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Overhead view of a table set for dinner, a wooden table with a blue and white runner, 5 dinner plates set with navy blue napkins in napkin rings, and brass flatware. There are bowls of snacks as well as a bowl of clementines. There are also plants.

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Making room for dinner with friends

A simple how-to from the author of The Friendsgiving Handbook

Writer and cook Emily Stephenson has been hosting a Friendsgiving in one form or another for more than a decade. Over the years, the gathering has subtly morphed from a night of mixing-bowl serveware and a crowded-around-one-table vibe into something a bit more organized, a little more uniform, and a lot more comfortable.

Stephenson loves the occasion so much, she wrote a book about it—The Friendsgiving Handbook (Chronicle Books, 2019)—which is packed with hosting strategies, recipes, and other friendly tips to make the night go smoothly, especially if you don’t do this kind of thing regularly.

“I started entertaining first with just the desire to have people over, and now it’s more about making them feel as at home as possible,” Stephenson says, noting that in her previous studio apartment it was more about squeezing people in where she could. “It’s exciting now that people have a comfortable place to sit when they come over.”

To celebrate the festive season, Stephenson invited Curbed over to the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Amir Andalibi, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, to share her thoughts and tips on how to pull off a Friendsgiving of your own.

The homeowners kitchen during her dinner preparation with supplies out.
Prepping for a party in a small kitchen can seem daunting, but Stephenson advises to not be too precious with stacking dishes on every surface. Simple recipes from her book The Friendsgiving Handbook, like sage fried almonds (just five ingredients) and butternut squash, blue cheese, and radicchio tart (which can be made ahead) keep last-minute rushing to a minimum.
The dining table with cooking supplies on it for dinner preparation. A board for making dough for a galette for dinner.
While a home is for everyday life, events like Friendsgiving only happen a couple times each year. Using what you have to take care of business—in this case, a dining table to roll out dough—is Stephenson’s go-to space-saving solution.

Make a guest list, and stick to it

The fun of Friendsgiving comes from a packed table of people who either aren’t able or don’t want to go home for the holiday. But a good rule of thumb to keep collective conversation going is to limit the guest list to just those you choose. Stephenson has tried the alternative, and sticks to this rule after one Friendsgiving when she allowed friends to invite friends, which resulted in siloed conversation for one loud majority with specific interests. “They all knew each other, and it dominated the evening,” she explains. “I spent a lot of the night just sitting at the end of the table, not really part of this conversation.”

Don’t be afraid to rearrange

A home is for everyday life, not a few annual events that will host a dozen or more guests at once. So it’s fitting that furnishings wouldn’t be arranged to suit those occasions on a regular basis. This might mean pushing together a table and a desk to create a larger dining surface, or scooting a sofa over to squeeze in extra room for a cocktail station. Stephenson pulls out an armchair that’s usually in her bedroom to create more cozy seating for before and after dinner.

The host preparing the table for dinner.
Mismatched plates will always look chic if they have a similar theme (like vintage diner dishes—which Stephenson regularly uses—or china, all the same make but in different colors), but some matching items help in tying the table setting together. If you don’t have enough to go around, or just want to make things feel fancier, try a service like New York-based Social Studies, which is where we rented everything on this table—except the clementines.

Invest in simple seating that can hide the rest of the year

Extra seating is a must for big dinners. While items like piano benches and amps can get the job done, there’s something attractive about a table with mostly uniform seating. Affordable and more upscale options abound, some stacking and some folding.

Stephenson invested in a collection of these stools, but there are stackers from West Elm and Hay that will suit different tastes. Folding chairs can be just as chic, from the likes of Ikea, CB2, and Target.

The hosts partner preparing the whiskey cocktail at the bar for guests.
Stephenson says she likes to have a beverage to offer as soon as the first guests arrive, like her rosemary Old Fashioneds. (Get the recipe below!)
The hosts partner with the finished whiskey cocktail.
Even if you’re going the mismatched route, or just haven’t been able to invest in a full set of the same dishes or napkins, it’s nice to have a few items that go together, namely glassware.

