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How To Host A French Dinner Party

How To Host A French Dinner Party

how to host a french dinner party

Here is how to host the perfect French dinner party at home. In French, we call it the “Art de recevoir à la Française” (“the art of hosting French-style” in English). Indeed, the French take their food very seriously so it makes sense that they have specific customs around eating and hosting a dinner party. French dinner parties usually follow an elaborate ritual of different courses with paired wines, multiple place settings, and pre-and post-dinner drinks. French dinners are effortlessly chic: a good conversation with a lot of laughter, good wines, and delicious food, an evening that unfolds at a leisurely pace and ends late. In French we do not say “dinner party” but when an invitation is offered, it goes something like “Vous devriez venir dîner à la maison“, in English “you should come home for dinner.”

I do think hosting is really at the heart of French culture. And being French, I did not have to learn it, I was exposed to it at home. I remember growing up, we had family lunches and dinners where we would all gather at my grandparents’ house and have a glass of champagne to start with, and then we had a full menu. My grandmother loved to entertain and she had all of these beautiful plates, and glasses, and silverware. She had different styles so she could mix and play and create a different ambiance every single time. And I do think I’ve since inherited my family’s penchant for hosting.

So if you’re wondering how to host the perfect French dinner party and you don’t know where to start, here is everything you need to know to master the art of French hosting.

The Art Of The French Dinner Party

What To Bring To A French Dinner Party

As a guest, it’s always polite to bring either a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of wine, a bottle of Champagne, something homemade, or some artisanal food such as chocolates. If you bring a bottle of wine, opt for a French one (either white, red or rosé). Indeed, even if the French may say nice things about other wines from around the world, they rarely drink anything other than French wine. So, stay safe, and always bring French. It is usually considered a nice gesture to drink the bottle during dinner or as an apéritif.

When it comes to flowers, you can buy any type of bouquet but avoid by all means chrysanthemums. In France, these flowers are reserved for the 1st of November or la Toussaint (all saints day), as the tradition is to visit the graves of loved ones and to place those flowers on the grave.

Le Quart d’Heure De Politesse 

Dinner always starts in the living room with the traditional apéritif and usually at least a quarter-hour after the time you’ve asked your guests to come. In France, it’s called le quart d’heure de politesse (“the quarter hour of politeness”). Indeed, it’s considered impolite to arrive on time, as it’s assumed that the host always needs a few more minutes. However, if you’re really late (more than 30 minutes late), it’s always polite to tell your host and to apologize.

Start With An Apéritif

There’s one must-do in a French dinner party: the apéritif. The apéritif (or apéro for short), consists of a pre-dinner drink accompanied with munchies that help open up the appetite. This is the time where everyone relaxes and starts the evening, usually in the living room or on the patio. Depending on the season and the occasion, you can offer your guests Champagne (or a Kir Royal with crème de cassis), rosé, white wine, an Aperol spritz, a martini, or a seasonal cocktail. Alongside those pre-dinner drinks, the French often serve munchies such as olives, saucisson, garden-fresh radishes, sometimes tapenade or sun-dried tomato paste, ham, and foie gras on little toasts.

The French Art Of Table Setting

Once everyone arrived and had his apéritif, you can invite your guests to drift to the table. To host the perfect French dinner party, it’s essential to set an effortless but beautiful table. The French like to keep the table decoration to a minimum but each element is something that they love and they have collected over the years so it has a story. Silverware and crystal glasses that they’ve inherited, French Laguiole knives, a white cotton tablecloth from a vacation in the South of France, and vintage plates from a flea market. The French usually add a beautiful bouquet of flowers and candlesticks to the table. You can light the candles a bit before the dinner party starts so that they burn down to a cozier and more inviting height.

Just make sure you don’t overcrowd the table. Remember less is more. The rule of French styling applies here: If, before you leave the house, you remove one piece of jewelry, here you should remove one item from the table before guests arrive. If you want to learn more, check out my previous article on how to set your table the French way. In this article, I’ve laid out all the steps to properly set your dinner table as the French do.

Do Not Set An End Time

The French don’t put a cap on the evening before it begins. The longer the dinner lasts, the more Parisian it is. And the French can be offended if as a guest, you’re leaving the dinner party too early (before the end of the dinner). It’s not polite as well to leave right after the end of the dinner (as it would suggest you came over just for the food).

Being French, I often invite people to arrive at 8:00 p.m. and we regularly go on until 1:30 or 2 in the morning (even later if it occurs on a Friday evening). The evening hinges on good food and wine, but what creates a rhythm between courses is a healthy helping of conversation.

The Conversation

The French do not like to have polite conversations about unimportant things (small talks). Instead, conversations need to be engaging, objective, and with no political speak. Now, you understand why French dinner parties can last for hours! The French have a passion for discussing, or rather debating, the latest news. So if you don’t want to be left out, be sure to read the newspapers on D-Day. Also, no topic is off-limit such as religions or politics. Except maybe money; avoid in a conversation to talk about how much you spent on your new car or how much you’re earning. In France, it’s vulgar to talk about money so openly in a conversation.

