I was just reading an article some cheerless person posted on Facebook: Five Regrets of the Dying. The piece was written by a palliative care nurse, who has spent countless hours with people on their deathbeds. She cited a regret many of us mortals have as we go to our reward: that we didn’t spend enough time with our friends.
The greatest way to avert that regret is regularly to have friends over for drinks or to share a relaxing meal and a bottle of wine at our table. I don’t need to tell you who does this better than anyone: gay guys. I know, I know, it’s such a stereotype. But it’s true. They just know how to entertain frequently, easily, spectacularly. Not all, mind you, but vastly more in comparison to the straight population.
Now that so many of us are vaccinated, we feel more comfortable gathering together again and are starting to plan parties. I’ve asked some of the best hosts I know—gay men, all; go figure—for their favorite tips and tricks to create memorable parties.
Ambience Over Everything
“Over the years, we’ve learned that dinner parties are more about the friends and ambience than they are the food,” says Terry Anderson, an anesthesiologist, who, along with his educator husband Michael Henry, has hosted countless fun parties—from tiny, intimate dinners to major fundraisers—in their glamorous, Regency-style house in the Country Club District. (I am pictured this month in their dining room.) “I’m not interested in killing myself cooking anymore. It takes the fun out of it.”
Terry is right. Cooking can be hard. But creating dreamy ambience using scent, fresh flowers, the right music, and lighting—is relatively easy.
First, the Lighting
Dan Nilsen is an owner of Bishop McCann, an event-planning company, and is a master of lighting. He can pull together a great party practically in his sleep. “I have dimmers on every light in my house, from lamps to overheads,” he says. “I use Caseta by Lutron dimmer switches for all cans and sconces and Amazon Alexa plugs for the lamps. They connect to your WiFi so you can operate them from their apps on your phone from anywhere in the world. You can easily set up a party scene and with a click of a button, your house is immediately ready for your guests to arrive.”
Terry also is a fan of the dimmer switch. “Any lightbulb over five watts needs to be on a dimmer,” he says. “Ceiling lights are tricky. I much prefer lighting from lamps and candles. I’ve never met an LED bulb I like, and I’ve tried a lot of them. I want to be environmentally conscious, but alas.”
What Smells So Good?
“My favorite scent for a dinner party is the smell of onions and garlic cooking in butter, but if I’ve prepared everything in advance and just want the house to smell good, my first choice would be Casablanca lilies,” says Terry. “But alternatively, I love Mixture candles.” I agree! I love Mixture Candles, too, as does Dan Nilsen and not just because Mixture is owned by our mutual friend—and another gay, fabulous host named Dan—Dan DeLeon. The candles are made from clean-burning soy, are hand-mixed right here in KC, and come in a variety of divine fragrances, including unscented for your dinner table. Nilsen’s favorite Mixture scent is “Debauchery.” You can find Mixture candles at the store called Stuff, 316 West 63rd Street in Brookside, and in many other area stores, as well as online.
So Much Music, So Little Time
“I’m often asked what advice I have for throwing a fun party. My answer is quite simple: ‘Turn down the lights, and turn up the music,’” says Jim Blair, who has hosted about a jillion parties in his historic midcentury house in the Roanoke neighborhood. His music is always perfect for this setting: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, Bobby Darin. My tastes lean in that direction as well, but Dan and Terry both prefer more contemporary sounds.
“I enjoy cooking to Cardi B and Doja Cat and I actually find 90s hip hop (Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre) great music at the dinner table, on lower volume, in the background, says Terry. “It has enough beat to not be soporific but few people know the lyrics, so it just becomes background and not part of the conversation.
“I usually find Spotify or Amazon or Apple Music mixes okay for a while, but then along comes a dud song and it ruins everything,” he says. “The only Pandora station I find reliable for entertaining is the ‘Hipster Cocktail Radio’ station.”
Dan Nilsen likes to make his own playlists on Spotify (“your friends and family can share their favorites with you”) and sometimes plays YouTube videos on the TV where everyone congregates—in the kitchen and family room. “On YouTube, once you pick a video, it continues to play videos in a similar genre. It really adds life to your party.”
Easy Dinner Party Recipes
Regular readers of this column know what a fan I am of Don Loncasty’s cooking. We call him The Snobby Chef because he’s rather strident about his food preferences and loves to lord his encyclopedic knowledge of gastronomy over others. But when it comes to actual recipes, Donnie is never one to confuse effort with results. He is not above using Swanson’s chicken stock to make a quick, tasty stew, or serving a casserole made with Campbell’s soup to a hungry gathering of friends. Donnie has a wealth of easy dinner party recipes he has given me to share with you, including his latest, Savannah Shrimp, and old faves like Chicken Divan, Instant Pot barbecue brisket, and his legendary tuna noodle casserole.
Email me and I will send them to you, along with Terry Anderson’s ridiculously easy favorite meal for company: brown butter sage mushroom soup as first course, followed by roasted pork loin; boiled potatoes with parsley; asparagus with Dijon mustard sauce and chopped eggs. I’ll also include Dan Nilsen’s mom’s famous chopped Cobb salad and his two chic, yummy favorite cocktails, both using St-Germain Elderflower liqueur. And Jim Blair’s instructions for making his elegant and simple smoked-salmon appetizer and espresso martinis for a crowd.
Even Easier Dinner Solutions
None of these talented hosts shies away from using caterers or store-bought food when crunched for time. Dan Nilsen likes to avail himself of the grab-and-go refrigerator at Cupini’s on Westport Road: “It’s filled with a variety of fresh pasta noodles, sausage and fennel and sweet pea raviolis, tiramisu, and homemade limoncello,” he says.
Terry is a fan of having dinner delivered from Sweet Siam, a Thai Restaurant in Westport. Or he and Michael will have friends over for drinks, then move the party to a restaurant; his most beloved are Café Provence, Farina, Il Centro, and 1900.
A Final Thought About Being a Relaxed Host
“The best way to be relaxed at your own party is to be prepared,” says the unflappable Jim Blair. “The last hour before your guests arrive is the most critical because so many things can’t be done ahead of time. However, if you think it through, and really plan out what you need to accomplish during that time, you’ll feel a lot better at five ‘til seven. Remember, your guests will follow your lead. If you are nervous and uncomfortable, and seem worried about everything, they will be too. On the other hand, if you are happy, calm, and completely at ease, so too your guests will be. I like to have a drink in my hand by the time the first guests arrive.”
Flower-Styling Tips From Dan Meiners
“Who doesn’t love it when people gasp at our tables and can’t wait to take pictures?” says Dan Meiners, one the city’s top-tier florists and event planners. You’ve probably been to a party or two at his fashionable Midtown event space, Studio Dan Meiners. Dan offers up these tips for putting together beautiful blooms.
- Use large bunches of single style flowers, such as tulips, roses, or sunflowers, and place them in a vase low enough to keep a good line of sight among your dinner guests.
- Some vases have no lip, making them hard to arrange. Find some rocks or twirl some branches to create a base for the flowers to cling to, so they don’t fall out of the vase.
- Keep a few 30-inch tall, super-thin vases around for when you do a more elaborate dinner party and want to create some drama with a mass of orchids or flowering branches, store-bought or from your yard.
“Since lighting is key to a dinner party, we like to start a touch brighter and make sure the lights get dimmer throughout the evening,” says Dan. “Of course, always add a ton of candles so our wrinkles fade away.”
Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs at firstname.lastname@example.org