Dinner Party Diva

Judi Davidson takes entertainment seriously. She's a founding partner of Davidson & Choy Publicity, an L.A. public relations firm specializing in the arts and entertainment in Southern California. (The firm recently handled publicity for "The Producers" and Cirque du Soleil, among others.) She also is married to Gordon Davidson, the artistic director-producer of Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum. When it's time for a dinner party at their Santa Monica Canyon home, the Brooklyn transplant enlists the aid of caterers, their children (son Adam, 38, daughter Rachel, 36, and son-in-law Jeffrey) and a friendly Lhasa apso named Lexus, whom she calls her "social director" for his tail-wagging duties at the front door.How many dinners do you host each year?

I'd say we have at least eight to 10 a year. These are the major ones, not just having a couple of friends over and doing the cooking myself. I try to limit them to around 22 people, but somehow they always seem to expand to 34 or 36.

That's a lot of faces to place. Any secret to remembering people's names?

The first thing I do is read over the guest list and then I write out the place cards. I find writing it out helps put it in my mind. Although I'll probably already know most of the people who are coming, they'll often bring a date or somebody that I don't know. At that point I try to find out whatever I can. I also try very hard to say the person's name immediately after I meet them.

Walk me through a dinner party at the Davidson home. It sounds more involved than a keg of beer and a bucket of chicken wings.

I like having lots of hors d'oeuvres because it can take a good hour until everybody gets there. And, for the most part, people are drinking wine and Champagne, although these days some drink vodka and that wonderful single malt scotch. So we have that, too.

When you've got a group of 30 people who don't know each other, what's the best way to get them to interact?

When you introduce people to each other and they get a drink in their hand, they'll usually stand and talk to whomever they're with. Another thing we do is to make sure wives or significant others are seated at tables [different from] their partners. I find there's one dominant person in a couple, and if you're seated next to each other, one of you is going to take the back seat.

I remember [actor/writer/director] Henry Jaglom, shortly after he was married, came to my house and was about to change the place cards to put himself next to Victoria, his bride. I said, "Don't do that, Henry," and he said, "But we always sit next to each other." I told him that wives don't talk if they're seated next to their husbands. Victoria ended up having the best time. Afterward Henry sent me a note saying, "Thanks for making it safe for wives to talk."

What does it take to get a dinner party off the ground?

I try to introduce each person and say a nice word or two about them, how you know them and what they do. It may be unnecessary, but many is the time I've gone to a party where nobody's introduced me and I talk to the people I'm talking to and some says later, "Did you see so and so?" and I didn't even know they were there. That drives me crazy!

The secret to throwing the perfect dinner party?

I work under the "Jewish mother theory"--having more food than you could possibly eat, along with lots of wine and Champagne. I also think it doesn't matter what you serve for dinner as long as dessert is a knockout--preferably something chocolate. One thing we do is that each of us will sit at a different table. Depending on how many tables, Gordon will sit at one table; I'll sit at one table; my daughter or my son at the other tables. And then we always switch with each course so we get around to every table. You want everyone to feel important.

Is there a key to making sure a dinner party comes off without a hitch?

If there is one, I haven't learned it. You're human and there are going to be mistakes and things that don't go right. But you just have to remember that it's not the end of the world.

Worst dinner-party disaster?

I had one dinner where the caterer suddenly disappeared, and we had no idea where he'd gone for over an hour. It turned out that his dessert hadn't turned out the way he wanted and he drove all the way to Granita in Malibu to pick up Wolfgang's chocolate souffle. I said to him when he got back and the people had left: "Why'd you do that? Why didn't you come tell me?" He said: "I was so embarrassed, I didn't want you to know." I told him that we always keep ice cream in the freezer and that we could've whipped something up.

Any kitchen or pantry basics you recommend keeping on hand for dinner-party emergencies?

I thank God for Trader Joe's. They've got all those bean dips and everything. I tend to overbuy food--I've got this worry that somebody will come by and I won't have something for them to eat. And there's always pasta in the house.

One thing guests will remember about dinner at the Davidsons' house?

The dessert, and the fact that they had a good time--I hope.

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