The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

Hosting a sit down, elegant dinner party seems to be getting tossed aside for more casual affairs these days.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

Don’t get me wrong. I love block parties where you bring your own main course to grill, plus a side dish to share. And I’m certainly no stranger to the pot luck, group effort. They’re fun and remove major stress from the hostess.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

But what I really love to give are lingering dinner parties, proceeded by cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Then followed by Cognac, dessert and espresso.

Guests usually ask what they can bring and my answer is “a smile”. If I’m orchestrating a dinner party, and that’s what I’m doing, I want control over the food, presentation and atmosphere.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

I buy my flowers 2 days in advance, so they are open and full for the dinner.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

I plan the menu several days in advance and always try to choose items that will allow me to spend time with my guests, not slaving in the kitchen.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
I wore my new Trina Turk dress with some silver chains for a California Casual look. Wearing vibrant color is new for me but I thought it would be a fun contrast to all the white.

With everything ready in advance, I have plenty of time to dress and be relaxed when guests start arriving.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
I iron folds out of the tablecloth on the table. My Rowenta Iron has NEVER spit brown water on my ironing!

I make sure my napkins and tablecloths are clean and ironed.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

If the silverware is tarnished, it get a good polishing.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
I love Wrights Silver Cream Polish

I set the table the day before the party.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

It’s not a good idea to put highly fragrant flowers on the dinner table. They compete with the smell of your food and affect the taste.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
These Hyacinths and Lilies were so fragrant they got placed in the front hall.

 My husband must have missed the only white flower memo so the pink Tulips he bought ended up in the powder room.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
I made these small arrangements with unscented Roses for the table.


The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
These small arrangements march down the center of the table in parfait glasses.

I put new candles in our candelabras and fresh, 8-hour votives scattered on mantle, window ledges and tables.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
I always use Target’s dripless candles

I’m quirky about new candles. I always light them for a quick moment, then blow out, before placing them about. I dislike the barren look of unburmed candle wick, which just looks sad to me. It reminds me of people who have good things they save for later, then later never comes.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
see…no drips!!

Have you noticed how many times you’ve sat at a dinner table with brand new, unlit candles and they remain that way for the entire meal? Why have them if you’re not going to use them?

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

We started with cocktails and appetizers in the living room.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

Then we moved into the dining room after I’d put the salads on the table.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

Salad and dressing were prepared and waiting, in the refrigerator, to toss. I also had the fish, vegetables and other dishes read to go in the oven before they arrived. Dessert and its required plates were on the side table, ready to be served.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
I like toasted Pecans and sliced strawberries on green salads.

I looked over my shoulder during dinner to make sure I wasn’t dripping wax down the wall and spotted this reflection in my mirror.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party
Especially important … these Target candles don’t drip down my wall!

We had dessert in the living room, as the candles burned low.

The Anatomy of an Elegant Dinner Party

Music is crucial. I prefer instrumental over words. For these type of dinners I keep the volume medium-low as people arrive. Later I turn it quite low as the evening progresses. It’s strictly for atmosphere, not karaoke! I hate having to shout over music to be heard.

FOOTNOTE: An hour before the guests were due, my husband decided to go buy an outdoor fireplace. It came in a box in a million parts which he proceeded to spread all over the patio and start to assemble. If I hadn’t had everything organized, I probably would have flipped out. But I did, so calmly went upstairs to dress, leaving him to the gazillion bolts and parts, pliers and screw drivers.

Do you give dinner parties?


  1. Hello Jennifer
    Your evening looks beautiful. The table setting is superb and I am sure you had a very successful evening.

    Have a glorious weekend


    1. It was a lot of fun. Thanks Helen, enjoy your weekend!

  2. I love seeing how people do dinner parties! So fun and interesting. You do a great table

    1. Thanks Naomi! Happy weekend.

  3. Everything looks spectacular. Love the white and those candles. And what is it about men doing something like that last minute before a party, lol. Way to keep your cool.

    1. Thanks Terry! I think men have little concept of time sometimes, or he was just trying to freak me out:)

  4. P.S. I noticed your comment about your house being “your little jewel box”…my house is not big either, but it’s perfect for my husband and I and so many people love it. Has a lot of charm and character since it’s an older home. We call it our little cottage.


    1. We call it that because it’s just for us, a downsized place. And like you, people comment on how much they like it!! A lot of prettiness packed into a small place. Everywhere I look I see something I just love!!

  5. Hi Jennifer,

    Looks like you hosted a great dinner party, what lucky guests to have been invited to your lovely home!

