WASHINGTON, Nov. 24, 2009 -- The state dinner tonight at the White House, the first of the Obama administration, is the hottest ticket in town and the most highly anticipated social event of the year.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have been active hosts since moving into the White House in January, but tonight's state dinner, in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is the ultimate invitation and the result of months of planning by hundreds of staffers, including the first lady herself.
Fewer than 400 lucky guests received the official invitation.
A White House state dinner, thrown in honor of a visiting dignitary or head of state, is "bigger than the biggest wedding," said former White House chef Walter Scheib, who served during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Scheib said a state dinner is more than a just meal and requires the choreography of a Broadway show.
"Maybe the only thing bigger than a state dinner is a royal wedding," said Scheib, who knows from experience, estimating that he helped prepare and serve 35 to 40 state or official dinners during his 11 years at the White House.
Anita McBride, chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, said the pressure is on.
"This is the standard by which all future state dinners and officials dinners will be judged," she said.
A ticket to a state dinner is coveted during any administration and only the ultra-elite will make it on the final guest lists. The invitees have ranged from senior administration officials, Cabinet members, notable newsmakers and Americans with ties to the country whose leader is being honored.
In recent years, state dinners have been rare and invitations have been hard to come by. Former President George W. Bush, who would never be taken for the most social president, hosted just six state dinners in his eight years in office, compared to 29 state dinners during the Clinton administration.
President George H.W. Bush held more than two dozen in his one term and President Ronald Reagan hosted 57 state dinners.
A seat at the table may be difficult to obtain tonight, but here's a glimpse at the planning and choreography of a state dinner from former insiders, style experts and event organizers who know how to throw a party.
State Dinner: Who Makes the Guest List?
The guest list for tonight's state dinner is larger than state dinners during the Bush administration, because the Obamas have chosen to hold it outside in a tent, instead of in the State Dining Room or East Room, to accommodate more seating.
DO: Have the right mix of guests.
Jayne Sandman, an experienced event planner in Washington, said the guest list is the most important thing when it comes to planning a large event like this.
"Everything else pales in comparison (to the guest list)," Sandman said. "You have to have the right balance and have the right mix of people."
McBride said there is a lot of planning that goes into a state dinner guest list and there is input from the State Department, National Security Advisor, the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Office of Political Affairs.
Ultimately, McBride said, the decision on the guest list rests with the president and the first lady.
"You do the best that you can to make sure you have put together an extensive and comprehensive list that touches every sector of American society -- business, law, art, enter, science, education," she said.
McBride said that there is sometimes a lobbying effort by people who want to end up on the guest list.
"There is definitely an effort on the part of people who want to come to a state dinner, to reach out maybe not directly themselves or they may have people call the social secretary or other people in the White House on their behalf to be considered for the state dinner," she said.
Planning the State Dinner Menu
"A state dinner or official dinner is a lot more like a Broadway play than it is an actual dinner," veteran White House chef Scheib said. "There are so many components and so much rehearsal and so much that goes into it. Literally hundreds and maybe a thousand people involved if you look at all the components of the house."
DO: Represent the taste and style of the first lady.
"It's not about you as the chef, it's about representing and letting the first lady's style and personal tastes come through loud and clear," Scheib said.
McBride said that the menu typically showcases American, but there is always a nod to the "flair or flavor" of the visiting country.
DO: Make sure that the food component of the dinner, while "excellent, delicious and fun," never becomes the issue.
"If it is, then typically that means something went badly," Scheib said. "There can be no mistakes, it's not like a restaurant where they cut 10 percent off your bill and give you free dessert."
DON'T: Try something new for the first time that night. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, Scheib said, and don't get cute.
Menu planning usually begins about a month before the dinner, when the White House social secretary begins the preliminary work on the event, he said.
An official from the State Department's office of protocol will prepare a dossier on the guest of honor, outlining personal tastes, dietary concerns, and anything else that a chef and his team needs to know to begin planning a menu.
