Give the elegant dinner party you've always wanted without lifting a finger -- except to dial the phone. Appealing appetizers, elegant entrees, decadent desserts -- can all be yours if you take advantage of gourmet carryout.
"I like to entertain, I have a large home, but I don't have time to buy and cook things myself," says George F. Johnson of Charles Village. "Gourmet carryout is the only way to entertain and still have some semblance of social life."
It's customers like Mr. Johnson, a music teacher at St. Paul's School, who keep the cash registers ringing for specialty food stores like Morton's Wine, Spirits and Elegant Eats.
"Our business is doing very well. We attribute a lot of it to more people entertaining at home," says Janis Talbott, a partner at Morton's, which opened seven years ago.
Gourmet carryout can be found not only at upscale food stores, but also through caterers and restaurants. It can be a lifesaver for those who love to entertain at home but don't have the time or skills to prepare elegant meals.
Ms. Talbott says clients of her Mount Vernon shop don't blink at spending $100 for a small dinner party. "You could not go to a good restaurant for that much," she says.
A realistic per-person estimate, she says, is anywhere from $20 up -- not including wine.
There are ways to control costs and still enjoy a fine meal, says John Scott, chef at Josef's Country Inn in Fallston. For instance, customers could buy just the entree and then make their own salad and vegetables. Wine is cheaper purchased in a liquor store than from a restaurant.
But for a special occasion or when money is no object, a gourmet carryout can supply everything. Food can be delivered and set up, and most places will even supply a waiter to serve the meal.
Gourmet carryout comes carefully packaged to retain its flavor and appearance. A salad, for example, would be divvied up into greens, dressing and toppings.
The food may be prepared according to your instructions -- uncooked, partly cooked or fully prepared. Instructions for completing or serving the dish generally are included.
Marinated salmon, for example, may be grilled until partly cooked and then finished in the customer's oven at home. Bunny Dwin, who owns Bunny Dwin's Commissary in Fells Point, says this method of preparation has become very popular.
But some clients won't even turn on the oven, says Ms. Dwin. "I always try to establish the customer's comfort level in the kitchen. Someone might want an entire meal served at room temperature."
For a special Valentine's Day dinner, Laura Grace ordered Chicken Baltimore, partly cooked, from Josef's. Mr. Scott gave her careful directions on how to finish the dish, a boneless breast of chicken topped with jumbo crab meat, at home. She also ordered a cheesecake for the five couples dining at her bed and breakfast, Broom Hall, in Fallston.
"It makes sense to buy the things that are difficult to do, and give yourself time to concentrate on what you do best," she says.
With the entree and dessert taken care of, Ms. Grace said she had time to arrange the flowers and prepare a couple of courses herself. She filled in the meal with an attractive tray of cheese and crackers, a light vegetable soup and steamed broccoli.
Ms. Grace even hired a pianist to supply romantic music during the evening -- something that would have been impossible in a restaurant.
To personalize a dinner, some people make their signature dish, perhaps a cheesecake recipe that's been in the family for generations, says Ann Brody, senior vice president of Sutton Place Gourmet in Pikesville.
The convenience of leisurely entertaining at home is a big part of the appeal of gourmet carryout. Cocktails and appetizers may be served where you like, dessert can be postponed indefinitely, and there are no waiters impatiently waiting for you to finish.
A gourmet carry-out dinner can even be yours with only a few hours notice, if you don't mind accepting a kind of glorified pot luck. Ms. Dwin says she always keeps some foods on hand -- crab meat or chicken breasts. But duck or veal may have to be specially ordered.
Morton's faxes its weekly menu to regular customers each Sunday evening. This has been a successful way to encourage customers to plan ahead.
Customers usually have some idea of what they want when they call. Deciding on a budget and determining any taboos -- no red meat for example -- are the two most important steps in the process.
The entree sets the tone for the meal and also determines how much money is left for the rest of the meal. Plan on spending about one-third of your total budget on the entree, says Ms. Brody.
When buying cooked entrees, plan on 4 to 5 ounces each for the calorie-counters in the crowd. Hearty appetites may need 8 ounces to feel satisfied, says Ms. Brody. You will need to buy more if the entree includes bones or shells.