Having friends and family around for dinner doesn’t need to feel like a chore to keep the in-laws happy. Whenever I have people over for tea, I think it’s nice to add a little something extra and make it a dinner party. I used to throw tons of dinner parties where my guests would show up in their Sunday finest and put on their best polite chatter voice, but they grow a little boring in time. That’s why I started thinking about dinner party themes.
I’ve thrown about a dozen themed dinner parties now, I’m getting a name for it! They make for a great evening that everyone talks about for weeks afterwards. Whether it’s getting the guests to dress up in costume, theming the dishes, or just organising some silly activities, a theme helps to tie it all up and keep the guests talking.
I’ve broken them down into three groups. We have the great outdoors, traditional dinner party themes (some with a twist), and creative themes.
Themed dinner parties require your guests to get involved. This is why I like sending out invites and explicitly stating the theme. They can get involved in different ways. However, the most common way to get involved is dressing up according to the theme, if that’s applicable.
Never make your invited guests feel like it’s too much trouble honouring the theme. So ultimately, just keep it simple and light-hearted. If they must dress up, for instance, they shouldn’t have to go out and buy a special costume…
Traditional dinner party themes… with some twists
Admittedly, some of the best themed dinner parties I’ve hosted are those which follow more traditional themes. Sure, I like to spice things up sometimes. For instance, instead of a specific Mediterranean theme, a fusion of the different Mediterranean cuisines makes for a nice twist. Feeling romantic, but want to spread the love? A romantic dinner party will do, enjoyed by more than just one couple of lovebirds.
However, going with a more traditional theme is no excuse to slack off…
Holiday or season dinner party theme
Holiday or season dinner party themes are the easiest to pull off. Whether it’s Halloween, Christmas, etc, all you have to do is feed off the already-festive mood in the air. From turkey for the Christmas dinner party theme, to eyeball Caprese bites for Halloween, it’s all about honouring pre-existing traditions.
Romantic dinner party… for more than two
Light up some candles. Play some proper love jams and whip up a four-course meal. Invite the singletons in your group of friends over as well and spread the love beyond the paired-up attendees. Red will obviously dominate the decor colour scheme. I always like to print out a menu, styled as a huge Valentine’s Day card. The dessert is always mystery, which I only reveal if everybody ‘plays their cards right!’
…Wine? Of course!
This is as fancy and puritanical as dinner parties can get. Following a French theme means making sure the food is of the highest quality. That means your Foie gras must be served properly, with mustard seeds and green onions in duck jus. However, it must also be presented very well. You could keep things simple with steak frites as well (steak-and-fries).
High tea theme
A high-tea themed dinner party is my way of curing the OCD I’ve had around the tradition. Add in some solid-meal dishes. This will curb that feeling that you shouldn’t eat too much, as dinner is still on the way. Otherwise dressing up to the nines is mandatory. Some intellectual conversation will do to make up for the appropriate entertainment.
To be honest, everybody loves a Greek themed dinner party, for one main reason, don’t they? There are special plates I buy from a Greek mom-and-pop store, which are especially for smashing. I definitely put my heart and soul into making traditional dishes such as moussaka, grilled meat, or fresh fish. However, guests will always enjoy the parting Greek dinner party activity of smashing the plates! You get some good wriggle-room.
Mediterranean fusion medley
A Mediterranean dinner party theme doubles-up as one with a travel theme as well. I basically prepare cuisines from as many of the Mediterranean countries as possible, including the North African ones. Some of the world’s best-tasting food comes from this part of the world, so you’d prepare them in bite-sized portions. Bedeck the venue with the nations’ national flags and share some travel stories.
Time period theme – I choose the 1980s
You can choose any time period for your specific theme. I always default to the 80s. That’s just where the best memories lie, for me. The eccentric attire is mandatory for the guests to get into the spirit of the 80s with, of course. Otherwise the great music of the 80s will set the mood well, complementing a range of dishes. From decadent retro prawn cocktails, to the convenience of vanilla ice-cream…
Dress-up dinner party theme
A dress-up dinner party theme is not unlike one which follows the French theme. The choice in cuisine is just that much broader, but the focus is on setting a luxurious scene. Dining will be at a proper dining room table, with cutlery and crockery set according to official restaurant rules. So nobody should spill anything on their Sunday-best, which they’ll be wearing.
Superheroes and side-kicks
As a mum, this is secretly my best dinner party theme. A superheroes and sidekicks dinner party theme makes provision for the kids to join. Any traditional course which will feed the entire gang will do. Entertainment will have to be tailored accordingly, of course.
Movie and television theme
There is no better ice-breaker than that of guests guessing who one and the other is. Will I be giving my age away if I said that in my circles, most guests can’t help but gravitate to the eighties? Again, any traditional course will do. I often like to draw inspiration from the likes of Game of Thrones. Both in terms of the cuisine and the decor.
