Frances Schultz Dishes on Dinner Parties

Dim the lights. Prepour the wine. Don't skip the seating plan. Frances Schultz shares her essential tips for hosting a gathering that will put every guest at ease.
outdoor bar

The bar makes a good focal point, as guests invariably congregate there. In creating a table, I also think in terms of a tableau, composing elements as I might in a still life to paint.

A relaxed, confident, slightly bossy hostess (or host) is key. When you are relaxed, your guests can be too. Be completely organized, and leave little for the last minute. Hire help if you can.

Arrival is the crucial moment when guests decide, if unconsciously, whether this is gonna be fun. Dim the lights and cue the votive candles. Play lively music, but softly enough to talk over. (Turn it off during dinner; life is distracting enough.) Give guests a drink the instant they walk in. Prepoured glasses of wine prevent a rush at the bar. Offer nonalcoholic options too. As a (slightly bossy) hostess, make introductions. Scan the group for wayward souls and wing them in.

Have a seating plan, however small or informal your party. It saves a world of fumbling and possibly hurt feelings. Place cards are fine, but names scribbled on scrap paper will do. Seat kindred spirits together, whether they’re live-wires or wallflowers. They’ll be most comfortable and best amused with their own sort.

outdoor dining table

I rubber-stamped butterflies on the place cards just because.

A stack of cocktail napkins bearing a tree motif and the name Rancho La Zaca beside a silver dish of sliced lemons and limes

Signature napkins

Have wine and water on the table. It’s easier for everyone.

No cell phones at or on the table. For. Any. Reason. In an emergency, excuse yourself. Exception: Taking pictures is OK.

Have an occasion or idea as a focal point. It can be as subtle as “Welcome Summer” or as bold as “Vaccine Discovery Disco” (fingers crossed!). Mention it in your invitation, and acknowledge it during the evening with a short toast, a poem, an interactive game or activity, or all-out themed décor. It gives your gathering a raison d’être and your guests a common thread, something to connect them. If we’ve learned anything in recent months, it is that we value connection. Connection brings meaning and purpose not just to our parties, but also to our lives.

See more from this party.

By Frances Schultz | Photography by Shelly Strazis

Follow Frances on Instagram @francesschultz and at francesschultz.com. Her latest book, California Cooking and Southern Style, with recipes by Stephanie Valentine, and her previous The Bee Cottage Story are available wherever books are sold and at francesschultz.com.


Kick back for a fun chat with the always entertaining Frances Schultz in the latest episode of Margot’s Fresh Picks, hosted by Flower magazine Editor-in-Chief Margot Shaw. Plus, get recipes from Frances’s book California Cooking and Southern Style. See more.

California Cooking and Southern Style: 100 Great Recipes, Inspired Menus, and Gorgeous Table Settings by Frances Schultz (Skyhorse, 2019)