    I used to host a lot of holiday dinners and occasionally have friends over but we are so busy these days (the aging in-law stuff)…the last time I entertained was when I had some women over from the neighborhood for coffee and dessert. And that was three years ago!!

    That is so funny about your husband…yes I would have been freaking out too. Sometimes my husband would be finishing taking a shower right when the guests were showing up.


    1. Oh mine has been in the shower at the appointed hour too. What’s up with that? I’ve just decided I’m going to start giving tea parties. They’re so fun and such happy occasions. Thanks for the motivation Linda!

  6. Gorgeous! Some excellent tips here too. Stick to a salad course that is tried and true and ready in the fridge, set the table the night before, buy the flowers two days ahead, I’m taking notes can you tell?
    I do give dinner parties and I’m really getting back into the swing of it these days, in fact I’m hosting one on Saturday. I’ve been sewing new linens for it this afternoon. I took a break due to our big renovation and some illness in our family… but it feels good to be back doing it and knowing that we’ll be having some laughs with our friends on Saturday night.
    I do let my friends bring different courses, one a salad, another the dessert, and another friend will bring a cheese platter for the cocktail snack. But we’ve known each other for a long time and generally organize an Italian or French inspired dinner so it comes together nicely.
    I have been known to cry in the kitchen just before a dinner party but I’ve soldiered on from those dark days! Preparation has been key to that.

    1. We do have a dinner group where we all contribute to the menu and rotate houses, which is fun. But for other dinners I usually like to control it all. A little OCD perhaps, but I can live wih myself:). Have fun Saturday!! Planning is everything!!

  7. I give dinner parties much the same as you do. Your table and home look astoundinf! I am proobably going to srop entertaining this way, because guests now do not always seem to know their responsibilities, such as not overdrinking, not arguing with one another, and going home on time. Perhaps you could cover this in a post!

    1. It would be a shame to stop because your guests are clods!! Perhaps invite differetn guests?
      Or you could try:
      1-arguing is usually because they over-drink or the guest mix is wrong.
      2-over drinking can be remedied by removing the source
      3- saying thanks for coming and handing them their coat
      4-if all else fails, start turning out the lights, turn off the music and and remove glasses from there hands.
      Good luck. Let me know if this works.

  8. Deborah Montgomery says:

    Lovely dinner party Jennifer. You look lovely, too. We recently went to a friends for dinner and the music was too loud; had to practically shout! Love the white flowers, and they definitely need to be low so that you can see who you’re talking to. I love using beeswax candles — the scent doesn’t compete at all. I do love to have nice dinners, but you’re right — planning is KEY so that you aren’t rushed or in the kitchen rather than enjoying your guests.

    1. Thanks Deborah! That’s another pet peeve of mine. Tall flowers you can’t see over on a table. It’s no fun to dodge the flowers to have a conversation! And yelling to be heard over the music just trashes any atmosphere you hope for.

  9. I don’t, but I probably should considering the investment I have made in dinner and tableware. It is a big joke in my family that I am as addicted as I am to table linens, because I really don’t cook. But your table looks exquisite and your food looks delightful. What a lovely post.

    1. Thanks so much! If I don’t use this stuff, who will? I see too many vintage sets of China that have obviously, never been used. My children have their own, so why not use my own. I love to look at it, use it and even wash it:)

  10. Lovely table setting Jennifer! Love the elegance and planning you did to make it all look so seamless! The popular thing to do in our town is to ‘go out for dinner’ and then return to someone’s home for tea and dessert. Otherwise, casual dinners and/or barbecues are in. So now I bring out my silver and set tables for even the casual events, or a special night for hubby and I.

    1. Entertaining is an art. Thank you for sharing your talent with us. Loved the atmosphere you created for your guests. And loved that your husband thought you needed an outdoor fireplace.

      1. It is a fun art I enjoy Beth! And the outdoor fireplace must have seemed mandatory to him. Although why then, I have no clue:)

    2. I got rid of my stainless flatware several years ago Kate. Now all we use are an old silver plate set or sterling for parties. I believe we need to treat ourselves to luxury, whenever and however we can.

  11. We don’t give dinner parties as much as we used to, and when we do, ours are so much more casual than yours. Living at the beach means a cottage vibe works — and the boat ride and 10-minute walk on our island’s dirt road make a dressed-up affair unlikely (although we have pulled off a couple of weddings).
    So I’ll mostly admire your gorgeous settings rather than feel any pressure to imitate. Like you, though, I do like to maintain control over the menu and I ask guests only to bring their smiles and conversation. And I have a huge asset in my happy-to-cook husband!

