Up Your Game: 10 Things To Try For Your Next Dinner Party

Entertaining

From new cocktail and food ideas to the latest tablescape trends, we bring you some fresh inspiration for your next dinner party. Photo: Marcus Nilsson/Gallery Stock

Pull out the cocktail shaker, polish the crystal and get set to embrace some fresh thinking. However you celebrate the pleasure of each other’s company ­— brunch, aperitivo hour or dinner-party soirées — it’s time to jump on the latest in food, drink and ambiance to transform yourself into the host with the most.

1. Collaborative Dining

Life is about experiences, not stuff. Such is the mantra of gen-Z and millennials and the truism is influencing our adventures in dining and cocktailing, too. Let’s hope your social life is peppered with at least one or two invites to an “interactive dinner” this year. Perhaps you’ll be served a multi-course meal from a chef who’s crafted every morsel, and you’ll learn the origin story of each item nestled on your plate. Or maybe you’ll prep a hot-pot feast with your longtime buddies. “Friendship and food never go out of style, but hosting looks quite different than it did a generation ago,” says Martha Grace McKimm, co-owner of everything-entertaining shop Hopson Grace in Toronto. “Our busy lives and a desire for less formality have changed the game. Emphasis has moved away from expectations of perfection to more intimate and easy gatherings. Whether you invite friends over to make dumplings or homemade pasta, the focus will be on creating easy experiences that foster a sense of connection.”

2. More Coffee, Please

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Photo: Chelsea Kyle/Trunk

 

We are a culture obsessed with coffee and our fixation shows no sign of waning. The café experience now extends to the home as witnessed by the coffee station, which holds pride of place in many high-style kitchens. In fact the recently released  “What’s Trending in Pop Culture” report from Pinterest says searches for coffee bar styling are up a whopping 1,125 per cent. From that personalized home coffee bar with its pour-over carafe, to cult-favourite Technivorm Moccamaster Coffee Maker (it comes in 27 colours), and a supply of Fair Trade beans (perhaps even with functional mushrooms blended in), the focus is on the java and all of the paraphernalia that relates to it.

For coffee-loving cocktail fans, the espresso martini is about to be pushed aside by the Carajillo. According to Bon Appétit, this coffee-based cocktail is so popular in Mexico that bartenders are now experimenting with flavour twists. Note to home mixologists: The classic recipe combines two ounces of espresso or strong coffee with two ounces of Licor 43, a bright lemon-hued liqueur with notes of cinnamon, orange blossom and vanilla among its reputed 43 secret ingredients. It can be served hot or cold, and when hot, try serving it after dinner, with a sparkling sugar rim to wow your guests.

 

3. Power Your Plate With Plants

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Photo: GAPS/Getty Images

 

Where there’s flora, there doesn’t necessarily have to be fauna. Our sustainability mindset is fuelling our collective passion for plants. But forget just-like-meat and pseudo-meat, the focus now is on vegetables in all of their leafy, cruciferous glory. Most of us are happier with veg not trying to look, feel and taste like a burger. Plants, including often overlooked veggies like turnips and marrows, are taking the starring role in the meal. The roster of cookbooks includes a robust roundup of pro-plant titles. There’s Misunderstood Vegetables: How to Fall in Love With Sunchokes, Rutabaga, Eggplant and More by Becky Selengut; Nosh: Plant-Forward Recipes Celebrating Modern Jewish Cuisine by Micah Siva; Michael Smith’s Farmhouse Vegetables and Vegan Mob: Vegan BBQ and Soul Food by Toriano Gordon.

 

4. Embrace Imperfection

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Photo: PERNILLE LOOF/Trunk

 

“​​It’s not about having a perfect table,” says Amy Burstyn-Fritz of Misette dinnerware. “It’s about showing your personality, your family dynamic in that table, and having it feel warm and welcoming and like something that has been curated for your guests.” She sees a big trend in people not buying complete sets of glassware. “Instead they’re actually mixing colourways.” Take, for example, today’s popular jewel tones: emerald green, ruby, sapphire, amber. “They just all kind of go together,” she says. “Glassware is like a piece of jewelry that you can put on the table and mix and match and collect over time.”

Burstyn-Fritz cites her mom, who pairs exceptional pieces she’s collected on her world travels, like vintage Murano glass, alongside handcrafted goblets from Misette and everyday bar-and tableware. There’s magic in the mix.

 

5. Freshen Up Cocktail Hour With a Lineup of New Sippers

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Photo: Rawpizel/ISTOCK

 

Sláinte, Cin Cin, Prost! Look forward to toasting birthdays, achievements and your favourite person with a round of new digestifs and wines. Cocktail creators are branching out with a more all-inclusive perspective, says Evelyn Chick, author of For the Love of Cocktails: The Everyday Guide to Delightful Drinks for Anyone, Anytime. She sees them drawing inspiration from different cultures, using international and Indigenous ingredients that are plentiful, innovative and sustainable. “Alternative spirit bases, like Baijiu, Sochu, Ouzo; the list goes on,” she says. “Drinks are becoming more welcoming of all palates.”

A new round of digestifs is aiming to steal some glow from the much-loved Negroni and the Aperol spritz. “Spritzes with alternative liqueurs, outside of Aperol, and sparkling outside of Prosecco, will make things fresh,” says Chick. Think Cava, Charmant and the more rosy Lambrusco.

She also points to sustainability as a highly influential undercurrent in the world of entertaining and hosting. This holistic mindset inspires creative ways to use citrus waste, sugar alternatives and not-so-perfect ingredients.

Liqueurs are coming on strong, too. Their superpower, say most bartenders, is the ability to deliver intense flavour with little volume. So forget jumbo-sized roadhouse-style cocktails. Liqueurs make it possible to craft a finessed and flavourful sipper for the most petite coupe. Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers, based out of Beamsville, Ont., recently introduced a new seven-flavour liqueur collection. “We saw a real need for high-quality, locally made liqueurs that could be used in cocktails,” says Geoff Dillon, founder of the trendsetting company.

Each of Dillon’s liqueurs preserves the natural flavours and essence of Ontario fruit picked at its prime. The brand’s version of a Kir Royale, for example, takes 0.5 oz. of its Black Currant Liqueur – using black currants sourced from a farm in nearby Milton, Ont., for the creation of its take on Crème de Cassis – and mixes it with house-made lemon bitters and Niagara sparkling wine. Now, doesn’t that sound tantalizingly local and of the moment?

 

6. Jazz Up Your Dinner-Party Playlist

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Photo: Darrell Eager/Gallery Stock

 

Interested in new dinner-party tunes? That Pinterest study mentioned earlier says you’re set to hear some jazz, especially if you leave the music in the hands of your kids. “This year, millennials and gen-Z will trade in their electronic beats for something far more retro: vintage jazz. Jazz-inspired outfits, dimly lit venues and lo-fi looks are all on the rise,” states the 2024 forecasting report. Searches for jazz funk are up 75 per cent, piano jazz up 105 per cent, and jazz aesthetic clothing up 180 per cent. What’s still not cool? Jazz hands.

 

7. Jump Into The Fire

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Photo: Claudia Totir/Getty Images

 

If you were among the masses made frantic by the shortage of Sriracha over the past few years, the current hot-and-spicy trend may delight you. From piquant cocktails to sweet-hot desserts, things are heating up even more. Estimates are that the global hot-sauce market is on fire and expected to hit a valuation of about US$5.09 billion by 2030, which is almost double its 2022 numbers.

Multinational grocery chain Whole Foods Market concurs. Its recent “Next Big Things” report says the company will be hotting up its 2024 inventory storewide, from Scorpion peppers in the produce aisle to pepper-infused desserts and put-a-kick-in-your-step beverages like canned tepache, a fizzy Mexican drink made with fermented pineapple peels. 

Celebrity collaborations are not just for fashion – Ed Sheeran’s hot sauce created with Kraft Heinz in 2023 flagged us to the fact that the trend is incendiary. Tingly Ted’s, a capsicum-loaded sauce named for Sheeran’s childhood nickname Teddy, is a brilliant move by the food company given the star quotient – and the quirky fact that the artist apparently travels with a bottle of hot sauce in his suitcase.

Ted’s comes in two flavours, Tingly and Xtra Tingly, amped up with smoke, citrus and herbs, which reflects the fact that this trend is not simply about Scoville-scale bragging rights. Flavour is key for the ambitious palates of modern-day foodies.

 

8. Lean Into the No-and Low-Flow

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Speaking of cocktails, the healthy drinking trend just keeps getting bigger and better. Notably, supply is catching up with no- or low-alcohol demand – with gusto. Forget the basic offering of pop and OJ for guests. Today’s mocktail bar can be outfitted to inspire the most creative of home bartenders. Just stop by one of the specialty Cocktail Emporium shops in Toronto, or visit them online – they ship across the country – and you’ll find a range of zero-alcohol gin, tequila, rum and mezcal as well as vermouths and bitters. Also alcohol-free sparkling wines, which are amazing to have on hand as part of your base-bar offering, says Christina Veira, cocktail pro and co-owner of Bar Mordecai in Toronto. “So many of the new ones like Martini Dolce 0.0 or Lyre’s Classico Sparkling Wine are hard to tell apart from their boozier options.”

 

9. Go with Greenery

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Photo: Yamamoto Yutaka/TRUNK

 

“Casual is chic,” sums up Shawn Gibson of Toronto-based floral and decor emporium Teatro Verde, when asked to describe the look and feel of the flowers dressing up fashionable dining tables. Although the palette runs the gamut from wild and multicolour to monochromatic, Gibson says green is having a moment: “Green, as in the colour, but also leaves and moss.” Picture green cymbidium orchids, chartreuse dianthus, mood moss and ruscus. The use of leaves gives the ability to create shapes and textures on the table and is much more architectural than softer, typical floral arrangements, says the veteran retailer. “Green leaves and green flowers are also associated with rebirth and renewal, health, fortune and youthfulness,” he adds, hypothesizing on the why behind the trend.

 

10. Bowl Me Over

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Photo: MC Collection/Gallery Stock; GraydonHerriott

 

Looking to update your dinnerware? The landscape has evolved. Beautiful bowls are now one of the essential items in today’s standard, five-piece place settings. So versatile, you’ll see them described with catch-all descriptors like “coupe-pasta-soup-shallow serving bowl.” There’s also something innately satisfying about a bowl’s shape that feels nourishing and comforting, from both a tactile and aesthetic point of view.

As Vanessa Eckstein, the co-founder of sleek Canadian homeware brand Førs Studio says, “Many cultures have had bowls at the centre of their relationship to food — there is a soulfulness in both the sensuality of holding a bowl in our hands to the generosity of sharing a meal in a larger one.” Bowls are versatile, accommodating everything from poké, ramen and grain bowls to salads, risotto or pho and make sense with today’s more casual entertaining style.

And, consider this your digestif: flavour, fire and a feel-good informality add an extra layer of sparkle to entertaining. Whether you’re experimenting with new ingredients, styling your table with eclectic glassware or serving up a new aperitif to friends and family, this is the moment to embrace creativity, sustainability and inclusivity. Now that’s a menu to be inspired by. 

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2024 issue with the headline ‘10 Things To Try For Your Next Dinner Party’, p. 92.