It’s been a year and a half since finishing up college, and so far I’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to keeping up with friends. But while it’s been pretty easy to catch some face time with the old crew (and carefully, cautiously ingratiate them with the new crew) the obligatory barhopping that comes along can get sort of… boring—not to mention pricey for everyone involved. So I decided to do what anyone with a one-bedroom apartment and some space for entertaining would do: Throw a fancy dinner party for some friends, without spending fancy dinner party money (which, you know, I don’t exactly have).
After checking to make sure I still had some free invites on Paperless Post, I crafted an invite to set a highbrow tone for the guests-to-be (in hindsight, it would probably have made the world’s design majors shake their heads in aesthetically pleasing unison). I asked half the recipients to bring wine and half to bring appetizers, knowing we’d probably get through plenty of both. I also took the risk and put “Cocktail Attire” in tiny cursive script at the bottom, thinking that would be the classiest and least-annoying way to let everyone know they’d probably have to do extra laundry before coming.
The final RSVP tally was eight yeses, two regrets, and a record-low three email bounce backs from discontinued addresses (my friends are apparently awful when it comes to migrating off their old college accounts). Total cost so far, not including any snacks eaten during invitation design: $0.
I sent the invites out two weeks ahead of time, which gave me extra time to procrastinate before getting my act together. Beyond borrowing an extra fold-up table from my neighbor and buying a new bottle of bourbon on the way home from work—which I ended up finishing, ahem, well before the party—I didn’t prep anything until the day of.
Eventually the to-do list caught up with me, and I spent the better part of the morning of the dinner figuring out what the hell I was going to cook (probably not the way most successful dinner parties are planned). Fortunately, my Iron Chef of a mother hadn’t raised me without an emergency meal backup plan, which I was all too happy to cash in a few hours before game time: When in doubt, make a roast. They’re easy, they’re cheap, and they’re set-it-and-forget-it meals that’ll give you a few hours of untended cook time to get everything else in gear. Plus, they’re easy to make gluten and dairy free in case food allergies are a concern. Here’s my tested-in-the-line-of-fire recipe that served nine:
• 8 pounds boneless rump roast (This was actually two four-pound roasts on sale; turns out a little under a pound of meat per person will leave everyone plenty satisfied.)
• 3 Bunches Carrots
• 10 Red Potatoes
• 3 Large White Onions
• 2 Cans Beef Broth
• 2 Cans Beef Consommé
• 1 Bottle Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc (I crossed two fingers and hoped the meal wouldn’t smell like Trader Joes at rush hour.)
Place half the cleaned and cut carrots, halved potatoes, and thickly sliced onions in the bottom of the biggest pot you can find, then place the meat on top. Stuff all leftover veggies around the meat, then dump in the broth and consommé. Top it off with the wine until there’s about an inch of meat sticking out of the liquid. Add in two teaspoons of salt and two teaspoons black pepper. Cover, then stick in the oven at 350 degrees for three hours (or a little more depending on the meat’s thickness).
Total cost, even in an astronomically expensive New York City supermarket: $74.27, or about $8 per person.
Once everything was in the oven, I went about turning my apartment from bachelor-chic to guest-acceptable. Couch cleared, countertops cleaned, floor Swiffered, and rogue socks shot into the hamper from three-point range (made 3 of 5, not bad). I placed the two folding tables lengthwise to create a banquet hall atmosphere (needed more banquet) and set out the requisite number of chairs (and hey, only half were of the folding variety!). In a semi-panic to do better than the tables’ standard cinderblock white, I dug out two clean black bed sheets from my closet for some makeshift tablecloths, which I topped with plates, silverware, glasses, and the cheapest votive candles Walgreens can sell.
Figuring people might want more than wine, I dragged my side table out of the bedroom to set up a makeshift bar: 1 (new) bottle of bourbon, a bowl of ice, a bottle of bitters, and a jar of maple syrup. Voila! Maple Syrup Old Fashioned station for around $40 flat. That brought my final cost for the whole ordeal to $118.19, or about $13 per person—a number I’ll take to wine and dine nine hungry 20-somethings in New York.
I tossed my work clothes in the hamper and threw on slacks, a button up, and tie just in time for the first guests arrived to an apartment smelling like grandma’s kitchen. Apart from a few dropped potatoes, the dinner went off without a hitch.
And if anyone noticed the tablecloths were actually sheets, they were nice enough not to say anything.
David Thomas Tao is an editor and writer living in New York City (though his native Kentucky accent still slips out from time to time). He’s also the chief research officer at Greatist.