And, if things are going on a little too long into the night? One way to wind things up by talking in the past tense. “This has been such a good night, hasn’t it?” or “I knew you would get on with Jane and Richard – we must do this again.”

Give thanks

A handwritten thank you note from guests takes next to no time, but is always appreciated. As the host, you don’t need to write back, but a call or email to say thank you for helping to make a lovely evening is a nice way to reciprocate. Now, all that remains is to sit back, relax… and hopefully receive a few return invitations.

Gather family, rally friends

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Words by Jo Leevers.

About the author
Jo Leevers writes for some of the UK's most acclaimed lifestyle magazines and national newspapers, from The Telegraph to Homes & Antiques.