How To Host a Modern Dinner Party

When Mya Gelber started making videos on TikTok early this year, the 26-year-old went for the known format of the fit check, posing while putting on Carhartts and coats. But in April, it was a video of one of her monthly dinner parties, showing handwritten menus tied to gingham napkins and a tablescape scattered with eucalyptus leaves, that found unexpected success, drawing over 500,000 views.

Gelber now uses the platform primarily to share dinner party inspiration and guides, budget tips, and playlist suggestions, but the fashion hasn’t dropped out entirely since she also dreams up outfits for hypothetical dinners around the world (a flouncy dress for Lima; a black turtleneck minidress with a tan trench for Paris). Speaking truth to that one 2011 Onion headline, Gelber learned to host as a student at Bard College, where the small size limited the nightlife options, and then spent time in London’s vibrant supper club scene. “I wanted to bring that to my friends,” says Gelber, who’s now based in Brooklyn. She found added motivation during the pandemic to bring the feeling of the restaurant home, and now, with over 64,000 followers, it’s clear that Gelber has found a niche for herself on TikTok as a dinner party influencer.

Her brand of instructive-meets-aspirational content comes at exactly the right time. After over two years of caution, dinner parties are back in a big way. As people return to gathering, there’s a sense for many of having to relearn old conventions, while for those who came of age during the pandemic years, a chance at trying something new. An opportunity not only to feed and to gather but also to present one’s home and cooking, the dinner party is a feat of domesticity, and accordingly, an affair rife with potential stressors. Making all the moving parts work is a skill honed by practice, or for those with money, hired aid. But where Martha Stewart and Ina Garten might have instructed previous generations, a growing niche of guides, services, and influencers is emerging to demystify hosting: Welcome to the new dinner party economy.

While getting meal delivery boxes from HelloFresh last year, sisters Hanna Ray Flores and Lea Raymond had an idea: “What if we had that for dinner parties?” Flores says. Though their family hosted every weekend growing up, “we were realizing as we got older that people weren’t hosting as much as our family was,” says Flores. Ages 22 and 30, respectively, Raymond and Flores found themselves well-positioned; they could cater to both younger people making the shift from college partying to having their own apartments, as well as older, experienced hosts looking for ways to streamline. They started Hauste (pronounced like “host”), a company that primarily produces and sells “Hauste Its,” downloadable dinner party guides.

Hauste’s guides go for $16 or $26 depending on the gathering; pasta night for two requires less guidance and effort than Thanksgiving. Either way, it offers a shopping list, menu, recipes, playlist, design inspiration, checklists, and in some cases, templates for name cards or invites. Tasks are broken down into the days and minutes leading up to the meal, even including small touches like lighting a candle in the bathroom and putting on music from a provided Spotify code right before guests arrive. Unlike the typical dinner party move of pulling recipes from cookbooks and then figuring out which tasks can be done simultaneously, “our [guides] are all intertwined, so you’re not wasting time,” says Raymond.

There’s a sense of thoughtful curation in Hauste’s guides. “To make sure you and your guests have a full experience, you (as the hauste) need to style for the senses,” reads a guide for a Sunday night salmon dinner; it also recommends a light color palette, a “wildflower chic” vibe with optional flower-studded ice cubes, and scattering tea lights across the table. While much of the motivation behind the dinner party boom is the simple pleasure of gathering, there is also the undeniable influence of social media: The dinner party is both IRL experience and fodder for lifestyle inspiration to be captured and shared online later.

Because we’re in the age of Instagram aesthetics, there are dinner party services that rent out tablescapes, like Casamia (with the tagline: “Host more. Stress less.”), Table + Teaspoon (which has “the goal of making entertaining accessible for everyone”), and Social Studies (“rentable looks for any occasion”). The latter’s “field day fête” package offers a full spread of tableware — including nonbreakable plates, horn cheese knives, and caviar cocktail napkins — for a fancy picnic, at the rate of $68 per guest. “A lot of people don’t have the storage, or desire, to hold on to 25 pink-themed place settings that they’re using for a shower, and that’s really how the concept was born,” says Social Studies co-founder Jessica Latham, whose background in event production included working as Vanity Fair’s director of events.

