Real People, Real Advice: Hosting Gatherings in a Small Home
For many small space dwellers, the thought of entertaining over the holidays — inviting friends and family into a teeny amount of square feet — is plain daunting. Don’t let the challenge of hosting in a small home get in the way of your dinner party dreams this holiday season, though. Not only is entertaining in a small space possible, it can be downright pleasant! And these real small-space dwellers share their tips, advice, and lessons learned.
Interior Designer Peti Lau — Prep ahead, but be flexible, too
Peti has regular seating around her dining table for about six people in her small NYC studio apartment. But she once managed to fit 18 people in her small home for a dinner party! She tells the story in her own words:
“I had hosted a dinner supper club on a Friday and had so much leftover food that I decided to cook and host a dinner party. The original idea was to go upstairs on the roof but then the weather turned bad. I ended up inviting a tenant I met in the laundry room who had become a friend just a day prior to the event. As the guest list grew from six to 18 people, I borrowed chairs and a folding table from my neighbor. I moved all the tables across the length of my apartment and after fitting in all the seats I could find, it fit 16 people. Two people I was trying to play matchmaker for sat at the bar countertop, taking the final guest count to 18!”
Her main bit of advice when it comes to entertaining in a small space? “Make things easy on yourself.”
“Prep food beforehand. You don’t want to be cooking the entire night where you are stuck and can’t be with your guests. Welcome cocktails are a great way to get the party started while you get food ready! People can mingle among themselves with an aperitif/cocktails in hand!
Also: Throw beautiful fabric on the table, fresh cut flowers, candles, and napkins. Those essential items take your table to ‘entertaining like a pro’ from ‘just having people over.’ It doesn’t have to be super elaborate, but as long as those four items are on a table, everything will look great!”
Interior designer Linda Cava — Know your spacial limits
Linda’s 525-square-foot sort-of studio apartment in Brooklyn has an open, sparsely decorated entryway/hallway, and that was an intentional design choice. By purchasing a drop-leaf table — and pulling chairs from another room — the foyer can be transformed into a cozy dining area when needed, but otherwise function as a multi-purpose space. Some things Linda’s learned over the years about entertaining in small spaces:
“Set food and drinks spaced apart so that people don’t cluster in just one area, for sit-down meals the host should be seated closest to the kitchen for the easiest access, borrow extra chairs if you don’t have enough, hang coats in a closet so people don’t throw them on a much needed seat, and know your spacial limits — don’t over invite.”
“I think the real goal of any dinner party or holiday dinner is to enjoy your friends and family over a delicious meal and try not to worry so much about the rest.”
Filmmaker Alee Ruggieri — Make friends comfortable and enjoy yourself
Alee Ruggieri lives in a teeny 200-square-foot studio in NYC, and it took her trying out different dinner hosting styles to finally discover the perfect type for her small home:
“I’m not one for traditional round table dinners, but I do love to have friends over and entertain. I used to have my desk arranged in a way that allowed it to be used for a dining table with stools. It felt strange and stiff though, as two of my guests always felt too close to the kitchen and we were teetering on top of tiny stools. I had absolutely no room for any kind of dining table arrangement. Then I realized that most of the time when I had friends over for food, in spite of the uncomfortable stools, we always gathered on the floor on pillows instead. I decided to ditch the idea of a dining table and store a few pillows and a large wooden tray nearby.
This arrangement let me live out my 1960s bohemian New Yorker dreams. Whenever friends would come over to share a meal, we would just gather on the floor, throw on some music, and keep it very low key. Despite a few spills and drops here and there, this arrangement felt very relaxed and cozy, which is always how I want my dinners to feel after traversing New York. I think when anyone new came to join, they immediately got the impression that this was a welcoming, laid back environment.
My priority is for my guests to feel like they’re at home and comfortable. I think the real goal of any dinner party or holiday dinner is to enjoy your friends and family over a delicious meal and try not to worry so much about the rest.”
Baker Lexie Comstock — Get creative with what a “seat” is
“I don’t want to store fold-up chairs, or always have tons of chairs around my table when I only need two on a regular basis, so I end up grabbing things that I don’t typically use as chairs as replacements, like a long bench that I normally use as a coffee table, or making my footrest into a comfy stool. Having objects that can be used for many purposes has been really helpful for me because I don’t like a lot of clutter.”
