I want to have a little dinner party at my house but (a) am lacking six matching chairs, (b) have a very small dining room table, (c) don't have six matching plates. The thing is, I don't really want any of this crap because my house is so small and I have no more storage ... and yet, I want to entertain. So my question is, can a brother have a dinner party where the guests don't sit around a dining room table? Or is that just a cocktail party?
–Eating Standing Up
Dear Eating Standing Up,
You don't need a dining set, or a dining room, to entertain your friends. At one of the best dinner parties I ever attended, we didn't even have plates or cutlery. The hostess threw a sheet of plastic over a borrowed folding table and used low lighting to disguise the fact that we were basically eating in her bedroom (she had wedged her bed outside on her tiny porch). Each of us had our own Dungeness crab, which we dunked into a Meyer lemon aioli and ate with our fingers. My point? The essential elements of a dinner party are conversation, food, and booze (though some readers will doubtless disagree with this last item).
Still, you have to have a surface on which to serve the food and drink, and somewhere for your guests to sit. Improvisation is key. Beth Zeigler, a personal organizer in Los Angeles, says she has only "the teeniest little round table that seats two." But her lack of furniture is no impediment to her entertaining. Her guests eat at the bar in her kitchen, or else she seats people on the floor around her futon, with a huge mirror laid on top. You could also make a dining table out of a sheet of plywood on top of a couple of file cabinets. If you throw a tablecloth over it, no one will know (and by tablecloth I mean bedsheet). File cabinets or stacked suitcases can become chairs if you top them with a blanket. Or just sit around your coffee table, and ask guests to bring a pillow or large cushion if you don't have enough. Elderly guests probably won't be comfortable sitting on the floor, so reserve whatever actual seating you have for them.
As for the menu, steer clear of any food that you need both a knife and a fork to eat. If guests are seated on the couch, they will need one hand to hold on to their plates, and if they are crammed around the coffee table, elbow room will be limited. Either way, they won't be able to saw at a steak. You should also avoid food that could scald or stain: that means no beet salads or spaghetti Bolognese.
Granted, if you're not careful, sitting on the floor or on packing crates can make your guests feel like impoverished graduate students. That's why you need to make an extra effort to create a festive atmosphere. Light candles or set out handwritten place cards. Plate the food individually and make it look fancy.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist who coined the term flow experience, said that an unexpected spatial arrangement is one way to encourage "group flow"—that is, group focus and creativity. For instance, if you're having a brainstorming session with your work colleagues, you might have chairs and whiteboards in the conference room, but remove the table (or, of course, you might keep the table and skip the chairs). Usually at a dinner party, I try to encourage group flow by keeping everyone's wineglass full. Next time, I might just try seating my guests on the floor.