A-list celebrity gathering
A twist on the television dinner party theme, an A-list celebrity gathering sets the tone for a swanky dinner party. Once again, I often get repeat visits. Mostly from ‘Elvis Presley’, who never passes up on an opportunity to serenade us. The cuisines? Just some of the finest, of course. So caviar, sushi, and many of those dishes whose names neither of us can pronounce. We like to keep things pretentious, but in an ironic way, of course…
Okay, so this would have to be a Friday night dinner party. Nobody is going to work the next day. Your bodies can’t recover as quickly as they did, back in the uni days. Basically, lots of booze to go with food that can be prepared quickly. It doesn’t necessarily have to be unhealthy food, like pizza, etc. Ready-meals popped into the microwave will do. This is a straight up dorm room party, where dinner will be served.
Persian: Arabian nights
If you have a long dining room table, put it to good use with a Persian themed dinner party. This is more like a food party, where food is the entire party! That’s basically how Iranian traditional cuisine is enjoyed. If you don’t want to prepare each traditional dish individually, make a few Iranian stews. Once again, this is all about the hearty food and pretty much nothing else.
Las Vegas casino theme
So I’m not suggesting you recreate some of the fine dining establishments Vegas is famous for. Rather, honour the casino theme with some card games and drinks. As far as the food goes, it’s pretty much a breakfast buffet, served all day long. Big portions of the likes of waffles, eggs, bacon, strong coffee, etc.
Make a poker night out of it!
Japanese city pop theme
Aah. I get some false nostalgia when thinking about this dinner party theme. It’s one I’m proud to say I came up with…
Pop on some Japanese City Pop music and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’ll make for a Japanese twist to US pop culture as shaped by the 60s and 70s. The Japanese eat really great food that’s healthy and looks good too. A mandatory karaoke session would follow what would likely be a series of rice dishes served in their traditional varieties.
Get some glow-in-the-dark stickers, props and ornaments to recreate the bright neon city lights.
Pub-grub and sports theme
It’s quite some time ago now, but the memory still lives fresh in my mind. I tagged along on a ‘guy’s night out’ at the pub, to catch a game of football. I was surprised at just how good so-called pub grub tastes. It makes for a great dinner party theme. The dress code is any replica sports attire. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the jersey of the team you’ll be watching while enjoying delicious pub grub. A few pints on tap, mile-high burgers and thick chips, with fried onion rings falling out.
Maritime madness and seafood
Anybody who shows up dressed as a captain would be mounting a challenge on your authority. It’s all in good faith, of course, with a fun maritime madness and seafood dinner party theme. Who’s going to come dressed as a pirate? Either way, a maritime themed dinner party is just a great excuse to enjoy some great seafood. Whether you’re enjoying lobster, ceviche or a humble prawn cocktail, it’ll be a sight for a seafood-lovers eyes.
Classic dinner party theme
Here’s where you just honour the classic dinner party tradition. You’ll serve a multi-course meal, complete with a main course and dessert. Guests can be entertained in any which way that feels natural. It’s almost like the Persian themed dinner party, except Western traditions in dining etiquette are followed. Western dishes are also served, such as a nice roast dinner.
We used to have classic dinner parties at my house all the time! I believe this is one of the origins of the phrase ‘make it a meal!’
The great outdoors
You don’t necessarily have to move the dining room table outside to enjoy an outdoors-themed dinner party. It definitely makes it that much more special though. I’ve long since invested in special garden furniture, so no problems as far as dining outside goes.
Dining outside is refreshing, in more ways than one. The sweet sounds of Mother Nature induce the best ambience. So there’s no need for any mood-setting music. Various guests can contribute some of the food, to be served buffet-style, in serving containers with replaceable lids. Salads make for the best dishes for an al fresco dinner party theme. I like to have my al fresco dinner party guests assemble their own salads. They don’t necessarily have to be vegetarian salads.
Obviously, a lot of these themes might only be suitable in certain seasons depending on your location. If it’s pretty miserable outside where you are, they might not be applicable.
Camping or glamping
You don’t have to actually go away to an actual campsite. However, if you do, you might want to consider options that don’t require a stove or refrigeration. Turn your backyard into one. Build a fire. Assemble some camp chairs around the fire, and prepare some food over the fire! I had to set an extra place for my neighbour last time around. He had peered over the fence and offered up his rotating campfire meat skewer. No matter – the more the merrier!
Dishes such as barbecued meat and falafels go best with this camping (or glamping) dinner party theme.
Street food run
The street food run resembles a dinner party theme that maintains that “going-out-for-dinner” feel. It’s best if you’re hosting a crowd of your most intimate friends and family. You can pre-arrange the meals to be collected along the way. Otherwise, everybody can take a leisurely evening walk, stopping at various food stalls, trucks, etc. We eat it while making our way home, to finally tuck-in to some homemade dessert! This option is particularly good for those who find hosting a dinner party to be a little daunting. Especially if you struggle with the timing of cooking a 3 course meal.
