Time to reheat a social classic: the dinner party

A DINNER PARTY offers one of the pleasantest forms of socializing. The three-way combination of food, companionship, and conversation, shared in the relaxing comfort of someone's home, can be irresistibly appealing.

But during the past decade or two, at-home entertaining has fallen on hard times. Two-career families and ever-longer hours at work have taken their toll on sociability. Who has the time and energy to cook and clean? Vague promises among friends - "We must get together sometime...." - remain unfulfilled, waiting for a free evening that never comes.

Now the social tide appears to be turning. A study by a London-based market analyst, Datamonitor, predicts that by 2006, Britons will host one dinner party per household every three weeks. That adds up to 333 million dinner parties a year, a 6 percent increase over the 313 million they threw last year. Can their American counterparts be far behind?

For some busy party-givers, the culinary white knight speeding to the rescue comes in the form of gourmet, ready-to-eat dishes in supermarkets, along with "speed-scratch" items such as prepared sauces and chopped veggies. Just heat and serve - and remember to hide the telltale packaging.

Beyond the desire for sociability, some hosts admit to another motive for throwing a party: They want to show off their homes. What are those hefty mortgages for, if not to share the premises with friends and colleagues now and then?

A more informal approach to entertaining is also helping to revive the dinner party. The homespun potluck dinner, once a stereotypical Midwestern gathering, is gaining new respectability as one way for time-short hosts to open their doors. Even upscale New Yorkers sometimes pool their culinary skills, so long as menus are orchestrated, and strict rules apply.

Men and women approach home entertaining differently. For many women, perfection is the elusive ideal. They - we - dream of a spotless house, a beautifully set table, and a meal prepared entirely from scratch. "We have our standards," we say defensively, convinced that we're judged as much by the absence of dust as by the flakiness of our pie crusts.

For many men, sociability remains the overriding goal. So the house isn't totally in order - who cares? And never mind getting out the good china, the sterling, the stemmed goblets. The main thing, they remind us, is being together. Friendship, talk, and laughter count for more than rooms out of House Beautiful.

They're right, of course. If only we would believe them. Some of the best gatherings are the most spontaneous.

Like the first robin of spring, the news of an upswing in dinner parties could serve as a welcome harbinger of a changing season, culturally speaking. It hints at a reordering of priorities, a striving for balance in a work-obsessed culture.

Every party, however simple, involves a two-way giving. For hosts, the invitation signals a reaching out, a gesture of friendship and hospitality. For guests, an acceptance promises the gift of their presence. For both sides, a party serves as a reason to put away long lists of things to do and revel in the pleasure of those two sweet, promise-filled words, "You're invited."

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