What Killed The Dinner Party?

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

By Peter Weber

Oh, dinner parties, says Guy Trebay in The New York Times, with more than a hint of wistfulness. "Remember those?" A great dinner party — to celebrate the holidays, or just because — is a pleasant and personable way to network, a great occasion for different ages and social strata to mix, a fount of great conversation, and "the epitome of civilized living." But sadly, "the world is so changed, hardly anyone does them anymore," says Louise Grunwald, the widow of diplomat and TIME editor Henry Anatole Grunwald. Grunwald's "doomful pronouncement" may sound far-fetched, but she's probably right, Trebay laments. "You may want the dinner party to come back, harkening back to another era," Grunwald says. "But it will never happen." So, just what is it that killed the dinner party? A few theories:

1. A breakdown in society — and "society"

Throwing a great dinner party is an art quickly becoming lost as "social lions and lionesses" — spirited socialite Nan Kempner, cabaret standout Bobby Short, director Nora Ephron, and philanthropists Brooke Astor and Judith Peabody, for example — exit this earthly stage. "When I think of all those great hosts and hostesses who were around when I moved to New York" in 1980, says cookbook author Alex Hitz, "many are now gone with the wind." A good host was "trained from birth or on the job" to command their tables like a military tactician, says Trebay. "Naturally they shared other likenesses: Social prominence, deep pockets, commodious apartments, household staffs, and no allergy to drink." But it's not just that "society's elite are throwing fewer parties," says Bethany Seawright at Apartment Therapy. "As a society in general, we are allowing this type of evening to disappear from our personal experience," and that's sad for the "socially-impoverished among us all."

2. The rise of restaurants

As our time gets seemingly ever-more-precious, our tastes get intimidatingly sophisticated, and we fall out of the habit of cooking for ourselves, celebrity-chef and foodie-oriented restaurants are taking the place of the dinner party table. Let's face it, says Trebay: For better or worse, "it's so much easier and more convenient to meet friends in restaurants." Of course, this is nothing new. Trish Hall, also writing in The New York Times, noted — in 1988 — that when would-be hostesses and guests want to socialize, "they go to restaurants or have a small party catered" instead, because "the thought of preparing and serving a meal — an impressive meal that will satisfy increasingly sophisticated palates — is overwhelming." There is a modern twist, though,says Kat Stoeffel at New York. Today, we also have "too many restaurant Groupons to use before they expire/Groupon goes bankrupt."

3. Social media

Websites like Facebook and LinkedIn are replacing face-to-face networking for many people, and smartphones and other handheld devices have been disastrous for the social contract, says etiquette columnist Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners. "People don't even respond to dinner invitations anymore," she tells The Times. "They consider it too difficult a commitment to say, 'I'll come to dinner a week from Saturday,'" and they think nothing of canceling at the last minute — by text message! And those guests who do show up, says New York's Stoeffel, "will Instagram pictures of our not-good cooking, and everyone will know." And when they post those photos to Facebook or Twitter, "the friends we didn't invite will feel left out."

4. Ignorance

Along with the lost-art aspect, people just don't know the mechanics of dinner parties anymore. That's given rise to a small (probably very small) cottage industry of event planners like David E. Monn who will teach socialites which forks to use and how to mix the perfect cocktail. "People want to be civilized, so it all doesn't turn into Caligula," Monn tells The Times. "So they come to me saying: 'I don't know what to do if I'm having friends over for cocktails. What tray do you use? What do you put on the tray? Do you put out a piece of cheese?'" So if you want to know "whether the curious tongs inherited from Aunt Mabel are meant for serving asparagus, or else flipping a hamburger on the grill," says Trebay, there's help out there.

5. Dietary restrictions

And then there's what Miss Manners calls "food fussing," or the growing list of things people can't (or won't) eat. In the 1970s, vegetarians were considered difficult guests; now, even vegans are relatively easy to accommodate. Nut allergies, gluten intolerance, no-sugar diets, paleo (or cave-man) diets — "it's too hard to plan a menu with everyone's fake allergies and dietary restrictions," says New York's Stoeffel.

6. We don't converse, we pontificate

Dinner parties were never really about the food. After all, "the idea of cooking for others is not something that is going to die," Miss Manners tells The Times. But "conversation is in trouble," and without that main course, a dinner party isn't a dinner party. The problem? "People have been brought up to express themselves rather than to exchange ideas." There were always boors, but back in the dinner party era, says Trebay, a master hostess "orchestrated every element of the evening, arrival to departure, most crucially directing the conversation, which they either allowed to follow a traditional serve-and-volley pattern (20 minutes right, 20 minutes left), or else commandeered for so-called 'general discussion' as provocateur hosts like the television journalist Barbara Walters still do."

...Actually, the dinner party isn't dead at all

Naturally, since Trebay's nostalgic look at a bygone era appeared in the rather highfalutin New York Times Style section, lots of people disagree with the very premise. Dinner parties aren't dead, they've just been appropriated by "hipsters," and more specifically "that hipster hybrid, foodie-hipsters (fipsters? fooipstershoopsters?)," says Jen Doll at The Atlantic Wire. How did The Times get it so wrong? "Perhaps unsurprisingly for a newspaper that has only just discovered Brooklyn," says Kristin Iversen at The L Magazine, Trebay "interviewed people like Louise Grunwald and Judith Peabody who, while lovely people, I'm sure, are not perhaps the trend-setters that they used to be."