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Expert Advice: How to Organize a Dinner Party with Minimal Effort

George McCalman is the Lois Weisberg in my life. He has a gift for meeting interesting people, forging an immediate bond, and—here’s where the Lois analogy comes in—instinctually connecting them to other people in his orbit to yield new friendships and creative collaborations.

George wasn’t a born connector, though. When I first met the creative director and artist in the early 2000s, in fact, he wasn’t one to mix his social circles (I was then firmly stuck in his “work friend” group). “When I turned 35, I freaked out because I realized none of my friends knew each other,” he recalls. “So I threw myself a party, and it was as terrible as I expected.” To clarify, it was terrible for him. He may have been an angst-ridden host, but everyone else was having fun—which gave him the motivation to push through his insecurities and keep creating meaningful opportunities for his peers and friends to overlap.

George McCalman Dinner Party Image 1 by Kelly Marshall
Above: Guests enjoying the spread at George’s monthly Dinner Club.

Since then, George has honed his party-hosting talents and is now the organizer of not one, but three regular social gatherings, all thrown in his small apartment in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood: a bimonthly Black Brunch Club (a time for his friends of color to convene, commune, and commiserate); a monthly Dinner Club (for his longtime friends); and a quarterly Queer Happy Hour (or, as he jokes, “a gathering of the gay agenda.”). “I’m invested in staying in touch with friends I like, and I get a thrill from introducing people,” he says, by way of explaining his compulsive need to play host.

George McCalman Dinner Party Image 3 by Kelly Marshall
Above: George thinks that one reason people like to congregate in his apartment is its open layout. Though small, his apartment has a dining room that’s open to the kitchen. When he’s not entertaining, he keeps the custom-made tables separate—one for working, the other for eating.

As the mastermind behind the San Francisco Chronicle’s monthly Observed column, an illustrated roundup of characters he meets at various events, George is now paid to do what he loves: socialize, make connections, and create art. His biggest piece of advice for those who are gun-shy about hosting a party? “Don’t subscribe to the idea that dinner parties have to be perfect. They don’t. They just have to be human.”

Here is his step-by-step, stress-free pre-party to-do list:

Photography by Kelly Marshall.

One Week Before:

  • Assign tasks. “I used to throw super-agro dinner parties. There was a Martha Stewart precision to them, but I realized I wasn’t enjoying them,” he says. Nowadays, his social gatherings are strictly potluck. “At the same time, I’m still a control freak, so I’m very specific about the assignments. For instance, I’ll ask for a leafy salad, a grain salad, a fruit salad, a savory appetizer, etc. Sometimes, I’ll provide a theme. My next gathering has a Caribbean food theme.”

A Few Days Before:

  • Buy flowers. Some hosts do this the day-of to ensure fresh flowers. Not George. “You can tell just-purchased flowers from ones that have been around for a few days. I don’t like for them to look styled, like I just bought them. I like flowers when they look lived-in and real.”
George McCalman Dinner Party Image 4 by Kelly Marshall
Above: George likes the way wilting flowers look and actually prefers dried flowers, like these artful dried stems in his entryway.

A Few Hours Before:

  • Maniacally clean. “I sweep, I vacuum, I dust. I pay special attention to the kitchen and bathroom. I do this the day-of because I want my apartment to feel fresh.” And be sure you’re stocked up on toilet paper. “I once ran out of toilet paper during a party. That will never happen again.”
George McCalman Dinner Party Image 6 by Kelly Marshall
Above: “Make sure you feel good about your home before they come over. People can sense that,” says George, who obsessively cleans prior to a party, even dusting the leaves of his fiddle-leaf fig.

An Hour Before:

  • Set the table. Since his gatherings are all served buffet-style, that just means setting groupings of plates, bowls, utensils, and glasses out on the table.
  • Play some tunes. George’s music setup is simply iTunes connected to speakers. He likes to start the music before guests arrive so that he can settle into the right party mood.
  • Change your outfit. It doesn’t have to be fancy—in fact, George prioritizes comfort—but changing your clothing is a great way to mentally shift from party-prepping to party-hosting.
George McCalman Dinner Party Image 8 by Kelly Marshall
Above: George likes to dress stylishly and always comfortably for his dinner parties. “At some point in the night, the shoes come off.”

15 Minutes Before:

  • Air out your home. Open some windows and get the air flowing. “I also like to burn some pinon wood incense,” he says. “People coming over for the first time always say how nice it smells in my apartment.”
  • Dim the lights. George usually lights a few candles but not many (“I’m not a candle person,” he admits). And he always prefers low lighting: “It makes everyone look sexy.”

During the Party:

  • Actually cook. Some of George’s guests bring the ingredients for their dishes instead of the finished products so that they can cook at the party. And he, himself, often finishes cooking while guests are milling around (“of course, it’s never anything terribly ambitious,” he clarifies). He likes the bustle—the chopping, the stirring, the elbow-rubbing—because it forces guests to interact in a casual and unforced way.
George McCalman Dinner Party Image 7 by Kelly Marshall
Above: “There’ s a real fraternity that happens when people come together to cook. Guests get very comfortable with one another right away,” he says. “What I find with more formal dinners is that people are always holding their breath until they sit down for the meal. In my version, people are comfortable right away.”

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