The lost art of inviting friends over for dinner
Restaurants are wonderful, full stop. There is something endlessly delightful about going to a comfortable, public place and having perfect strangers bring you a meal made all the more delicious by the fact that you did not have to cook it. It is remarkable that Americans now allot more of our food budgets to restaurants than to grocery stores — but honestly, I get it. A single fancy-ish meal out with a craft cocktail or two can easily exceed my grocery bill for the week, and if I went to restaurants as often as I'd like, even sans cocktails, I'd quickly eat myself into the poorhouse.
Yet this is not an article in praise of restaurants but in praise of not going to restaurants, of refusing to make them the default option for hanging out with friends. Instead of always heading to a favorite local haunt, I'm increasingly an advocate of hosting people at home. Kept super casual, it's cheaper by far, and it doesn't have to be as daunting as it may sound. Pinterest and Instagram suggest having people over must be a very produced, all-inclusive thing — if you can't make it perfect, carefully filtered images of a beautiful place setting suggest, just don't bother — but nothing could be further from the truth.
The first thing to realize is that hospitality doesn't have to be complicated. It need not be expensive or pretty. It doesn't require special china or flowers or candles or a tablecloth. (If you are under 40, you likely own none of these anyway.) You don't have to change your clothes or scrub your house into pristine condition. Basic tidiness is nice, of course, though the better the friendship the lower the standard. You are the attraction here; your home is just a setting.
You know your friends; you know their habits and expectations. And you know yourself and what feels comfortable for having people over. For me, that means a not-gross bathroom and clean surfaces in whatever room we'll be in most. Having a house with clearly defined rooms which keep, for instance, a dirty kitchen out of sight, makes this easier, as does our possession of a small deck for summertime gatherings. For you, the goal might be something different. But whatever it is, it should be achievable within, at most, 15 minutes of cleaning from your normal level of mess — basically the time it would take nearby friends to get to your house if they left as soon as the group chat invite went out.
And speaking of the group chat, casual hospitality should not involve formal invitations or much advance notice. You're having a hangout, not A Thing. That's also why a menu is unnecessary, as is a full meal. Forget multiple courses. Forget a wine pairing. Do you have some beers in your fridge? Maybe some chips and dip, or some cheese and crackers, or a few sausages you could throw on the grill? Great! That's enough. The easiest way to do low-key hosting is to make it a lazy, ad hoc potluck where everyone brings stuff they already have or grabs something from a restaurant or grocery store on the way. Set expectations low and you'll easily surpass them.
For example, we recently had three couples over on a Saturday night. We contributed some assorted beers, a pie I'd made with raspberries from our yard, and all but one of the ingredients for a bourbon-based cocktail. One couple brought the missing cocktail ingredient; another brought ice cream for the pie and some potato chips; and the third brought a gazpacho-style soup and pita bread with dip. Our meal was wildly mismatched and completely satisfying. We hung out for five hours, far longer than most restaurants would permit, and we spent a fraction of what a comparable restaurant experience would have required.
That open-ended timeline and the intimacy of home hospitality are what matters here more than the expense. Inviting friends to our homes invites them into our lives in a way that going out to eat can't replicate. It's an expression of trust, not only an opportunity for shared entertainment.
In this sense, the meticulously edited dinner parties we see in our social media feeds are a step away from hospitality, not toward it. They tell us to show our friends a curated self, and while I am all for fancy parties — my annual New Year's Eve cocktail party has a strict dress code — that's not conducive to forging deep friendships in the day-to-day.
And we need such friendships, desperately. Ours is a culture beset by loneliness as old patterns of community life unravel. Each new generation reports an increasing sense of isolation; fully three in 10 millennials say they always or often feel lonely, and a quarter say they have no friends.
We need to be in each other's lives, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to be in each other's homes.