After securing a date, the first task for the host or hostess should be to assess culinary prowess around the kitchen, said Jennifer Hand, manager and director of catering at Peoria Height’s French Toast.

“Get a realistic expectation of your cooking skills,” Hand said. “You may need a caterer if you’re inundated with other responsibilities or don’t have the skill set.”

Many caterers, like Hand, make house calls, so booking a restaurant may not be necessary if you don’t plan on cooking. But dining in an elegant and relaxed atmosphere like French Toast’s mix of French Victorian and chic furnishings may be preferred. Taking advantage of French Toast’s VIP room or even reserving the adjoining Wine Country for a celebration is an option. Most restaurants have private or semi-private rooms where around six to eight guests can tuck away from the dinner crowd.

When it comes to a home-cooked menu, Hand stresses sticking to “good old-fashioned staples” or family recipes that are familiar. If venturing into foreign territory is on the table, try out the recipe several times before the big day. She also advises stocking up on double the amount of staple ingredients and meal ingredients and planning a back-up recipe in preparation for a last-minute disaster.

“Be aware of guests’ preferences and have two lists, a grocery list and a work or to-do list,” Hand said. “My secret is having the house clean two days ahead (of the party) so it’s not bogging me down.”

Bringing your age-appropriate children to help in the kitchen isn’t a bad idea either, Hand said. Kids can be willing and excellent servers and may be able to help cook with a little coaching. But if the food requires more hands-on preparation and is more fitting for an adult palate, there’s nothing wrong with getting a babysitter for the evening, Hand said.

When it comes to themes, Hand offers various choices to her customers and takes requests. For a more upscale and formal dinner, she can map out a menu of lamb lollipops, seared on a frenched bone, as well as caviar, tuna tartar, baked brie en croute and cheese pate. Bartenders and servers can also accompany her at a client’s request. If a more relaxed atmosphere is desired, vegetable trays, meatballs and silver dollar sandwiches could be served up. When working from a client’s home, Hand always assesses the kitchen prior to the event to determine what equipment she’ll need to bring. Usually food is prepped at the restaurant and then final preparations occur in-house.

“I take pride in the art of cooking, it’s a very intimate thing,” Hand said. “(Food is) going inside (our) bodies and we hold a lot of integrity with that. We never compromise on quality or customer service.”

To make the event more memorable, she also recommends rearranging the dining area and using low-intensity lighting to create ambiance.

“Pull the dining table into a different room to give it the element of surprise,” Hand said. “It’s an added something to make it special.”

But even just adding a vase of fresh flowers can be enough to change a room, she added.

With fondue experiencing a resurgence of popularity not seen since the ‘70s, it can be the perfect after-dinner treat or even a quick and easy hors d’oeuvre. At French Toast, both chocolate and cheese fondue are served.

For a more romantic dinner just for two, fondue creates an intimate setting and even keeps nervous hands busy. “It’s almost like a sport,” Hand said with a laugh. “And it can be fun. The game goes, if a woman drops her bread into the fondue, she has to kiss her date, if a man drops his bread he has to buy the next drink.”

When having fondue with friends, the game extends to the person who drops a cube of bread for the second time has to host the next fondue party.

Witnessing numerous engagements at the restaurant, Hand said customers can make special requests ahead of time like heartshaped candles or even having staff bring out a ring hidden inside a special dish. Since all the proposals at French Toast so far have resulted in a yes, many couples also return to the restaurant to celebrate anniversaries.

“We’re part of that history they’re making. We’re part of that memory,” Hand said with a smile. a&s