The barbecue – my go-to dinner party theme when guests show up unexpectedly! We do have an electric barbecue though. So helping to ‘build the fire’ is replaced by other ways through which everybody can contribute. The party atmosphere is synonymous with firing up the grill. Conversation flows naturally, to perhaps be aided by some music. Sausages, grill-toasted sandwiches, and food that’s ready in only a few minutes goes best with this dinner party atmosphere. Drinks make for a natural pairing with the chunky food, of course.
Southern Hemisphere barbecue
I have to mention the Southern Hemisphere barbecue, on its own. It makes for a unique dinner party theme twist. The Aussies refer to it as a ‘barbie,’ while South Africans call it a ‘braai.’ Rugby and cricket lovers will probably know where I’m going with this. Yes, bigger chunks of fresh meat are roasted over open fires. However, a big screen television is often set up outside to make for the focal point of the entertainment. What will we be watching? Rugby, cricket, or even football, of course!
Get everybody to wear their favourite sports team colours.
African American-style cookout
This is when you’re gearing up to entertain a large dinner party crowd. It’s what it says on the tin. An African American style cookout theme is different to a barbecue. Some upbeat music keeps the party going while the food is being prepared. It doesn’t have to be ‘convenience’ food that’s typically eaten on-the-go. You must prepare full meals for it to count as a cookout dinner party. Everybody can build their plates to their liking, buffet-style, of course.
When it’s time to eat, the food is enjoyed at a traditional dinner table that has been moved outside.
Picnic dinner party theme
If you have a nice space out in the backyard, have a proper picnic out on the lawn. Otherwise we often have these picnic dinners only as a theme. So we bring it indoors. They can also be enjoyed out on the deck or patio. Only pre-prepared foods will do as far as a picnic dinner party theme. So sandwiches, falafel wraps, fresh fruit platters, etc. The idea is for it to make for an intimate dinner setting. Good conversation makes the party.
Hippie-styled dinner party theme
Even if we weren’t around in the 60s, we can tell that that was an awesome decade. I love having a taste of this magical, definitive decade through some recipes and dishes representative of that time. So yes, get your guests to get into the spirit of things by dressing up in their swanky, retro-styled attire. Pop on some of the best music in existence – which of course is music from the iconic 1960s decade.
It gets a bit quirky with the food. I always have a good time trying to prepare dishes such as onion soup dip and meatballs in grape jelly! Chicken à la king is the natural choice in the main course. The cream sauce is probably what makes it so ‘60s.’ Alternatively, you can go with a beef bourguignon. For dessert – tunnel fudge is about as 60s as it gets.
60s Brazilian tropical theme
The hippie culture was a very far-reaching one. Theme your dinner party according to its Brazilian iteration. Once again, some of the best music came out of that decade. So you can rock to some tunes from the likes of Wilson Simonal, whose ‘Pais Tropical’ (tropical country) hit sums it up well. Have everybody dress up in those horrible ‘Miami’ floral shirts to create the suggested tropical feel. Tropical dishes go down well with tropical drinks. We’re talking here the likes of fried rice, washed down with tropical punch!
It’ll make for a nice, festive mood.
Getting creative and interactive
Although I’m clearly not brave enough to do it more often, I love creative and interactive dinner party themes. I think they embody the true essence of what a dinner party is all about. You and your guests are a single unit, sharing one of the greatest pleasures of life together. So basically these creative and interactive themes encourage your guests to get involved. I might be the host, but we’re ALL responsible for making it a fun and memorable night.
Interactive cooking dinner party
When I host this kind of dinner party I make sure to establish my authority as the ‘head chef.’ Ultimately I’m responsible for making sure the food comes out right, as the overall meal. Otherwise guests just help prepare the food. You won’t be entirely to blame for steaks that aren’t quite prepared in the preferred manner!
Above all else though, it just makes for some great dinnertime fun. So pass around the spare aprons.
Breakfast for dinner
I absolutely love the breakfast-for-dinner theme! It’s not just a matter of the food being easy to prepare, there’s also tons of breakfast options to choose from – enough for a buffet! The ones I host always double-up as pyjama parties. So that’s the dress code. It also makes for a great excuse for a sleepover… In case some guests have a little too much to drink.
Open mic night
Put the karaoke machine to good use and host an open mic night themed dinner party. Food served is usually reminiscent of pub-grub type dishes, as served at comedy clubs. So something as basic as burgers and homemade chip shop chips can complement the ongoing amateur talent show.
The secret to hosting a great dinner party…
Whatever theme you choose to go with, there’s somewhat of a science to hosting a great dinner party. The classic theme is a great example of the most basic dinner parties to throw. Done right, guests will still come away having been thoroughly entertained.
What it comes down to is the food, which is the one aspect you simply have to get right. So the theme is just a part of the ambience or setting.
To complete the hosting of a great dinner party, you have to make it engaging. Guests must feel involved in some way, even if it only means being asked how they’d like their steak prepared.
My ultimate secret to dinner party hosting success is killing it with the dessert. It’s the last thing your guests will eat, so it’s the most important to get right. My famous cakes either save the day or make for the cherry on top! I ensure to make enough for guests to take some home with them.