In addition to those logistical motivations behind Social Studies, Latham points to a bigger hole in the dinner party industry. “There wasn’t a brand in the market that was owning entertaining in the home in the way that Martha Stewart has done in the past for previous generations,” she says. Though Stewart still exists as a resource, “we felt like there was room for a young, fresh brand to come in and do it in a little bit of an edgier and modern fashion,” explains Latham, who falls within the upper age range for millennials.

This new dinner party economy is guided by distinctly millennial and younger sensibilities, with a keen awareness of the inevitability of social media. Like a manifestation of a New York 20-something’s Instagram ads, the Brooklyn store Big Night is a one-stop dinner party shop, with tinned fish, Dusen Dusen placemats, and Estelle Colored Glass. Pearl Banjurtrungkajorn of the supper club Her Name Is Nala shares candlelit TikTok videos of her life as a dinner party planner in New York City, while Meredith Hayden of Wishbone Kitchen shows the similarly romanticized dinners she creates as a private chef in the Hamptons. Chef and artist Jen Monroe’s virtual “The Table as Canvas” class teaches would-be food artists to embrace and execute the bizarre dinner party. (For a recent event, Monroe made chains out of sugar and suspended stockings with fruit and vegetable feet from the ceiling.) The Australian brand Into the Sauce sells dinner party conversation cards, which it also promotes frequently on TikTok.

The fact of these services that help viewers dream up picture-perfect dinner parties indicates that there should be some amount of effort and aesthetic curation involved in hosting a dinner party. According to the people that offer them, however, the point of these guides and services is to facilitate gathering, not to get hung up on the minutiae of curating perfection. “We always say at Social Studies: Snap a picture of it and post it on Instagram — and then put your phone down and connect with the people you’ve invited over,” says Latham.

Perhaps the return of dinner parties provides an opportunity to redefine the requirements of hosting. In Bon Appétit, writer Alicia Kennedy explored the dinner party’s potential for reframing: Choosing to forgo the standards set by domestic grand dames like Nora Ephron, M.F.K. Fisher, and Martha Stewart has allowed her to treat dinner parties as an exercise in sharing abundance, not displaying wealth. “All that advice about the perfect dinner party? I no longer listen to it,” she writes. Indeed, millennials and younger generations may be less conditioned on the Betty Draper-esque conventions of our forebears; we might be more likely to actually use our fine china even if it chips (and that’s if we have fine china in the first place).

Gelber’s ultimate goal for her TikTok is to make dinner parties more accessible, especially to the platform’s younger audience. “It doesn’t need to be this elitist thing,” she says. Her priority is sticking to her budget (generally, $80 to $100 split with her partner, for up to nine guests) and making sure everyone is full and happy, with enough food for leftovers. On Gelber’s table, a pink knife might accompany a silver spoon and fork, the plates might not match, and the re-used table decorations might come from Dollar Tree; the point is the gathering. “I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do the perfect anything,” she says.

By providing would-be hosts with enough structure to achieve an experience that’s thoughtful and artful, but without having to stress over each element from scratch, the sisters of Hauste hope to enable a happy medium between “the Martha Stewarts and the cool girls,” Raymond explains, the latter of whom have perpetuated the idea of the effortless, just-thrown-together dinner party. (This, as some have pointed out, is a bit of a myth, after all.) “I think our culture and society is obsessed with being effortless,” Raymond says. “As much as that is a style, I think there’s a beauty in effort and putting together things for people you love.”

One thing that’s true of our culture is that disruption comes for everything — even, apparently, dinner party clean-up. While Social Studies asks renters to “clear all dinnerware of food particles (sauce included!)” before returning their dinnerware, the competing table-setting rental company Table + Teaspoon specifies there’s no need to wash anything at all, “just pack up and send back via prepaid label.” A dinner party without a sink full of dirty dishes? That truly is perfection.