How to Throw a Dinner Party Without Really Trying

The key to cooking for a crowd, with all the fun and none of the stress? Alison Roman says: ‘Relax’
November 14, 2019 Updated: November 14, 2019

Don’t call it entertaining.

Alison Roman—cook, food writer, and dinner party guru—has a bone to pick with that word. Too often it “implies there’s a show, something performative at best and inauthentic at worst,” she writes in her forthcoming cookbook, “Nothing Fancy.” There’s a kind of pressure to be perfect built into the idea.

Roman’s philosophy for hosting—she calls it “having people over”—strips away the bells and whistles of the formal dinner party, the fancy floral arrangements and picture-perfect table settings. It gets at the real heart of the matter: cooking for and feeding the people you care about.

Of course, there’s still a place for elaborate decor and exquisite menus at the dinner party table. But if thoughts of such planning are more likely to lead you to stress than satisfaction, consider Roman’s casual, anyone-can-do-it approach: “Unfussy food, unfussy vibes, and the permission to be imperfect, no occasion necessary (other than to eat, of course).”

She backs it up with pages full of “low-stress and high-impact” recipes, defined by the signature mix of ease and excitement that has earned her recipes a devoted following of home cooks (a number of them have gone viral on social media). They’re one-pot stews, just-dress-it-with-lemon salads, and throw-it-in-the-oven roasts—but ones that pop with bold flavors and textures: searing drizzles of chile oil, creamy swoops of labneh, heavy-handed scatterings of herbs, and crispy slivers of fried garlic.

Mains Spread
Good, easy company meets good, easy food. (Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott)

Lemon touches just about every recipe (often in generous doses of juice, and in one dish, in thick slices caramelized in rendered chicken fat and roasted until jammy) as do salty, briny anchovies (“one of my defining character traits is ‘loves anchovies,’ for which I will not apologize,” she writes).

Below are some of the best tips gleaned from the book’s pages, along with a show-stopping menu for a crowd to get you started. The tips can all be distilled into a single piece of advice, really, a common thread ever-present in Roman’s carefree, reassuring voice: “Relax.”

Do so, and then, scope out your pantry, stop by the store, call up your friends, and have some people over for dinner.

Make the Big Decision First

The hardest part of evening is often planning what’s on the menu. Roman jumps that hurdle by first deciding what she wants the main event to be (“I feel like a roast chicken,” she might say), then building the rest of the menu around it, complementing and contrasting all the textures and flavors (crusty garlic bread for a brothy pot of meatballs, a salad of bitter greens and mint to cut through a rich lamb roast).

You could also go big with the main course, she suggests, to take the pressure off the sides. With a hefty prime rib at center stage, for instance, no one will complain if the side salad skimps a bit on the toppings.

And as far as wine goes, Roman’s pairing philosophy is even simpler: “I think the best wine to drink with whatever you’re eating or cooking is whatever wine you enjoy drinking, period.”

To drink: whatever you like best. (Shutterstock)

Keep Snacks Simple

Laying out a selection of snacks before the main event is a smart move for a number reasons: They’re easy to put together and fun to mix and match. They give early comers a gathering place and conversation starter to mitigate initial awkward moments. And when it’s already past 7 p.m. and you realize dinner won’t be ready until 9 p.m., they’re what Roman calls a “delicious diversion,” to distract growling stomachs and buy you a bit more time (and perhaps forgiveness).

The key is to keep it simple; Roman shies away from precious bites that require complicated assembly. Bowls of spiced nuts and cut fruits, crackers smeared with butter and anchovies, a jar of olives pulled right from the fridge, or a platter of raw vegetables with a creamy dip are all fair game.

Cheese plates are another sure winner, but don’t feel pressured to craft an elaborate, picture-perfect spread with six different kinds of cheese. Roman counsels quality over quantity: aim for a few good—and different—varieties over a selection of many mediocre ones. For smaller groups, she encourages setting out just one cheese—consider, say, a hunk of Parmigiano—with a knife for guests to break off pieces for themselves. (“If anyone seems confused or complains about this,” she writes, “tell them, ‘That’s how they do it in Italy,’ even if that’s only partly true.”)

Ask Your Guests to Join In

As a host, don’t feel like you have to take on the whole evening’s work yourself—consider the crew of grateful guests currently lingering in your living room.

“Come to think of your guests as contributors and collaborators, and you’ll notice everyone loosen up, things happen more quickly, and the whole vibe gets significantly more fun,” Roman writes. You can delegate tasks from slicing vegetables for a platter to simply opening up a tub of sour cream for a taco spread, while you focus on the rest of dinner.

To take guest participation to the next level (more fun, less work!) consider adding a DIY component to the menu. Roman makes convincing cases for a DIY martini bar—a jug of batched martinis, a bowl of ice, and martini olives and lemon peels to greet guests as they arrive—and a crowd-pleasing baked potato bar—go crazy with the toppings, from basic butter and scallions to a splurgy tin of caviar.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

If something goes wrong, don’t panic. In the worst-case scenario, you might end up with a few boxes of pizza instead of your home-cooked feast—but you’ll still be surrounded by the same good company, and the warmth of sharing a meal, whatever it entails.

“Accepting that things won’t always go how I want them to when having people over is essential to enjoying what this is all about, anyway—having people over,” Roman writes. So when things don’t go according to plan, “be kind to yourself, manage expectations, and remember that this is supposed to be fun.”

RECIPE: Low and Slow Rib Roast With Rosemary and Anchovy

RECIPE: Little Gems With Garlicky Lemon and Pistachio

RECIPE: Baked Potato Bar