Our friends are motivated people, and when food is involved, they tend to show up in larger quantities than we’d have expected. We try to foster an inclusive vibe, even if it means running out the door two hours before a dinner party to buy extra baguettes.
But there comes a point when we stop trying to fit mismatched chairs around the “dining room” table and realize that our casual dinner has just become a full-fledged party. Whether or not we expect more than ten guests, when the occasion calls for a slightly bigger crowd than usual, we set up the food for grazing. We nix the chairs, let people serve themselves, and opt for paper plates.
Our coping method du jour for overpopulated dinner parties? The buffet. It might seem like a simple concept—beckoning memories of gingham, picnic benches, and old-fashioned church socials—but there are a few simple tactics to keep in mind when hosting one in the comfort of your (small) urban apartment. Follow these rules of thumb and the dinner portion of your party will always be a success.
Planning the Menu
∙ Stick with One-Pot Wonders.
Every buffet table needs a centerpiece, and it should be a dish that you are able to make in massive quantities. A large Dutch oven filled with a hearty stew or chili is a great starting point. The dish itself looks rustic and elegant when served straight from the pot, and it only tastes better if made the night before. One or two baking dishes of roast chicken or baked pasta also work well, so long as you have more than one oven rack.
∙ Fill out the meal with smaller pre-prepped items.
The majority of your energy should be focused on the main dish, and you should rely on simple sides—a big green salad, bowls of crusty bread, herbed egg noodles or rice—to round out the meal.
∙ Don’t be afraid to cut corners.
If making our Brisket and Pumpkin Chili, buy pre-shredded cheese, unadorned sour cream, and limes as easy accoutrements. Bake a simple cornbread, and carry the southwestern theme through to your salad by adding corn kernels or avocado, and dressing it with an easy lemon vinaigrette.
∙ Delegate dishes. Cooking for a large group can get expensive. In sticking with the above principles, it’s also okay to ask your friends to bring the cheese or bake the cornbread. And it’s certainly a must that they bring booze.
Setting the Buffet Table
∙ Use paper and plastic.
When serving a crowd, we switch to disposable items. Average three cups and two plates per person. Once people start drinking and eating, they put down their original set of disposable flatware, lose it among the sea of empty red cups, then get a new set five minutes later. You don’t want people grabbing real wine glasses halfway through the night because there are no more plastic cups.
∙ Separate food and booze.
When people BYOB, they tend to set their bottle on the first surface they see, and sometimes that place is right in the middle of the buffet table. Try to designate separate locales for the meal, and for the drinks. Try to keep the drink area in the kitchen—it’s just so much easier to tackle with bleach the next day. Set up your Solo cups and wine opener(s) on the kitchen counter. Arrange your plates, forks, and napkins on a bench or table in the main dining area, and place the food alongside.