Throwing a dinner party isn't just a matter of serving good food, the behaviour of the guests and hosts also plays a big role in the success - or otherwise - of the evening.
Many threads on food forums such as chowhound.com and egullet.com are questions about etiquette when attend-ing or hosting a dinner party. Opinions are so divided it's a wonder anyone bothers throwing or attending one at all. On chowhound.com, one person asks, 'Guests not offering to do dishes, is it rude?' (for once, the responses are pretty consistent: no, it's not rude). Someone else wonders what to do about guests who are perpetually late (we're talking hours here, not 20 to 30 minutes) while another poster asks what to do about guests who arrive very early. Some wonder what to do when they're invited to someone's house for dinner at 7.30pm, but by 9.30pm the host is drunk and there's no sign that they will be fed anytime soon. Then there are questions by guests about what gift to bring the hostess and others from hostesses about what to do with gifts they receive - if it's food or wine, would the guest expect it to be served?
So in the interests of making life run more smoothly, here are a few dinner party rules.
It's the host's duty to provide a warm welcome, sufficient drinks (not necessarily alcoholic) and a meal served in a timely manner (preferably within 30 minutes of the last guest arriving, although sooner is better). Whether it's in a tiny flat or an opulent house, a reheated takeaway pizza or a five-course meal prepared by a professional chef, the discourse should be civil.
A host inviting you into their home is doing something that's much more personal than taking you out for dinner in a restaurant. So guests should be on their best behaviour, and not do anything that would embarrass their parents. Don't arrive early (because the hosts will be busy) or too late (within 30 minutes of the stipulated time, although parents with small children are given a little more leeway). Sometimes the cook is planning to serve a dish for which timing is critical - and if it cooks for too long while everyone is waiting for the last guest to arrive it will ruin the food.
Most guests consider bringing a hostess gift essential and would never arrive empty-handed. The gift needn't be expensive but it should be chosen with care, whether it's a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates. A bouquet of flowers can be iffy; I appreciate them but some posters on the food websites think they're a nuisance, since the host needs to stop cooking, hunt down a vase, trim the stems and then arrange the flowers. They suggest bringing the flowers already arranged in a vase, or sending them by florist the following day.
Guests should always inform their hosts in advance about food allergies or food prohibitions. Also, try to eat like a grown-up; if served something you dislike, there's no need to make a fuss about it - just push it aside and eat the rest of the meal. A good host won't point it out, or try to belittle your tastes; instead, they will (or should) make a mental note and won't serve you the same thing next time.
Last but not least, don't overstay your welcome. When the hosts start yawning and looking pointedly at their watches while mentioning an early morning meeting the next day, take the hint and leave.