Carla McDonald’s Secrets for Entertaining

As told to Deborah Hamilton-Lynne

How to throw the perfect dinner party.

Former AW cover woman Carla McDonald is a well-known bon vivant. This year, she turned her passion and talent for entertaining to the creation of a new website, The Salonniere. The first and only source of entertaining inspiration and tips from party experts, The Salonniere is dedicated to providing insider information from the best, most experienced and most admired party hosts and experts, people who are generally accessible only to their closest friends and clients. Needless to say, The Salonniere has been a huge hit. AW caught up with McDonald at her summer home in Nantucket.

Austin Woman: How many guests make up an ideal dinner party?

Carla McDonald: As Isabella Beeton said in her 1859 book, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, “not less than the number of the graces or more than that of the muses.” That still holds true. Eight to 10 is ideal.

AW: How do you choose the guest list?

CM: It really depends on the purpose of the gathering, but I always strive for an interesting mix of diverse people who I think will enjoy getting to know each other.

AW: Once you have selected the group, how do you plan seating?

CM: One of the first stories we did on The Salonniere was about seating because it can make or break a dinner party. Occasionally, I’ll pair people according to a common interest or because they would normally never cross paths or simply because I want them to meet. Most often, I mix guests up based on personality type. That tends to yield the mos t comfortable and enjoyable dinner parties, and ensures a similar and consistent energy level at all points of the table. For example, you don’t want all the extroverts at one end of the table.

AW: Describe your entertaining style for a dinner party.

CM: Classic, elegant and playful, with some glamour thrown in to make everyone feel gorgeous.

AW: To theme or not to theme?

CM: Themes are great for providing context and a unifying perspective and look for a party. You just want to be careful not to be too literal. Evocative interpretations are more elegant and interesting.

AW: Formal or informal?

CM: It depends on the occasion and the guest list. You want the party to feel special, but not at the expense of your guests feeling relaxed and comfortable.

AW: Place cards or sit where you land?

CM: Place cards. One of the most important roles a host can play is Cupid, not necessarily with people, but with ideas. Seating the right people next to each other at a dinner party can be the genesis for great ventures and adventures.

Austin Woman: If you could have anyone living or dead attend the perfect dinner party who would that be?

Carla McDonald: Cleopatra. Smart, strong and beautiful, she was one of the greatest dames of all time.

AW: What elements create the mood and what mood are you striving for?

CM: Lighting is critical for setting a mood. I want my guests to feel comfortable and look gorgeous, so I always turn off all harsh overheard lighting, dim the lamps and light lots of candles. When people feel attractive, they become less self-conscious and more confident and take more joy in themselves and others.

AW: Give me a foolproof conversation starter.

CM: If the person is attached, ask ho w they met their significant other. This question always puts people at ease because it’s generally a fun, happy story they’ve told many times before. Also, it usually reveals enough common ground to keep the conversation rolling along for a while.

AW: What is the best way to get guests to mix and mingle before dinner?

CM: Make a standard introduction, but kick off the conversation as well. For example, you can say, “You two are going to love comparing notes on London since you both traveled there this year.”

AW: What makes a dinner party memorable?

CM: The details define a dinner party but ultimately, it’s about the people. Years from now, no one will remember what they ate for dinner, but they will remember that it was at your party that they met someone who became a friend.

AW: What was the most memorable dinner party you ever hosted?

CM: A sunset clambake on a Nantucket beach to celebrate my husband’s 50th birthday. There was such beauty in the simplicity of everything, from the sand dunes and ocean breeze, to the full moon hanging over the water. But most of all, it filled me with joy to see my husband so happy and surrounded by all the people who have meant so much to him throughout his life.

AW: What’s the thing you know for sure about throwing a successful dinner party?

CM: If the host isn’t relaxed and having a good time, the guests won’t be either.

The Menu

I’ll kick off the evening with a signature cocktail to set the tone. During the warmer months, it will be a drink with a botanical gin like Hendrick’s. In the cooler months or during the holidays, it might be a Manhattan or a classic martini. For dinner, I’ll serve whatever is fresh and in season, something beautiful and delicious but not too fussy, and pair it with a great wine. Dessert will be a fun twist on a classic for a nostalgic wink. To cap off the evening, after-dinner drinks and chocolates will be served in another room for a change of scenery and to reawaken the senses.

The Table Setting

  • Table linens: Classico by Sferra
  • Glassware: St. Louis Candide wine glasses and Baccarat Vega water glasses
  • China or dinnerware: Bernardaud Athena in platinum or Bernardaud Naxos
  • Silver: Gorham in Fairfax
  • Centerpiece: White flowers that aren’t too fragrant and lots of candles to make everyone look and feel beautiful and draw them toward the center of the table as though they’re gathering around a hearth.