    1. You’re very lucky your husband is happy to cook! We’d live on scrambled eggs if my husband did the cooking. That, and canned soup 🙂
      Your island is gorgoues and I envy your location!! Every picture you post brings a flood of memories. I adore the entire area!

  12. Rebecca Hively says:

    I love giving parties ~ formal or casual outdoor! We have a large family so I’ve had a LOT of practice and really enjoy it!

    1. Practice does make it easier and less stressful! Lucky you !!

  13. I used to give loads of formal dinner parties back in the 80s and 90s when we had a large house. Now not often. We do entertain more in France then it is dinner on the terrace during the balmy summer nights.

    1. France is perfect for that! My friends home in Provence holds such terrifc memories, of just that sort of entertaining.

  14. What a shame I’m 3,000 + miles away. Or…..did my invitation get lost in the mail?? LOL.

    Beautiful table, and I’ve no doubt the food was delicious. Attention to detail is so important in these matters, and you are sooo good at that.

    I do less and less dinner parties these days. So many of my friends are allergic to this and no longer eat that, etc. And then there’s the unexpected guest (usually the much-younger girlfriend of a recently divorced friend), who takes one look at your beautifully prepared roast chicken, makes a disgusted face and says, “Ooooh, I’m a vegan.” There goes the dinner party!! This actually did happen to me.

    Will be in touch when we get back from Paris.

    xoxo, M-T

    1. You’re kidding!! Well I’m the bizarre eater in our crowd but I would NEVER say that to a hostess. How rude. I always tell my host, “don’t worry about me and my food restrictions, make what you like, I will never go hungry”!
      Paris in the springtime…how perfect!! You do live a fabulous life darling.

      1. A beautiful dinner party.
        But on the food preferences/allergy side I always ask beforehand if any guest I’m inviting has a food allergy or dietary restrictions. It’s far better to know beforehand. If your guest has a serious allergy and doesn’t know what’s in the food – then he or she can’t eat it or risk an allergic reaction. I have friends with seafood allergies and others with nut allergies, including a grand daughter. Much better to know beforehand so you can cook something suitable.
        Completely understand their needs as I have an acute allergy to monosodium glutamate (the flavour enhancer) which the host/hostess mightn’t even realise is in the meal because it can be in stock cubes/powders or other sauces. It’s a hidden ingredient but is life threatening for me – elevates my blood pressure so high (though I have normal blood pressure otherwise and don’t take any BP medication) I’m at risk of either a heart attack or a stroke. I have on a number of occasions been rushed in an ambulance to hospital after it’s been in a meal (both times at restaurants where the food was supposed to be msg free – but they later discovered it had been used) and then I regained consciousness with all kinds of things attached to me as they think I’m about to have a heart attack. So far I’ve always had treatment in time.

        Have been a diplomatic hostess in countries where guests might include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, sometimes at the same meal. So it’s essential to plan menus carefully. When living overseas I once had a friend who was a Jain – that’s the most complicated of all to cater for. She attended dinner parties at our home but always had her own special meal we had prepared for her. Best wishes, Pamela

    1. He did get it together. Even lit a fire, then dragged all the men out to “oh and ah” over it:). Anytime you’re in San Francisco, consider the invite open!!xo

  15. We love to entertain. Our style is more casual, but when I have a formal dinner party I do it up right, as you have. Since we downsized I am going to be limited to dinners for six, unless it’s a casual buffet.
    You have a lovely home.

    1. Thank you Barbara! Our home is teeny and it’s a squeeze to get more than 8 at the table but I do adore it. I’m so glad to hear how many of you like to do this too!

  16. So much fun to peek into your home, Jennifer, and see how you do it all. Fresh flowers and silver are often a must for me, and I agree about the candles. I read once that a lit candle reveals warmth and welcoming–because the hostess is quietly saying SEE I WELCOME PEOPLE INTO MY HOME ALL THE TIME. It’s like having the symbol of a pineapple on
    your front door.

    1. I didn’t know that about candles. I’d read somewhere that it was bad luck, but I like your description better. Thanks for sharing Beth!

  17. Yes I do!!!
    I agree with ALL your advise………..
    One question where do you find the little rounds that catch the wax and what are they called?I noted you had them on your candles……….Bobeche comes to my mind.Looks like a beautiful night………..my husband would have done the same thing!!!xo

    1. Yes they’re Bobeche’s.. I had some matching vintage ones that I adored, now that several have broken I ordered new ones online. They’re manatory in my house!! You give the most beautiful dinner parties!!