Along with sticking to the loose definition of seating, Lexie had a Christmas party for friends who were in China for the holidays a few years ago. And she did three things that made the experience a lot less overwhelming:
1) I tried to encourage people to hang out in both rooms by spreading the food in between the dining room and the living room. That way, neither space felt packed and everyone had access to food=happy guests!
2) I created different little seating areas using whatever objects I had around, like big pillows or benches or footrests, so people could easily bop around and didn’t feel like they had to claim a spot early on and stay in it the whole time.
3) I left a really big window for the party (it was on actual Christmas day) so people could trickle in instead of arriving all at once, so the space never felt too packed.
“Cooking for it was a *bit* tricky because my kitchen is outside of my apartment. So I made dishes that could be done in advance and reheated, like stews, chili, soups, etc. Also everyone loves a cheese plate!”
Designer Ali McEnhill — Think of as many details as possible in advance
Ali, who shares just 478 square feet with her husband, has created an open space in her living area that can be transformed for dinner parties by moving lightweight side chairs over to the custom table. She also always tries to keep indoor gatherings on the small side (like six people or fewer) and only invites people who “are extremely comfortable with each other since they will be sitting very close and I don’t have any buffer space to separate (potentially) bickering relatives.” She’s learned two important lessons about entertaining in small spaces (thanks to a few oopsies the first few times):
1) Determine table size based on plate size, not just space size. The first time I hosted a meal I thought I had planned everything out perfectly, but when I went to set my makeshift table (which I built based solely on the size of the space), I found that the 24″ deep table was too narrow to set with both dinner plates and glasses. Oops!
2) Make sure a makeshift table is secure! The second time I hosted a meal, I thought I made a very clever, properly-sized wall suspended/folding makeshift table. Just after sitting down, one of my guests crossed her legs and knocked an entire leaf of the table off the wall. Thankfully, I had not served the meal yet and only a little wine was spilled. It helped to have very forgiving guests for my first two trials!”
She also has advice for host first-timers: “I would recommend first timers really examine the layout of their apartment and try to think of as many details as possible in advance, aside from just what to cook.”
“At the end of the day, I think as long as the host keeps smiling and pouring the wine, guests are happy enough to overlook all the difficulties of entertaining in a tiny space.”
“Because my apartment is a long narrow zipper, mingling is nearly impossible, forcing the sit-down dinner. I usually begin by serving appetizers in the ‘living room,’ then have guests come to the ‘dining room’ (which simply means turning their chairs around) when it’s time for the main course. After dinner, I usually lay out dessert and coffee in the ‘living room,’ which allows guests to get away from the cramped table and stretch their legs a bit. At the end of the day, I think as long as the host keeps smiling and pouring the wine, guests are happy enough to overlook all the difficulties of entertaining in a tiny space.”
Designer Amelia Nicholas — Don’t be the harried host…have fun!
We got a thorough peek at designer Amelia Nicholas’ teeny studio apartment in her house tour. In it, we saw how she was able to create distinct areas in one open room. Her whole space is a combination of soothing and cozy. And most impressively (to me!) is her ability to entertain in her tiny space! In fact, she says she’s able to fit 12 – 15 people for a gathering in her less-than-500-square-foot space. Below, she shares some of the lessons she’s learned as a small-space dweller and frequent hostess.
“With a small space dinner party, intimate wins the day. I can get four to six people around my dining table comfortably, where we have plenty of space for full-size dinner plates, drinks, some decorative elements, and candles. You also want people to have enough space to slide out if they need to step away to grab seconds or visit the powder room. Like with a cocktail party, it helps to lay things out buffet-style. You can fit more people around the table if the main and side dishes have their own separate spot to hang out on.
The larger the party, the smaller the plate size. If the goal is to have more people gather together, chances are that some of your guests might end up standing or perching on the arm of a sofa. The last thing you want is to make them struggle with a large dinner plate and their drink. A cocktail napkin or appetizer plate just works better. If you have small dishes, napkins and finger foods layered strategically around the room, there’s always an easily managed snack within arm’s reach.”
There’s another type of entertaining style that the small space dweller might like to consider, according to Amelia:
“Setting it up as more of an open house can be fun – each doorbell ring is a surprise and people can come and go as they want. You never want to be the harried host or hostess, running around all stressed out. That just kind of makes it about you and not about your guests. Be realistic about how many people you can take care of and still enjoy yourself.”
More smart small space tips and advice from Amelia, who is the designer behind Urban Cottage NYC: