A Time For Friends

The modern version of the classic supper club hasn’t lost any of the elegance of its golden era, but today, it is as much about forging deeper connections between friends as it is about the food.

Photography by Kip Dawkins | Styling by Neely Barnwell Dykshorn

Once upon a time (when our grandparents were young and foolish), supper clubs were destinations—nightclubs, really—for people who wanted to dress up, relax, enjoy an elegant meal (often in a setting where they could order bathtub gin) and spend time with friends. Long, sexy cigarette holders, black tie, and draping pearls were all mainstays of a glamorous night out where people sipped martinis and listened to live orchestra or club music. (Desi Arnaz and Frank Sinatra come to mind.) As dressed up and interesting as the people were, the menus were not. The fare was straightforward: Surf and Turf, mashed potatoes. . . nothing complicated or French.

Today, supper clubs are a different affair altogether. They aren’t just a setting; they are an entity. The guests, not the venue, are the club. But the purpose is the same: to spend time with friends over food and drink. The modern supper club is held in a home for a limited group, which is the most exclusive aspect of today’s supper clubs, and the same people show up every time. Best of all for guests, the host and hostess of the month usually spend days hunting down exotic ingredients and preparing dishes that are as intriguing as they are complex.

But it’s about more than food. “We’re trying to recapture an era when people made time for each other,” says Debi Shawcross, author of Friends at the Table, the Ultimate Supper Club Cookbook and the authoritative word on how to do it right and best. Also a teaching-chef, Shawcross knows how to pull off the perfect dinner party that is the template for entertaining in the new millennium. Her goal is to make every event ne plus ultra. “I think of it as a splurge for my friends,” she says. One of the benefits of the modern supper club is reciprocity. “They do the same for me.”

In Friends at the Table, Shawcross cherry-picks the elements of the vintage supper club and transforms them into home entertaining. There is music (via iPod), cocktails (served by the host or hostess, not by a waitress in a provocative get-up) and fine dining (prepared meticulously, not en masse, in a home kitchen). The best deviation from the original? There is no tab at the end of the night.

According to Shawcross, when forming a supper club, you first must figure out what you want to accomplish. Do you want to cultivate friends with children the same ages as yours? Are you trying to network for professional reasons? Are you looking for other couples to share your enthusiasm for gastronomy? Maybe you’re new to the neighborhood and seeking entrer. “To get the most out of the supper club experience, you need a common goal,” says Shawcross. In her case, she simply wanted to have time committed to spending with close friends. “We’re going into our fourth year,” says Susan Moss, one of Shawcross’ clubbers, adding that children at home were the primary commonality. The group decided to include one non-member  “mystery couple” at their events; I was the crasher at their holiday supper club. “Usually, I try someone I don’t know real well,” says Moss, “someone I think would be an interesting conversationalist, but who blends in.”

For most of us, when fate intervenes (or the babysitter cancels), good friends forgive someone who opts out of a get-together at the last moment. But with supper club, there are no excuses short of death or an extreme act of nature. “For a supper club to work, you need to commit to a schedule, whether it’s monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly, and stick to it,” Shawcross firmly states. Adds Moss, “It forces us to get together and make it happen.” The benefit? “A supper club is designed to build relationships on a deep, ongoing level,” says Shawcross in her book. Indeed, for some of us, nothing says “friend” better than one who devours your flat soufflé and pretends to enjoy it. While no one had to choke down a flopped dish at this party, it was clear the group appreciates time with each other as much as they appreciate exceptional food.

But what of the old rules for entertaining, I ask Shawcross. Aren’t they more relaxed than in the days of starched linens and shrimp forks? (Yes.) Can I email invitations? (Yes.) Do I have to invite my best friend? (No.) Can I mix friends with colleagues? (Carefully. You don’t want your best friend to resurrect the story of when you left your kid in the supermarket.) Can I pass off Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck for good wine? (Don’t even.) Just because your club mates are close buddies doesn’t mean you can slack. In fact, the quintessential supper club experience demands perfection. And why not? To Shawcross’ thinking, if your best pals don’t deserve your best effort, then who does?

Guidelines for supper club aren’t that different than those for the elegant dinner party that you make yourself give once a year. In addition to the right mix of people, ambient lighting and a smooth segue from cocktails to table without announcing “Chow Time” are important. And there are some new issues that Desi and Lucy never foresaw: How do you accommodate vegans? Shawcross says go the distance, even if it means making a whole separate meal, which she did for one of her guests at this gathering. And, even though your guests can be as close as family, graciously signaling a close to the evening’s festivities always requires a delicate touch. “I usually ask what people are doing the next day,” says Shawcross.

Although in Shawcross’ club, each host couple is responsible for an entire evening, some clubs divvy the courses among members for each event. “In other words,” she says, “job-share to create the ultimate dinner party.” Another suggestion is for the men to handle the cooking and cleanup. At the Moss home, Susan engages her husband as sous chef. “Charlie will do everything, from chopping to grilling to serving food to doing dishes at the end,” she says.

Whatever the arrangement, be prepared to go above and beyond what you normally do for a dinner party. When preparing for this holiday supper club, Shawcross spent hours in grocery stores. Rarely does she find everything she needs in one spot—blood orange juice for the cocktails was the elusive item this time. While some of us might fudge with a substitute like crème de cassis, Shawcross goes strictly by the book. For her professional standards, it’s all in the ingredients, and sometimes there is just no substitute; certainly not for the beef tenderloin, prosciutto and rosemary, or cremini mushrooms, all of which were part of Shawcross’ holiday supper menu.

Remember, above all, it’s about spending time with friends. Shawcross’ holiday supper club was time well spent; the food, a superb backdrop. But don’t relax. In a supper club, there is always the unstated expectation that you will extend the same amount of effort as other members. Whether it’s on time spent ferreting out unusual ingredients or meticulously peeling fruits and vegetables, supper club should have the sense of a major production, no matter how effortless these hostesses seem to make it. After all, without a little showbiz excitement, it just isn’t supper club.

So, what are you doing tomorrow?

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