  18. Jennifer, I love your beautiful home! Your drapes and chandelier are so pretty and elegant. What a great table you set. I also love your idea of having everything done mostly before. I think you can enjoy it then! Great tips.. I crack up at the outdoor fireplace thing.. Would be me too! ️xx Kim

    1. Thanks Kim. Not planning and preparing in advance has worked for me but it’s also much more stressful. Why DO men do that kind of thing??

  19. Very pretty. Your home is beautiful. You clearly have a gift for entertaining.

    1. Thanks Jen, I do love to entertain!

    1. You’re welcome anytime Pam!! I wish you lived closer too.

  20. How pretty. I guess I give more intimate dinners than really dinner parties. Just one other guest or couple or family…otherwise I find it a little overwhelming if it’s not BBQ and potluck. Did hubs ever get the fire pit together?

    1. He did get it together, just in time. Of course, then he had to drag every male guest outside to admire it!

  21. I do give dinner parties, but not as often as I used to. I do ALL the family occasions at our home, Thanksgiving, birthdays, etc. and like you, I plan it like a general laying out a battle plan. I have the same quirky thing of lighting and then blowing out the candle wick if it’s a candle, even votives. Your table looked beautiful and I’m curious what you served.

    1. I’ve always been the one to do every family occasion, which is why last Christmas was such a change.
      Great analogy…it is planned with great precision.
      The main course was roasted New Zealand Cod in a cilantro, white wine marinade, roasted carrots dusted with red pepper flakes, baby potatoes roasted crispy with garlic.

  22. Wow! This looks like it was straight out of a magazine. I’m impressed.

    Just guessing you *may* be a type A personality. LOL

    Also your house looks like the inside of a French chateau. Lovely.

    I think I’d do quite well at your dinner party. No meat, no dairy : )


    1. Ya think? AAA and then some. I would know how to feed you too!
      My house is tiny…very small. My little jewel box:)

  23. It has been awhile since I have given a true dinner party, but you have encouraged me, and Andrea’s party for Isabella and my visit to Laguna Beach last summer definitely had me thinking of entertaining again!! Jennifer your have presented everything so beautifully for your guests and have thought of everything. Making a list helps me a lot! Gorgeous!!

    The Arts by Karena
    Artist Nathaniel Galka

    1. You must come to dinner when you are in the SF Bay Area next! It is fun for me and I’d love to have you!

  24. Oh, Jennifer, I absolutely LOVE this post. Dinner parties have always been my favorite way to entertain. I used to go all out BC (before children), but when I became a full-time stay at home mom (and at the same time my dad began to show early signs of Alzheimer’s), the earth seemed to stand still for me. Now with an empty nest, I am slowly getting around to myself again, but most of our friends have moved away. You probably won’t believe me, but I set a table like this for my husband and me every week, and pretty close to it most evenings. We use all our silver, crystal, linen, and candles on a daily basis, and I always have fresh flowers, even if I gather them from our garden. Life is but a blink, no way I’m waiting for tomorrow.
    You look gorgeous as always, friend, and I LOVE your silver and your chains. Do share more dinner parties with us. I dub you dinner party queen. 🙂

    1. I believe you Marcia! I knew we had a lot in common the first time I found you!!
      I occasionally had to do these for my husbands work when the kids were young, but it’s so much easier now!I never want to save my beautiful things for later, which may never come!
      So happy to hear from you. Are you blogging??

  25. You must have been horrified at my IG pic of my Easter table. I only do crinkles. I blame the linen embroidered cloth as however much iron it it wrinkles.
    I’d like to attend a dinner as you’ve done and I have done so in the past but as you say people I know don’t do it anymore. I could never do it that well anyway.
    You obviously enjoying it. We need people like you to oil the dinner party wheels

    1. Of course I wasn’t horrified Anna! Everyone has different taste and style they prefer. I just happen to like doing these. My Mom for example, hated formality and never gave one.

  26. ScoutyScout says:

    We love to have dinner parties! Usually formal in that I use the China, crystal, silver and linen. Casual because my guest dress casually. This Saturday we are going much more casual. I’m using a southern pottery that I collect. Everyone will have a different design on their plate. Linen and silver will still be used! We’ll eat on the deck and have steaks!

    1. That sounds like fun! What does Southern pottery look like? Everyone dresses casually in California! It is so fun to use all the good stuff, I love doing it. I don’t even mind polishing the silver!

  27. Beautiful! We give formal dinner parties a few times a year and I love it, and like you, I prefer to control all the food and set an elaborate table. I find a beautiful dinner party is such a gift of love. My music of choice is 40s music playing softly in the background. I am drooling over the palm tree out the window….

    1. Yes music from the 40″s is a blast too. Big band and the crooners. I play that for upbeat parties or outside, if I’m not playing the oldies, which everyone seems to love!

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