A White House State Dinner isn’t like a traditional dinner party. They're "bigger than the biggest weddings," former White House chef Walter Scheib told ABC News, and invitations are considered to be the “hottest tickets in town.” These lavish celebrations honoring a visiting head of government are some of the most glamorous affairs hosted by the White House, and have been a tradition since the early 19th century, when President Grant hosted the first ever state dinner, complete with a 29-course meal. Receiving an invitation to dine at the White House is reason alone to celebrate, as each guest is handpicked. And when your hosts are the first lady and President of the United States, you can’t cancel — especially if you will be dining next to celebrities like Peyton Manning, Beyoncé, and Whitney Houston.
Over the years, the gold standard for state dinners has risen and fallen with the times. Dolly Madison, thought to be the most famous White House hostess, was entertaining in the White House long before the dinners became a tradition, and set a high standard for two more stylish hosts who followed in her footsteps: Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama. Madison's lavish affairs featured decadent menus, and follow her mantra that the more guests there were, the merrier the party. She continued to entertain right up to the moment when the War of 1812 was nearing her front door — with canyons echoing in the distance, she and a few servants fled, the nation's most valuable dishes and silver in hand, leaving behind a table set for 40.
According to Scheib, hosting a state dinner isn’t easy. “If one thing doesn’t go right, it’s not like a restaurant where you can give someone 10 percent off the bill and a free glass of champagne.” The pressure is intense. And once it’s determined what can or can’t be served, there are multiple tastings to ensure the menu is just right. He recalls how Laura Bush would host friends for “Iron Chef-style” tastings when deciding what to serve — just as she might have done when planning for an elaborate dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 2007.
While the dinners are always hosted by the President and first lady, some presidents take a more active role in the planning process than others. Like President Nixon, for example, who gave more state dinners than any other president — a whopping 76 — and paid close attention to where people were seated. Jackie Kennedy was another famous White House host, throwing her first party just a mere two days after moving into the White House, and introducing a bar to the State Dining Room, complete with butlers who could mix a custom martini, or pour champagne. Following in her footsteps, Michelle Obama introduced another new element to the recent state dinner held in honor of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak — a Tweetup.
Today, the pressure to throw an elaborate, over-the-top affair that guests will never forget remains high for the President and first lady. Think back to the Obama’s first state dinner in November 2009 for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was the most anticipated event of the year, and was labored over for months by the first lady and her team. While a heavy downpour might have dampened the hemlines of guests' floor-length gowns and tuxedos at the most recent dinner (Michelle herself in a one-shouldered, slinky Doo-Ri Chung gown and sparkling statement earrings), the Obamas didn't let it rain on their parade. In a nod to the guest of honor, chrysanthemums and hydrangeas in rich fall golds decorated the tables, and guests were delighted with dishes that combined fresh vegetables from the White House garden with a Korean twist, including a harvest salad with daikon and rice pearl crispies, and Texas Wagyu beef with kale and Kabocha squash. Sounds magical to us.