Not Just Another Dinner Party: Salons Offer Way to Open Homes and Minds
“After what we’ve all been through, we want to talk to each other a bit more in person, to lock eyes on each other, feel human, hear live music, have real conversations, and experience awkward moments, stolen looks, warm food, simple cocktails, new faces and old friends.”
Susan MacTavish Best is speaking to me.
She’s literally speaking to me in that the consummate party host and I are on the phone talking about what makes up the alchemy of a salon. She’s figuratively speaking to me. Her message mirrors what I am craving: Other people!
A centuries-old tradition, a salon is a gathering in a home of anywhere from 10 to 100 curious people who come together around a topic and usually a featured expert to eat, drink, talk, learn, and create community, she said.
“The funny thing is, I’ve been hosting salons for years. I just didn’t know it,” said Best, a professional “salonista,” based in New York and San Francisco. That is, she gets paid to host salons. (Another job I wish I had.)
Now she’s encouraging everyone to give them a try. “Anyone can host a salon,” she said.
I don’t know about you, but after 18 months in social darkness, when this new variant fades, I will be ready to host some parties with a purpose. So I grilled Best and asked her to dish up her secrets for a sensational salon:
Marni: Whose idea was this?
Susan: Women started salons in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Most women then were not formally educated nor were they allowed to participate in political discourse. But they could have people over. So they curated the conversation and guestlist to suit their interests and agendas. Ultimately, salons became very influential socially, artistically and politically well into the early 1900s.
How did you get started doing this professionally?
I ran a public relations firm in Silicon Valley for 20 years. Clients would ask me to host groups in my home to help build community around their companies. Like the salonistas centuries before, I could use gentle soft skills to get done what I needed to get done, which might be introducing an investor to an inventor. Now I commonly have 100 people over. I’m not recommending others do that. But I am suggesting people host salons for 10 or so people, and show the world how to do something different from a dinner party.
How is a salon different from a dinner party?
Salons are messier. The lighting is dim. The smells are good. The vibe is warm and welcoming not fancy. Guests don’t sit around a table, but rather on sofas and on the floor with pillows, which changes the menu. I don’t look at salon food as appetizers, side dishes, or entrees, but just food.
What’s on the menu?
I like one-dish meals that are easy like lasagna, mac and cheese, or flatbread pizzas. If you don’t like to cook, get grocery-bought pre-made dishes and platter them nicely. Always have at least one non-alcoholic beverage. I never make dessert. If people want to contribute, I ask them to bring a liquid or a pint of ice cream. I put the pints on a silver platter and that’s dessert. Another way to keep costs down is to use little plates, which mean small helpings, so your food will last longer. Don’t use disposable dishware orflatware. It’s tacky and makes too much trash.
And your recipe for a great salon is…?
One that tickles all the senses. You want great lighting. No overhead lighting, only soft side lighting with candles, lanterns and lamps. It should smell good when guests walk up. You want to have music playing. Have a topic and invite an expert to interview. Look around for authors, professors, chefs, entrepreneurs, artists. Beyond that, the ingredients are conversation, connection and community.
How should the evening unfold?
Though salons feel unpredictable for guests, they should be quite predictable for the host. I keep a sharp eye on the time. Guests start arriving at 7 pm. Around 8:15, after guests have had a chance to mingle, I ring a bell or clank a glass and tell everyone the fireside chat will start in 10 minutes, so grab some food, refresh your drink and find a seat. I start the guest interview at 8:30, and keeping it short, five questions, 20 or 30 minutes. We have audience questions, then a little live music. You could invite musicians from a nearby music school to perform, and we’re done by 9:30.
How do you “curate” a guest list?
Historically, the purpose of a salon was to bring people together of all ages from all walks of life, and that hasn’t changed. My salons tend to span three generations. You also want diverse interests. Don’t invite five friends from work. Nothing is more boring than an evening of all attorneys or all doctors or all whatever profession. Do not invite know-it-alls, sloppy drunks or anyone generally bad at listening.
How do we even think about hosting a salon with COVID on the rise again?
After what we’ve just lived through, it feels especially meaningful to reunite with those neighbors, family and friends who make life worth living, and unite around fascinating and important topics. That said, we need to do so carefully and responsibly.
It’s okay to ask your guests to be vaccinated. It's your home, and that is a reasonable request, so you can socialize responsibly and with less angst. If you have the outdoor space, and the weather is nice, gather outside. Socializing in 2021 requires flexibility and grace.
Any more salon house rules?
Your guests can’t invite random people. That’s an old salon rule. Not anyone can just walk in. I have a guest list, which I send out. Avoid charged topics. I don’t mind a lively discussion, but this is my home. We’re not going to be debating.
Photo caption: Modern-Day Salon — Salonista Susan MacTavish Best, wearing red-sequined dress and sneakers, interviews media theorist Douglas Rushkoff at a salon in her New York home.