We entertain a lot. For us, it’s the best way to combine two things that we love to do: See friends and cook food. Hardly a weekend goes by when we don’t have someone over, whether its our parents (grilled yogurt-marinated chicken), our daughter’s piano teacher and her husband (grilled fish tacos with pineapple salsa), or our favorite babysitter (Korean pancakes). This past weekend, we had a dinner party for eight, and, to lessen the host’s load a bit, everybody came with something delicious, which was lovely: Prosecco and cured meats, ingredients for a special cocktail, and best of all, Sara’s homemade graham crackers and homemade marshmallows for homemade s’mores, which — as we were eating them outside under the patio lights, dyyhhing of happiness and gratitude — really reminded us about all the things that make a dinner guest a good dinner guest. Forty-one things to be exact. Here goes:
1. Don’t start eating before the host sits down. Even when the host says, “The steak is getting cold! Don’t wait for me to sit down!”
2. If the host doesn’t remember to raise a glass before eating, there should be nothing stopping you from doing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be clever or profound. A simple “Cheers, thanks, it’s so great to see you guys” will do.
3. “Cheers to you guys, we honestly never thought you’d make it this long” will not.
4. Try not to come empty-handed. A small host gift is always appreciated, especially when that small host gift is a 90-year-old, leather bound, playing-card size book of English poetry from something called the “Little Leather Library” that happens to contain the very poem your host’s father read to her on her wedding day. (Linda and Hubert, you guys win Dinner Guests of the Year.)
5. A tiny Weck jar filled with homemade purple-basil infused simple syrup that, drizzled over some gin and ice, upgrades the evening’s cocktail hour exponentially? Yeah, that works, too. (Simone, a very close second.)
6. We are big fans of giving farm market host gifts — a dozen fresh eggs, good bacon from that upstate farm, the pomegranate chutney we can only get a few times a year — but there is nothing wrong with a bottle of wine, ever.
7. Sick of bringing wine? Good news: Olive Oil is the New Wine.
8. If you’re an extremely generous guest and you bring a $260 bottle of pre-chilled chablis to someone’s house, only to see the host put it in the back of the refrigerator and pour you a tall glass of the already-opened Yellow Tail Chardonnay instead, you must swallow hard and take what’s coming to you. This is known as the Host’s Prerogative, and it must be respected.
9. If you are an extremely generous guest and you bring a $260 bottle of pre-chilled chablis to someone’s house, and the host opens it on the spot, there is no need to remind everyone, with each sip, that they are drinking a $260 bottle of chablis.
10. While any gift is of course appreciated, think twice before you bring cut flowers. As nice as they are, they force a busy host to stop making dinner and root around for a vase.
11. Unless you bring then already arranged in the vase, that is. That them there is class!
12. If there is no clear seating arrangement at dinner, resist the urge to sit next to your spouse.
13. If there is no clear seating arrangement at dinner, resist the urge to break down along gender lines — there’s nothing more depressing than delivering on the stereotype, and realizing one side of the table is talking about book club and the other is talking about the Yankees.
14. The host should never be cooking alone in the kitchen while everyone else is enjoying an purple basil-infused glass of gin on the patio. It’s nice to hang out with him or her, offer to help, and if she declines, keep her company.
15. An aversion is not an allergy. Try your best to choke down what’s on your plate — even if you don’t like it.
16. Hands off the Sonos, bro.
17. Unless your babysitter is calling, don’t answer it.
18. For that matter, iPhones off the table. Unless what’s on your plate is too pretty not to instagram or it’s time to show a few good vacation pics, keep it in your pocket.
19. Speaking of instagram. Tagging your host in the shot of the grilled short ribs? Flattering! Moving your plate of the grilled short ribs to the spot on the table with the best light and prop-styling with salt cellars? Annoying. (I’m so sorry, Todd. I still feel awful about that night.)
20. When the vacation pics happen — and they will happen — feign interest in all 780 iPhone photos of your host’s trip to Istanbul, including the ones of stray cats.
21. Always a home run conversation topic: Your neighbors.
22. Never a home run conversation topic: Politics, religion, the weather, your carpool schedule, your bunions.
23. Three words: Enthusiasm, curiosity, and gratitude.
24. If you’re not the dinner party type, an open house around the holidays is a great way to deal with overdue reciprocating. Kill every bird with one stone.
25. Fifteen minutes late is a relief. Thirty is acceptable. An hour is borderline uncool, and an excuse to commence drinking without you. More than an hour, and there will be a voodoo doll in the drawer with your face on it.
26. Until you show up, in which case, the best hosts will forgive you on the spot.
27. If it’s a potluck and you are in charge of the appetizers, try not to arrive late.
28. If it’s a potluck and you are in charge of a side dish, you can’t go wrong with just-needs-to-be-heated-at-300° homemade mac-and-cheese. (Coming soon to a Playbook near you.)
29. If it’s a potluck and you are in charge of appetizers or a side dish…what’s wrong with you? Pro-tip: ALWAYS volunteer to be in charge of wine. No cooking, no on-site prepping and plating, no puzzling over portion size.
30. Go off, but don’t get sloppy. You don’t want to wake up the next morning, with your eyeballs pounding, and ask your spouse, “Were we the guests from hell?” Not that we’ve ever done that.
31. People never get tired of hearing they have a nice home.
32. It’s not a terrible idea to say how much you like what you are eating, even if what you are eating looks like what you gave the cat that morning.
33. And if you can’t bring yourself to express how much you love the food, express interest instead: How did you manage to get such deep brown color and moist consistency? Is this a family recipe? Where does one find abalone around here?
34. Make yourself at home.
35. To a point. Like, maybe you and the host are old friends and you shared a college dorm room together, but it’s not suuuuper appealing, twenty years later, as the rest of the party is standing in the kitchen eating steak, when you come out of the bathroom and say, DAMN, WHERE THE MATCHES AT?
36. You’ve got 24 — maybe 48 — hours to send an email or text thanking the host for dinner. If you were there as a couple, it’s perfectly acceptable for one of you to send the thank-you, cc’ing the other. (Note to our future hosts: This has never been our strong suit.)
37. A handwritten note in the mail is just about the nicest thing a host can receive, but not in any way shape or form expected.
38. Or we could probably all take a cue from our mothers, both of whom forego the text, the email, and the handwritten note, and call… on the telephone… to say how lovely everything was. And also to gossip.
39. We love you guys and consider you dear friends, but we don’t really need to know about your sex life.
40. Don’t overstay your welcome.
41. If the host is yawning loudly and switching the lights on and off in the kitchen, you have probably overstayed your welcome. As PT Barnum once said — a guy who knew something about entertaining — always leave ’em wanting more.
Cartoon by Robert Weber for the New Yorker. Forgive the small print. I couldn’t find a larger file and it was too good not to post.