No matter how hard you try or nicely you ask, you will never have all of your guests arrive exactly at the same time. Depending on the culture, some will be impressively, almost artfully, late, and others may be hair-raisingly early. Mix your laid-back South American friends and super punctual Israeli’s in one guest list, and you definitely need to prepare for a range of arrival times.
Though this issue persists even with small dinners of five or six, whenever I am having 8 or more guests for dinner, I plan some sort of appetizer. This not only tides over hungry guests and fills time while waiting for late-comers, but sets the tone for the evening. I usually do only one appetizer instead of a cheese or charcuterie plate, and not just for economical reasons. This is an opportunity to initially stun your guests and awaken their palates. I make sure that whatever I open with matches the tastes and tone of the meal.
A few examples (which I am particularly fond of and make quite often):
- Fried bananas for South Indian or Balinese food
- Crostini with fegato (tuscan liver pate) for Italian food
- Mini-latkes for seasonal feasts like Christmas of Thanksgiving
- Tortilla espanola for a Spanish spread
- Endive leaves filled with blue cheese and cranberries for an intimate, New American/French meal
When one hosts at least one dinner party a week, a host learns to control their guests subtly in certain ways, whether to encourage to conversation using energizing music or lengthen a dinner by serving multiple courses. One of my largest annoyances as a host is the way that conversation stills when guests have to dally too long to wait for late-comers. This is made particularly bad when guests are gathered around the dining table. These is little worse than being seated for a dinner but having to wait for the food. Unfortunately, when you are in a dining room dominated by a large table, guests only have the option to sit or stand in an isolate manner separated by the size of the table.
I have, however, discovered a psychological secret about dinner guests. If you start a dinner by pretending it is a cocktail party, they will mingle and not feel as if they are being made to wait. Often they even become so engaged in their conversation it is hard to gather them to the table and serve the first course!
Even when you are having a sit down dinner, you should also plan for the preliminary mixing and mingling. If you do not a suitable separate space for this to take place, feel free to push the table out of the way and simply set out hors d’oeuvres and wine glasses instead of a full table set-up. Your guests will be eager to help move and set the table later, as gracious guests are always looking for a way to help their host or hostess. The bonding between guests, the momentum of the evening, and your (less uncomfortable) late-arrivals will all thank your for the extra effort.