Rosemary Old-Fashioneds for a Crowd

Serves:12
Prep Time: 1 ½ hours
Make Syrup Ahead: 3 months
Make Cocktails Ahead: 1 day

Rosemary Simple Syrup

  • ½ cup [100 g] sugar
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • One 750-ml bottle bourbon
  • 20 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 orange
  • 5 sprigs fresh rosemary

To make the simple syrup: In a small saucepan, mix the sugar with ½ cup [120 ml] water and add the rosemary. Put the pan over medium-high heat and cook, stirring often, so the sugar dissolves into the water. As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, remove from the heat and let steep for 20 minutes. Discard the rosemary and cool to room temperature. Transfer the mixture to an airtight container or use right away. The syrup will keep in the refrigerator for 3 months.

Makes ¾ cup [180 ml]. Pour the bottle of bourbon into a large pitcher, add the bitters, 4 oz [120 ml] water, and 5 oz [150 ml] rosemary simple syrup, and stir to combine. Taste and add more simple syrup if you like. Refrigerate the cocktail until ready to serve.

To serve, cut the orange crosswise into thin slices and quarter the slices. Cut the 5 rosemary sprigs into 1 in [2.5 cm] or so pieces. Add a few ice cubes to each glass, pour in 2 oz [60 ml] of the premade cocktail, and garnish with a rosemary sprig and two orange slices. Serve right away.

Have a signature beverage to welcome guests

Stephenson says that while people will often show up with a bottle of wine or other beverage along with their dish, it’s always possible that the first few guests might not. In that case, it’s nice to have something to offer as soon as people arrive, like her rosemary Old Fashioneds, perfect for a crowd.

Accommodate non-drinkers fashionably with a bar of fancy mix-ins that work with the rosemary syrup—tonic, root beer, or sparkling grapefruit juice—and have slices of oranges and sprigs out for everyone to choose their garnish.

A hands-on activity is not corny

While Stephenson says she’s not always into a party game, she does have one activity for guests at Friendsgiving while dinner is still cooking: hand turkeys.

“Without exception, every year at the beginning, I’ll put marker and papers out and people will be like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know, this is weird,’ and then within half an hour everyone’s getting really into it, making theirs the most elaborate,” she says, laughing. “I’m definitely one of those people that, like, thinks they’re too good for games, but then once I get started, it’s really competitive!”

Potluck buffet > formal sit-down

If you’re cooking for a small crew, Stephenson says, a plated meal might make sense. But when there’s a gaggle of people in your house, you’ll be grateful you didn’t try to time all the food to be hot and ready at the same time. A buffet is easier to manage and doesn’t require as much maintenance from the host, and it generates a more relaxed atmosphere overall.

I feel like part of the thing about Friendsgiving is this idea that you’re just getting together because you love the people you’re with,” she says. “[The meal] will just naturally feel more elevated and formal than any other dinner party because of the time of year and the amount of food you’re cooking.”

Overhead view of set table, with guests hands in the shot placing down bowls of food on the table.
I feel like part of the thing about Friendsgiving is this idea that you’re just getting together because you love the people you’re with,” says Stephenson. “[The meal] will just naturally feel more elevated and formal than any other dinner party because of the time of year and the amount of food you’re cooking.”
The hosts and some of her guests sitting in the living room of the apartment with drinks before dinner.
Rearrange furniture to create soft spots for people to land before, and after, dinner. “It’s exciting now that people have a comfortable place to sit when they come over,” Stephenson says.

Spring for oven-to-table serving dishes

Oven-to-table serveware is trendy, but it’s not a new concept, and there are plenty of options available from older, more established brands. Lodge cast iron, the Dansk Kobenstyle line, Le Creuset Dutch ovens, and more are all attractive, heritage options to cut down on dishes at the end of the night. Clay-pot cookbooks have been on Stephenson’s reading list lately, so she’s been drawn to Clay Coyote’s dishes as well. She also loves the possibilities of on-the-table cooking of donabes, like the beautiful options from Toiro. Newcomers like Great Jones have everything from saucepans to roasting trays that are equally beautiful at the table.

Use matching glasses or linens

Mismatched plates will always look chic if they have a similar theme (like vintage diner dishes—which Stephenson regularly uses—or china, all the same make but in different colors), but some matching items help in tying the table setting together. Stephenson recently invested in matching wine and water glasses, and buys linens by the bulk from a restaurant supply store.

Last-minute stress relief

Stephenson makes time for three things before guests start arriving: a mostly set table, as many dishes washed as possible, and a little time to get ready herself, which can easily go by the wayside.

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