Dinner party ideas: how to throw dinner parties in the smallest of spaces

Love to entertain, but dread the human and furniture Jenga that will ensue in your shoebox of a flat? Consider this your guide, with helpful advice from small apartment dwellers who have thrown successful soirées… 

The mere thought of throwing a dinner party immediately brings up tempting visions of canapés, pre-dinner cocktails, swanning round refilling wine glasses, and perhaps even a theme. A theme.

However, the realities of city living can easily put you off the idea: the tiny kitchens, the table for two and the distinct lack of a separate dining room (they exist, your parents will tell you) can make entertaining seem impossible.

Dinner party ideas: it’s all about maximising oven capacity, serving smart, minimal decor touches and furniture Tetris.

But don’t be disheartened. Below, we’ve grilled three women who regularly host proper sit-down meals in their London non-mansions for their tips and tricks on throwing stylish dinner parties when you’re short on square feet.

Trust us, it’s all about maximising oven capacity, serving smart, minimal decor touches and furniture Tetris. It can be done.

So if you’re a city dweller with unfulfilled hosting ambitions, read on for some small-space dinner party inspiration.

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Dinner party ideas: “Sharing dishes mean you’re not in the kitchen plating up for hours”

Nina Zenovya Holmes is a wedding planner who regularly has eight or more people round her table in Putney, but has thrown dinner parties for 20 guests in the past. She posts pictures of her creations on Instagram under @thefullfatchef, and says the key to hosting is in the dishes – and not being afraid of asking friends to pitch in.

Dinner party ideas: Nina hosted 13 guests for Christmas dinner.

“I live in a fairly small flat in Putney with a pokey kitchen, but I love hosting dinner parties because the atmosphere is so much more relaxed than at a restaurant. You also know exactly what goes into the food and it’s so much cheaper than eating out.

“Move your furniture around if you can; run the sofas along the walls to make more room around the table.  If you don’t have enough chairs – why not ask your guests to bring them? Or use that little coffee table in the corner which is about the right height. I only have one nice wine glass, so the lucky guest who gets that has to sit on the worst chair!

Dinner party ideas: Nina Zenovya Holmes.

“Then consider your menu carefully and make as much as possible in advance. Plan ahead. If you can find an hour one evening for details – to leave dough to prove or infuse custard – it will really add depth to your menu. Make sure you are clear in your head on which dishes need oven space and which hob space so you’re not battling on the night.

Dinner party ideas: Nina recommends planning the menu well in advance.

“Sharing dishes are great as they mean you aren’t in the kitchen for hours plating up. I had a World Cup party for about 20 people and turned it into more of a serve-yourself buffet. I also had a Christmas dinner for 13 last year, which was a massive squeeze and involved people bringing chairs and plates. Top tip here: serve food off the table so you have more space for glasses and crockery on it.

Dinner party ideas: you can serve mains away from the table to maximise that all-important wine glass space.

“On the night, do that classic French thing of asking people to keep their cutlery between starter and main course: it’s less washing up for you. If you don’t have enough space for the fridge for leftovers, give people a doggy bag!”

Images: Lateef Okunnu

Dinner party ideas: “When numbers increase, everything else must be simplified”

Writer and editor Bre Graham lives in Clerkenwell and hosts her friends most evenings. She tells Stylist it’s all about remembering that the simplest of ideas, in both food and decoration, can have a big impact.

Dinner party ideas: “I start with a list of what to cook and a sketch of my kitchen space to see how I’ll manage it."

“I love to cook. Though living in London doesn’t leave me with a kitchen designed for industrial cooking or a dining table to seat 10, I’ve hosted almost 30 before – even on my most stressful of days, planning a dinner party is the ultimate escape from deadlines and print runs.

“I start with a list of what to cook and a sketch of my kitchen space to see how I’ll manage it. Make use of parboiling, half-baking and raw ingredients; even in the smallest of kitchens, the best of meals can be made.

Dinner party ideas: desserts can be simple sharers to save on space and prep.

“In terms of the table, start with a white tablecloth. I usually use an old white linen sheet that can be bleached the morning after once it’s stained with red wine and raspberries. Don’t worry about the size of your table either, people will find space. The smaller the space the more informal it should be. If I know I’m cooking for 20 and we’re supposed to all be sitting around my six-seater table, I’ll make things that don’t need to be cut with cutlery so that they can be just as easily enjoyed on couch, floor or cushion. If the table is really full, I leave all my mains in the kitchen so that they aren’t taking up wine glass room on the dining table.

