When I threw my first dinner party at twenty-two, I was a nervous wreck. It was a simple menu (spaghetti and meatballs with a caesar salad), but the overall preparation time between buying ingredients, cooking and cleaning took me days. But when everyone was seated around my coffee table (on rolled towels, for a glamorous touch), things just clicked. It's not about anything fancy, but rather the feeling you get when surrounded by friends eating good food. I've since entertained at home countless times and over the years have developed a few tried and true tips I always adhere to.
The hostess sets the tone: As a hostess, it's your job to make everyone in your home feel comfortable and relaxed. If you're running around in a state of panic, pulling things out of the oven and cursing if something falls to the floor, your guests are going to feel like they're an inconvenience. Instead, focus on putting out relaxed energy that reveals how happy you are to have people over. My go-to outfit that makes me feel comfortable, but simple is a long dress, a pile of bangles and bare feet.
Lighting and candles: Lighting plays a really important part in setting the mood for a dinner party. You should have several sources of light that are on dimmers (they're really simple to install), set at various heights. The goal is to distribute light evenly so that it casts a soft, ambient glow that's soothing and not harsh. As for candles, I like to light something scented for the bathroom, but stick to unscented candles in the living areas, so it doesn't interfere with the food.
Be ready: When people first arrive, don't feel like you have to have everything finished. Often times, we'll still be cooking the main course and plating the salad when people come over, which creates a friendly environment that doesn't feel rigid. There are some things though, that I always have ready ahead of time: music playing when people come in the door, drinks are ready and appetizers are available.
Nothing should look too precious: When putting together appetizers, they should be visually appealing, but not intimidating. My dad taught me that if you have a cheese plate, make sure it doesn't look too pretty to eat, so I slice a piece or two of cheese and eat a couple of olives ahead of time (and leave the pits in their saucers) so that when guests arrive, they're encouraged to dive right in.
Place cards: Most of our dinner parties are really casual, but I still love the idea of using place cards. Not only does it make any regular night with friends a bit fancier (even if you're ordering in take-out!), but it also helps ensure that the table will be evenly spaced out and helps spark good conversation.
Timing: The timing of a dinner party has a lot to do with what you're serving, but I generally adhere to the idea that from the time people arrive to the point when everyone sits down for dinner, should be around 45 minutes. This gives guests time to nibble on appetizers, have a drink, and get comfortable with other people at the party. Also, if you don't want to be in the kitchen the entire time - which you shouldn't - stay away from meals that are notoriously fussy (hello, risotto).
Clean ahead of time: Our place is the cleanest before a dinner party. I have flowers in each room, our typically cat-hair-laden couch is spotless and the dining room table is no longer home to a graveyard of boxes. But when it comes to our kitchen, we used to make excuses for not having it as tidy as other rooms, simply because we were still cooking. It inevitably would become cluttered with dishes we had used to prepare the dinner and the sink would be brimming with mixing bowls and measuring spoons. Now we make a concerted effort to not only clean as we go (it makes the after-dinner process so much easier), but to always ensure the dishwasher has also been cleared beforehand so as not to add on an additional task.
The next morning: Of course the goal after people have gone home, is to return your place to its pristine, pre-dinner party state. But after a few glasses of wine and dessert, sometimes that's just not going to happen. Instead of forcing yourself to clean the kitchen until the early morning hours, simply get things prepped (add soapy water to wine glasses and put everything in the sink) so that it won't be as overwhelming once you wake up. My friend's mom also taught me to change my perspective: instead of looking at the mess in the kitchen with a sense of resentment, see each glass and plate as a reminder of a fun night with friends.