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The How-to’s of a Successful Dinner Party

Learn how to throw a fabulous dinner party with this expert advice

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Besides working in finance and being involved in many East Bay civic and community organizations, Gina Macdonald is also a gracious hostess. I recently spoke with her about her exquisite tabletops, tips on successful entertaining and memories of a long ago dinner party.

How do you define dinner party? Given your busy life with many commitments, why do you entertain?
A dinner party is entertaining people who are interesting, fun to be around and who are not family. Entertaining for me is a way to provide something a little out of the ordinary for my friends; I think it is far more enjoyable to go to someone’s home for dinner than out to a restaurant.

What are some key elements to a successful dinner party?
First is to create a sense of relaxation when your guests arrive - serve a really good drink! Sometimes I will create a signature cocktail around a menu or theme - I might use fresh blueberries from the garden for a Blueberry Mojito. With hors d’oeuvres I like to serve one really good hors d’oeuvre rather than a lot of things. For dinner and dessert I try to prepare something special that my guests might not normally make for themselves. I love desserts so I will often create my menu starting from the dessert and work backwards. I know the experts don’t recommend trying a new recipe on your guests but I love the challenge of it. I do not like to cook every day so when I do cook it really is an escape from work.

You create beautiful tabletops. Why do you put so much effort in to them?
Hosting a dinner party is analogous to seeing a play and being transported to a new place with the lights and sets. It is not just cooking the meal but having a lovely table as well. I am not an artist but for me hosting a dinner party is a form of creativity.
I like to set the table a day before a party, or for a large holiday event a few days ahead. I have three sets of China, one in each of my favorite colors - turquoise, pink and grass green. I may start the process with the placemats or linens. I love shiny things, and I love to use low votive candles. Sometime I will not use flowers and instead decorate the table using my collection of figurines. I love bunnies and different animals. I also like to sit people across from each other and not have anyone at either end of the table.

What was an example of a recent tabletop you created?

The occasion was a dinner party for out of town guests who had formerly lived in Rhode Island. I started with my lavender glasses, then my Tiger Raj China. I prefer to leave the dinner plates on the table, which makes the table look finished when guests enter the room. I placed pieces of imitation green moss with the bunny figurines throughout the table. I put an arrangement of flowers at each end of the table and lots of low candles. It was a cool dreary night but the table became a whimsical garden.

When do you know if it has been a successful gathering?
Everyone is talking, they have eaten a lot and we have moved from the table to one of the sitting areas and are enjoying an after-dinner drink.

Do you remember the first dinner party you hosted?
I had recently graduated from college and was living in Chicago working my first job, renting my first apartment and I invited a friend over for dinner. All I had for furniture was a small chest of drawers, two director chairs, a wing chair (missing a leg and propped up with books) and a couple of pots and a few dishes and silverware. We ate with our plates on our laps and I felt very adult!