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How to host a virtual dinner party like a pro

Entertaining: we all know how to do it IRL, but via Zoom? Not so much. Yet, with local restaurants now delivering top takeout menus, plus Essex boutiques selling tableware online, now's the time to master the art of virtual socialising. Here’s how…

Where once we’d all pile into a mate’s pad on Friday night, open up a bottle (or four), and settle down to a (reportedly) home-cooked fish pie and champion cheese board to kick off the weekend,  now the social landscape looks decidedly different. Pre-empting an evening of awkward pauses, malfunctioning mute buttons and sheer screen exhaustion can render even the best laid online plans useless come 7pm – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Part of the problem, say the pros, is that we’re not putting enough effort in. The decor, music, menu – these are all things you would have put some serious thought into pre-pandemic, right? So, why not now? To get your creative juices flowing, here’s the Muddy Essex edit of the hottest local food, wine and tableware buys to get the party started. 

The food

The Hoop Stock
The Hoop’s takeout menus are always evolving – check the site regularly for new, seasonal add-ons.

There’s a wealth of tech-savvy Essex eateries out there that have stepped up their takeout game this lockdown and if you’re opting for a delivery situ, check out The Hoop’s ever-evolving menu, which has so far included everything from fancy fish and chips, and organic sourdough pizzas to gourmet food hampers, which you can collect direct from the gastro in Stock. Meanwhile, the Galvin Green Man in Chelmsford has also launched an entire At Home line, which boasts Michelin-star three-course meals you can collect, then heat up at home. Each week, Jeff Galvin – chef patron of Galvin La Chapelle in the Green Man’s sister site in London – designs a bespoke selection of plates using seasonal ingredients and, so far, he’s nailing it. For those of you who don’t want to duck out of the full culinary experience though (and by that, we mean actually cooking something), look to Lina Stores’ fresh pasta kit (£32 for up to 10 plates); Patty & Bun’s DIY home-delivery packs (£25) and Mac & Wild’s Restaurant kits (£28 for four Scottish-fare servings), all of which deliver DIY-style restaurant-meal kits direct to your door. Also good: why not order the same signature tipple from bars delivering good spirit across the county in the form of wine, Champagne and cocktails? Step forward, Estuary Wine Bar in Manningtree, Bella Bottle in west Essex and Tapp’d Cocktails in Leigh-on-Sea. 

The playlist 

Just like an in-person event, atmosphere is key. To avoid clashing soundtracks, designate one person to create a playlist and either play it from one house or share it with everyone pre dial-up and press play on three. Hit up Spotify for some classic jazz/pop/soul-inflected collections or do a quick What’sApp poll beforehand and ask your mates to nominate 10 tracks each for the playlist. Then let shuffle take care of the rest.

The tablescape

Dantes Ceramics Studio
Dantes Ceramics: the brand’s Scandi-style pieces are perfect for adding a contemporary twist to your dinner-party wares.

Top tip: don’t scrimp on all the style trimmings. Part of the fun of preparing for a social do is getting the table and interiors looking spot on, so instead of sheepishly angling your laptop so that guests can’t spot that pile of detritus still sulking in the corner, go all out with a fresh floral display in the background (we love Buds The Flower Shop’s designs from Harwich) and a couple of hot new tableware buys to steal the show. Annabelle’s boutique in Crouch Street, Colchester, has a hand-block printed table cloth (£30) and scallop-detailed wine cooler (£36) perfect for sophisticated soiree’s, while Ingatestone-based Abigail’s winter scene napkins (£4) and Gisela Graham heart-shaped wooden napkin holders (8.95) are dreamy additions to a trad table set-up. More of a Scandi-style ceramics fiend? Look no further than Dantes Ceramics in Wivenhoe. Boasting a collection of beautifully crafted plates, bowls, tumblers and pitchers, you’ll be able to stock up on a whole new dinner set and – with the help of Dantes’ contemporary black candle sticks (£26) – bask in the glow of your virtual success. 

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