I don’t get invited to that many dinner parties. I hope it’s not a problem with me, although I can’t rule it out. Instead, I have a feeling that the era of nibbles, laying the table and stressing about the starters is over. When I asked my friends how many invites they get, there was a reasonably consistent answer: roughly one every few months.
I’m not talking here about spag bol with pals. A dinner party is a sit-down affair, with multiple courses and, ideally, a few people you don’t know for company. In their twenties, my parents were apparently having a dinner party every week. My mum has three smartly bound journals, all with the title ‘Guest & Menu Book’. Inside each is an assortment of table plans and wine notes, entries on roast lamb and claret, as well as occasional thoughts about the conversation: ‘This is the last time I cook for people who claim to be struggling on £100,000.’
One reason for the death of the dinner party is Britain’s mad housing market. It’s not uncommon to visit a friend’s flat and discover nothing more than a bedroom or two, and a galley kitchen. Even in homes that have space for a full kitchen table, you’d be lucky to fit more than six people in.
No one in the 1980s, I’m reliably informed by my mother, would have been seen dead in London at the weekend. Once you’d finished work on a Friday afternoon, you’d hop in the car and drive either to your friends at the Ag College or, if you worked in the City, to your own Oxfordshire cottage. Now even someone on £100,000 a year would struggle to find a decent dinner-party bolthole.
The other problem is housemates. Many Londoners spend their twenties floating between house shares, upping sticks every year in search of cheaper rent. Sharing a flat is mostly transactional, often with somebody you’ve found on a spare-room website. One friend used to get a text every time she left so much as a teaspoon on the side – only to discover that her highly strung housemate had been keeping a secret cat in her bedroom for more than a year. You will inevitably have to invite these housemates along (it is their kitchen too, after all) which means even fewer spaces for guests you actually like.
Restaurants are also to blame. Why spend the afternoon chopping onions when you can just invite a handful of friends out for dinner, where you will have more space and everyone splits the bill? The difference is that you can’t behave all that badly in a restaurant. It’s also harder to corner somebody while outside for a smoke.
Which is, of course, one of the essential functions of dinner parties. Traditionally they have been an opportunity for romance, for the host to match-make and for guests to meet friends of friends. Even in the era of the dating app, nothing quite beats a drunken snog in the corner of the garden.
But the urge to match-make seems to have gone the way of the landline telephone. People are expected to find their own dates, with the apps turning what was once a collective endeavour into something totally private. Why risk the embarrassment of attempting to set up friends when they can just as easily sift through online profiles? The result is tidier – there’s no risk of awkward break-ups splitting your group – but it’s also duller. You know what you’re signing up to when you swipe right, but there’s a thrill in wondering whether you might hit it off with a dining companion.
There does seem to be an Oxbridge divide. My Oxbridge friends get invited to, and host, more dinner parties. Maybe it’s because they can afford larger flats, being the smartest brains in the land. But my theory is they’re different: firstly because they’re used to college dinners but also because they’ve spent their university years pretending to be upstanding members of society. If you’ve got into the habit of dressing up and sitting down for dinner, why wouldn’t you continue? While red-brick students were discovering the consequences of drinking three bottles of White Lightning in one sitting, Oxbridge students were learning how to pass the port.
But with restaurants getting pricier, perhaps twentysomethings are going to return to the dinner party. It’s a development I’d welcome – if anyone wants to invite me round.
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