If you’re headed to a friend’s dinner party, is a bottle of wine enough? Should couples bring two? An etiquette expert weighs in.
It’s amazing how much good guests leave an impression; I still remember when a friend and his wife showed up bearing two bottles of wine for a casual dinner for four. It seemed like the grandest gesture I’d ever seen, particularly since I’d made casual spicy wings and sticky rice for everyone.
Since then, however, I furrow my brow when deciding what to bring to dinners. Many friends—who include lots of artists, writers, and self-employed folks—don’t make mad money, and I don’t want to set them back fiscally over the course of a long evening. The last party I attended with my partner, we brought a homemade loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and a third of a bottle of whiskey—an odd hodgepodge, but it was a close friend, and a Saturday night! (And it was, I think, appreciated.)
Lizzie Post, great-granddaughter of famed etiquette champion Emily Post and co-president, author, podcaster and spokesperson for The Emily Post Institute, laughed when I told her of my gift. “You’re in the right territory, but you’re overthinking it probably in some sections.” She reminded me that bringing gifts to dinner was “actually foreign in many ways to Emily Post herself.”
Emily Post once received a question from a young gentleman asking whether he ought to bring chocolates or flowers to a woman he met on the train. “You used to entertain strangers a bit more back in the day than you do now,” explained Lizzie. “In the prairie you might be the only host for miles and miles.” So when a gentlewoman politely invited a gentleman to stop by “when in town,” and he asked Emily Post if he should bring a gift, she huffed, “Absolutely not! Are you buying her services for the evening?”
Watch: How to Make Wine Bread
Times and gender relations shift over time, of course, and nowadays bringing a small hostess gift of a glass of wine, flowers, specialty food items, or flowers in a vase or glass jar are all appropriate gifts, suggests Post in her book. Think, she suggests, of what “the realm of what people enjoy and are used to and feel comfortable and confident bringing.” If you don’t drink alcohol, that might be sparkling water, especially an organic, local, or other non-mainstream brand. In Vermont, where Post lives, she might go with kombucha, teas, or carbonated sap—“not sugar, not maple syrup; so light, refreshing and different!”
Post reminded me that—the maxim of showing up empty-handed notwithstanding—one doesn’t have to bring anything. “Hosts shouldn’t expect hostess gifts ever, and if you notice your friend doesn’t bring one it shouldn’t irk you.” She points out that among close friends, particularly families, they simply switch homes for get-togethers every other week or so, and suggests that if your host insists, “I’ve got it taken care of,” you should trust them.
Although Post encourages people to “let hosts be hosts; you don’t want to so usurp the idea of someone bestowing good hospitality on you that you end up somehow stealing their thunder” with a fancy gift, it’s fine to inquire in advance about what exactly you can bring. Perhaps your desserts are knockouts, and you’d like to bring one; just ask first. (I ran my loaf of bread by my friend ahead of time.) A classy move, too, is to bring a true hostess gift, telling your host that the bottle of nice wine or some other treat “is for you, for another night.”
And couples? It’s true that my friends went above and beyond with two bottles, but Post thinks it’s not necessary: “It’s just like a wedding gift; you bring a gift from the couple.” She admits that “this is one place where singles sort of get burned; singles kind of have to take care of it on their own.” (She qualifies that you and another guest could “go in on a nicer bottle of wine” together.)
So relax, pick up some wine or sparkling sap (!), and be sure to enjoy yourself and thank your host both as you leave and the next day. That’s good etiquette.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.