What makes the difference is the spontaneity factor. Of my four most recent invitations, three were from total strangers--well, friends of friends. This "invite 'em all and see who comes" approach has spread lately, because formality is out and community is in. For dinner parties, we used to go to great lengths to imitate professional chefs, but now that's reversed and restaurants are imitating dinner parties--like New York City's Craft, with its family-style mix-and-match dishes. Even some Ritz-Carlton hotel jacket-and-tie restaurants have relaxed and now offer communal tables.
Anyone can do the new dinner party, even the young and chairless. Elena Schneider, a 24-year-old assistant book editor, recently threw her first. "We're the type of people who don't even cook," she claims, but that didn't stop her from inviting people for Caesar salad and porcini ravioli. "Everyone said how nice it was just to be inside and homey and comfortable," she explains. Now her friends are "talking about fondue a lot!" At the other extreme, bicoastal pianist Paul Cantelon has been at it for years, "throwing people around the table" for braised pepper steak, chicken with figs and crushed chocolate soufflé cake. "In such unstable times," Cantelon says, "food is more important than ever--cooking it and watching people eat it and laugh and talk."
Of the four dinner party invitations I've received, Cantelon's was the most recent--an impromptu supper of blini, sturgeon and borscht, cohosted by his neighbor's apartment sitter, who is Russian, and whom Cantelon had just happened to meet in the hallway. Now that's what I call spontaneous.