A number of menus are proposed and sometimes there are tastings done to determine what works and what does not and the final say goes to the first lady.
DO: Know the dietary concerns and tastes of the guest of honor.
Scheib said that in a dinner for 400 guests, there may be 50-60 alternative dinners prepared to accommodate guests' tastes and preferences.
"First ladies look at it not as a hotel or restaurant, but as a home and you want to be sure your guests get served as they would in your own home," he said.
McBride said the State Department's Office of the Chief of Protocol will play a key role in informing the White House staff of dietary guidelines, food or flower allergies and even colors that may not be appropriate.
Scheib brought up the worst-case scenario -- if a guest were to get sick from any of the food at the dinner.
"This is the end of the world," he said. "This is the fear."
Scheib said that for two weeks before a state dinner, his wife would often wake him up from his sleep to tell him that he had been tossing and turning and talking in his sleep as he thought of things he still had to do for the event.
Schieb's most important advice to the White House team involved in the dinner: "Remember: You're not cooking for you -- you are cooking for the first lady, for the country."
"These things cannot go wrong," he said. "It is exceedingly important that it goes well."
Passion for Fashion -- What to Wear?
DO: Remember that a formal event at the White House is essentially one step above black tie.
Martha Stewart wore a pantsuits to a state dinner in 1999 and was given a thumbs down by Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan.
"Long gown is the only way to go. No fancy cocktail attire," said Susan Cernek, senior fashion and beauty editor at Glamour.com. "This event, because of the somber backdrop, very official setting, you really want to go with a traditional formal evening gown."
Cernek said to avoid embellishment, glitter and cleavage.
"It's understandable to want to be patriotic when choosing your ensemble but it's very important not to go for the Miss America look," she said.
DON'T: Wear the same dress as the first lady
In 2006, first lady Laura Bush donned a stunning red Oscar de la Renta dress for the Kennedy Center Honors at the White House. The only problem -- three other attendees also wore the dress.
Going with the flow, Bush made a last-minute wardrobe change and put on a different dress
"Michelle Obama has a pretty great track record of never having the same look as anyone else in the room," Cernek said. "But there's always the risk of wearing something similar to someone else, including Michelle Obama."
DO: Pile on the accessories.
Cernek said to load up on the accessories to create a unique look and have something to start conversation. "You never know who's going to sit next to you at dinner," she said.
DON'T: Be afraid to make a statement
Sandman notes that too often in Washington, women play it safe and tend toward conservative dress.
"Don't be afraid to make a fashion statement," she said. "But remember you are being photographed by the entire world.
Cernek's rule of thumb: "If you would wear it to a dance party with your friends, it's probably not appropriate for the White House."
Orchestrating a State Dinner
DO: Spend a lot of time thinking about logistics and the flow of the evening.
"A lot of planning, a lot of attention to detail. This will go on for months," McBride said. "This will start at approximately the time when the invite is extended to the foreign visitor and accepted."
The meal itself will only last about an hour to an hour and a half, followed by entertainment. So the margin for error in preparing and serving the meal to the 400 guests is very small.
"The dinner has to happen very quickly, a seamless distribution of food," Scheib said.
DO: Plan for and anticipate last-minute glitches
The final 24 hours are a whirlwind of last-minute adjustments, putting out fires and dealing with the inevitable unexpected glitches, said veteran party planners.
Sandman cited examples of things that can come up in the final day: weather-related travel delays, shuffling guests and the seating chart and unknown dietary restrictions.
Given that the final 24 hours before the event can be so hectic, Sandman said the key is allowing enough time to deal with things in advance "because you can't plan for everything."
DO: Put your own stamp on these dinners.
Social watchers are keeping a close eye out to see how a state dinner looks in the Obama White House compared to previous administrations.
"There is such a clear difference in the direction this White House is taking in terms of social events and entertaining," Sandman said, pointing out the recent "Fiesta Latina" on the South Lawn, an evening of musical performances by popular Latin American artists.
"This administration has shown they have a wide range of ways to entertain," she said.