“Use candles – lots. None scented, just the tiny tea lights. They are small but have big impact scattered across the table. Flowers should be cut low, nothing spoils conversation quicker than having to make eye contact through petals. If space is sparse, flowers are first to go, but keep the candles. The glow is worth it.

Dinner party ideas: white tablecloths: look upmarket and are easily bleached.

“Starters can be simple: a big wheel of cheese next to a pot of good honey is a favourite, or olives, bread and good oil. I try to only cook one big thing – something slow and low on the bottom shelf of the oven that you don’t have to worry about, like a shoulder of lamb, slow roasted aubergines stuffed with garlic or a ragu. That way, your sides, be they crisp potatoes or grilled polenta, can have the hot heat of the grill at the top of the oven. I often wander to Smithfield Market first thing for a big joint of meat. By the time I’m home, it’s just setting the table, tossing together sides and salads and opening wine.

Dinner party ideas: Bre advises one slow-cook main dish.

“For sweets, it all depends on the main. After something rich, I like to serve something fun like a pot of melted chocolate and a big bowl of amaretti biscuits alongside a bottle of an Italian liqueur like Amaretto or Frangelico (with a tub of vanilla ice cream for those who desire).

“When numbers increase, everything else must be simplified. Not everyone will have a chair, and sometimes not everyone will have a plate, but that’s OK. Keep it simple, make it beautiful and cook what you love for who you love.”

“Don’t be afraid to leave the table for 10 minutes to tidy up”

Mary Anderson Ford owns a fashion retail recruitment consultancy. She’s thrown so many dinner parties in her one-bed flat in south-west London that she’s made it official and now runs a supper club company, LittleBee Kitchen, with a friend. She believes preparation is vital when it comes to entertaining in smaller spaces.

Mary Anderson Ford
Dinner party ideas: Mary uses stationery and art supply shops for simple and striking table decor.

“I’ve been hosting dinner parties for over a decade and I’d say the trick lies in organisation – having a day or a day and a half to prep as much as you can before the dinner guests arrive. That way the kitchen is clear and tidy, as mess in small spaces becomes quickly a nightmare!

“Preparing a dessert can easily take over an entire kitchen worktop, so doing it the day before and popping it in the fridge both reduces prep stress on the day itself and frees up space. The same is true of space on the hob, and I have to think about which pans I need and when – creating a curry for example I might need four on the go for rice, daal, paneer and vegetable madras. It’s definitely a giant logistical jigsaw puzzle so timing is key.

Mary Anderson Ford
Dinner party ideas: Mary's key advice is working out what pans and oven space each dish requires.

“Then it’s not being afraid to leave the table for 10 minutes at a time between courses to load and put the dishwasher on (if you have one) so everything is being cleared quickly – my guests are always amazed to see a pristine kitchen.

“I like ornamentation and creating tablescapes for my lunches and dinners, but in a small space this can lead to piles of stuff. So rather than have a million different coloured coordinating mats and table runners and napkins, I go to art shops (mostly the big Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road) and buy lovely handmade papers, then use flowers to complete the look. Wedding retailers like Confetti are also good for inspiration.

Mary Anderson Ford
Dinner party ideas: you can take simple design ideas from wedding websites.

“Because the room isn’t huge, the table gets pulled out when it’s time to eat, then pushed back when it’s time to chat over coffee on the sofa.

“I’ve definitely had my fair share of Bridget Jones blue soup moments, and have called a friend before for an emergency dash to the supermarket for desserts. But on the whole by doing so much of the work in advance, I have managed to pull off some fairly successful little luncheons.

Chloe Bannerman and Mary Anderson Ford little bee
Dinner party ideas: Chloe Bannerman and Mary Anderson Ford have started LittleBee Kitchen.

“I love opening up my kitchen and creating healthy and delicious menus, so my friend Chloe and I launched a pop-up restaurant concept called LittleBee Kitchen. With her nutritional therapy qualification and my passion for healthy eating, we thought it would be a great to take over restaurants for an evening.

Mary Anderson Ford
Dinner party ideas: eating at home eliminates the sticky bill issue.

“I love the conviviality of bringing everyone together and relaxing over a meal and some wine (my favourite new term is gezellig – all about sharing food with friends in a warm environment). And at home it comes without the irritations of waiters, or the inevitable groan when the bill comes.”

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This feature was originally published in December 2018

Images: courtesy of interviewees