Also, a big non-negotiable is a lot of talk around the food—the food you’re sharing, the meals you remember, the ones you’ll soon eat, the food you’ve cooked, and what you want to cook. The French love to talk about food while eating (which can be surprising). During a French dinner party, there is no need for additional entertainment or structured activity of any kind.

The Menu

For the French, the menu is very important at a dinner party. And even if people don’t come over just for the food, well, you don’t want people leaving your house with an empty stomach. I do think creating a delicious menu is one of the most complicated things when hosting a French dinner party. French people are fin gourmets and they will kindly let you know if the food is not really tasty.

A typical French dinner party follows a standard formula: un apéritif, une entrée (starter), un plat de résistance (main course), un plateau de formage (cheese), un dessert, un café, and un digestif. The point is to slow down by providing ample time between the different courses. Also, remember to keep the portions small so that your guests can enjoy the full dinner, but make sure it’s enough food so everyone leaves satisfied.

If you like to cook, create a menu that can be prepared entirely ahead of time — usually the main course will need to be reheated, and everything will need to be plated, but nothing will keep you in the kitchen long. If pressed for time, you can serve store-bought sides from a good local provider or assemble from quality products. It’s always great if there is a story behind those dishes or ingredients.

French Dinner Party Menu Ideas

Entrée / Starters
  • Oeufs mimosa
  • Pâté en croûte aux morilles
  • Soupe à l’oignon traditionnelle
  • Salade Niçoise
  • Soufflé au comté
Plat Principal / Main Course

The plat principal is the course the French will put the most effort (and time) into. Here are some of my favorite main course ideas to host the perfect French dinner party:

Fromage / Cheese

The classic French cheese course usually offers a minimum of three kinds of cheese, each representing a different type of milk (cow, goat, or sheep’s milk) or a different family of cheese. Choices include fresh cheese, soft cheese with surface mold (Brie, Camembert), soft cheese with a washed rind (Maroilles, Epoisses, Reblochon), soft cheese with a natural rind (Saint-Marcellin, most goat cheese Crottins), blue cheese (Roquefort, Bleu d’Auvergne), unheated pressed cheese (Cantal, Morbier) and heated pressed cheese (Beaufort, Emmental). Each cheese can be placed around the platter in the best order to taste it, from the mildest to the strongest. That way, there is something for everyone and your guests can pass around the cheese board and serve themselves easily.

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A cheese platter is served with just an ample provision of bread. Fresh baguette remains the ideal pairing for me, but country bread in thick slices can work well too. Finally, a cheese course is sometimes served with a salad (lettuce) which is simply dressed with a bit of olive or walnut oil, so as not to clash with the other flavors.

Dessert

The dessert is always my favorite course! French bakeries are wonderful, so most of the time the dessert course is often purchased rather than homemade. Since I particularly enjoy making dessert, here are some of my favorite French dessert recipes:

Café / Coffe

In France coffee is served as a separate course and after the dessert. Offer tea for those who don’t drink coffee (my favorite French tea is Mariage Frères). But otherwise, just make a simple pot of coffee or espressos if you have an espresso machine. Coffee can be served right at the table, or in the living room. For the fin gourmets, you can open a box of chocolates, French chocolate dragées (rich dark chocolate encased in a pastel candy coating), or Orangettes (long, fine strips of candied orange peel coated in a thin layer of dark chocolate). You can also make delicious French chocolate truffles.

Digestif

A digestif is an alcoholic drink that is served at the end of the French dinner party (as opposed to the apéritif which a served prior to eating). This after-dinner drink is sweeter and has a higher alcohol percentage as it is designed to help with the digestion of your meal. Traditionally, a digestif can be Génépi, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Eau de vie (liqueur), Cointreau, Chartreuse, or even Grand marnier.

Know Your Wine Pairings

No French dinner party would be complete without wine! The French follow specific rules religiously on which wine to drink and when. First, wine is rarely drunk as an apéritif (opt for Champagne, Kir Royal, or a seasonal cocktail instead). Then, white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert. Whereas red wine with red meat, tomato-based dishes, and cheese. Also, there are specific wines for dessert. As each course must be paired with a specific wine, it’s possible to savor three to five different wines during a French dinner party! But don’t worry, the French don’t drink as much as other countries as they never fill a wine glass more than half full.

Finally, if you’re able to read French and you want to learn everything on how to host the perfect French dinner party, I really recommend the book L’Art de recevoir à la française written by the French chef Paul Bocuse.

Et voilà! Now you know exactly how to host the perfect French dinner party! I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do. Let me know in the comment below if you have any questions.

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