Sitting down to eat with a group of friends should be convivial, relaxed and tasty. Avoid the foams, towers and squiggles, and concentrate on freshness, flavour and seasonality as your foundations.
I would eschew too much formality, too. No straight backs, heavy linen and cut glass. Guests should feel free to put their elbows on the table and lean in. If you need more than one type of fork to eat a dish, you’re in the wrong arena. Life is too short for napkin rings.
A salad is an instinctive choice. It isn’t too heavy, can be served cold, and all the elements can be prepared ahead of time. Leave tomatoes and peppers until summer and build it around something at its best right now. That might be asparagus or even samphire, while their fleeting seasons last – or new potatoes, perfect paired with radishes, fresh herbs and boiled eggs. Serve on a large platter, layering ingredients to show off colours, shapes and contrasts. Herbs, crumbled cheese, nuts and dressings are added at the end as a finishing flourish.
Communal and ‘family-style’ relieves the pressure of plating up and allows people to judge how much they want. A slowly braised stew, ladled from a pan in the centre of the table, is easy for all – try an aromatic veg tagine, a navarin of lamb and spring veg, or a fish stew full of fennel and Jersey Royals. Bowls of chopped herbs, a piquant green sauce, toasted nuts and seeds, or lemons for squeezing all add to the theatre and the idea that final tweaks are personal.
There is an anecdote about legendary restaurant Chez Panisse once serving nothing but a perfectly ripe peach for dessert. A bold act, but not a bad premise around which to build a pud – go for what is ripe and in season. When the first strawberries arrive, serve with a little cream or pair with some lightly poached and sweetened rhubarb, piled atop pavlova.
Steaks, fish or stir-fries need to be cooked just-so or served sizzling hot. Meals that need serving and eating fast aren’t conducive to a leisurely approach.
The golden rule
Leave discussions about house prices, tribal politics and virology at the door. It isn’t just food and drink that can turn sour. Boo those that disobey!
Dress to impress
Enjoy the sense of occasion and leave time to put on something that makes you feel fabulous; that goes for you and the table. Bring greenery and flowers in for table vases and choose candles for joyfully relaxed lighting.
A footnote on kids
Plan any kid-friendly alternatives ahead of time rather than having to cobble something together mid meal.