For Tessa Jowell, they're a schmoozing opportunity. For David Cameron, a place to plot. For aristocrats, an excuse to get drunk. The great British dinner party is alive and well - and more diverse than ever, as these scandalous insider accounts reveal. Introduction by Stephen Bayley

The dinner party was fading into folk memory - a blurry, gravure vision of heated serving trolleys, colourful enamel pans, Portuguese rosé and fondue sets - to be brought back to life only when lazy journalists needed a cliché to caricature antique middle-class habits. Surely, these days, we all go out for tapas and pizza.

And then fascinated investigations into the bizarre domestic arrangements of Tessa Jowell and David Mills confirmed that - in some circles at least - the dinner party is not only still alive but a vital ceremony of modern tribalism. The ambitious couple played host to a stream of socially competitive friends at their north London home, proving that, as a system of social processing, of clearing debts and building up obligations, this event remains uniquely effective. A generous and energetic host can accumulate a great deal of credit which is a form of virtual wealth. The concept is not so much dinner and partying as it is business.

Like so many "traditions" - druids, public schools and Morris dancing, for instance - we owe the dinner party to the very businesslike High Victorians. In the first edition of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 251 dinner menus are helpfully provided. The purpose of the Victorian dinner party was to lubricate the socialisation of the new urban middle-classes, while also offering subtle opportunities for self-promotion or touting for new business.

Huge confidence is required. A London dinner party is a stage where role-playing is rehearsed and social auditions are heard before an acceptance committee. To plan a dinner party is to enter a complex framework of vulnerability and anxiety. It starts with the timing. To La Rochefoucauld, "morning" was whatever portion of the day, irrespective of the clock, occurred (omega) before you had dinner. Now, it's "8 for 8.30" an exasperatingly imprecise imprecation creating an exquisite predicament about judgement for both host and guest.

In London, formats are geographically determined. In Kensington or Belgravia, remains of Victorian formality endure: a person who may be a butler, servant, au pair, driver or cleaner, but is almost always Filipino, will open the door. Champagne is served in a drawing-room before the company goes into dinner. The host and hostess will not cook. Instead, the man who earlier parked his cutely liveried Transit in your space will be invisibly cursing in the kitchen, working on a replica of food served in fashionable King's Road restaurants 30 years ago; perhaps cannelloni with brocolli and osso buco.

In Clapham or Muswell Hill, the dinner-party ritual is less structured, the food and drink more modern, in keeping with the more eclectic and youthful demography. The hosts will be cooking and friends will, irritatingly, drift into the kitchen and give the daube a stir and a sniff. The wine will not be from Harrods or Berry Bros & Rudd, but Sainsbury's or Majestic... and it will be New World, which is a perfect metaphor of the general circumstances.

Wherever it is, the London dinner party is a part of the working day. Thus, they customarily occur Tuesday to Thursday. People are too Mondayish at the beginning of the week and run too ragged by Friday. Invitations at weekends tend to be rare, except if it is for supper, or more intimate still, a kitchen supper. This is a further refinement in the snobbery of entertaining: "supper" is code for friends rather than contacts and the implication is, we will not be taking much trouble. In the country it is opposite: the dinner party will be at the weekend and its function is entirely social.

Topics of conversation? In Evelyn Waugh's day: rich women talking about their poverty, poor women talking about their wealth, rival Byzantinists at variance, actresses off the stage, Americans explaining how much they have drunk lately, amateur novelists talking about royalties. To this list might now be added today's specials: schools and their fees, skiing, favourite shortcuts, where we all live, where we all used to live, where we might live (given the choice), where we all holiday and David Cameron's prospects.

And then there's the hostess gift. This is an element of the dinner-party ritual where advantage and position can be ruthlessly exploited. Guests who sense they are trading-up may arrive empty-handed, those who fear they are trading-down are tempted into patronising generosity. In the middle-ground, an extraordinary currency of useless gifts has evolved: kilner jars of Pruneaux d'Agen, speciality chocolates and obscure novels are given, received and (very often) recirculated. And to confirm its anthropological link with organised religion, the dinner party even has an afterlife in the form of the obligatory morning-after thank-you. Flowers (white, no fern) to impress, but never less than a postcard. "Thank you so much for thinking of inviting us" is a useful formula if you never want to be asked back.

Above all, while most certainly a ritualised and demanding extension of business life, the dinner party exists as a fine excuse for the middle-classes to get respectably drunk.

The Cotswolds crowd
Dom Joly

Food Well-hung game, well-boiled vegetables
Table talk "Care for a spot of skinny dipping?"

Host with the most Kate Moss

Dinner parties in the Cotswolds are a far cry from the cheap, wine-fuelled evenings of my London youth. Staff are a must-have down here and, if you don't have live-ins, you must hire some for your dinner party. Everyone is far too polite to mention that they know they are only temporary. If you really feel like it, you can mumble something drunkenly to your "butler" about fetching your best brandy and he'll mumble something back about "not pushing it".

All is show down here. Old money trying to prove it's still rich while the rich try to prove they're old money.

We host fairly regular dinner parties that tend to have a mix of local pop stars, minor glitterati and proper locals. It's great to mix the list up as the locals love to meet glamorous "London types", if only to slag them off the next day. The newcomers, in turn, love to ask for tips on shooting/shopping/childcare from their more experienced neighbours.

Drink-driving is pretty much a no-no, so dinner parties hardly ever degenerate into all-nighters. There is always the designated-driver half of a couple who starts to nudge their legless partner at about 11pm, just as the discussion comes round to Kate Moss and if she really does shop in Londis.

The most glamorous circuit near us is the infamous Blenheim Estate which contains such luminaries as Richard Curtis, Matthew Freud and Rebekah Wade and Ross Kemp. One of the houses on this estate is always hosting a dinner and it's rumoured that the whole place is divided into geographical sub-sections such as "Little Burgundy", "Little Colombia", etc, and this sets the tone for the evening.

For me, the best invite is still the post-shoot supper at some enormous country house. The traditions and excessive formality of such an affair always give it special cachet. And there's nothing like a country dinner party for a bit of local gossip and the release of those much-repressed country passions. I once wandered out of a large house towards the swimming pool for a quiet smoke only to find a fading 1960s singer hard at it on the diving board with the local squire. I retired quietly back indoors for port and a fat cigar with the rest of the guests. What happens in the Cotswolds stays in the Cotswolds.

The Notting Hill Tories
Jo-Anne Nadler

Food Organic beef and posh fruit tarts from Ottolenghi
Table talk "I was leaning on the Aga when I thought 'Built to last'. Now there's a slogan we can use..."

Host with the most David Cameron

The infamous Granita pact of 1994, sealed at a Islington-meets-Italy, minimally chic restaurant, told its own tale about New Labour. Similarly, David Cameron's dinner-party habits unconsciously convey the values behind his Tory modernising agenda.

It's been a while since the concept of "power dining" held much currency for a rather emasculated Tory party. When in government, Conservatives excelled at the art of the salon, with dining groups an essential vehicle for plotting MPs, and formal, society dinner parties hosted by Carla Powell, wife of Charles Powell (a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher), the must-attend functions for a high-end network of ministers, business people and diplomats.

It is no coincidence that the current revival in Conservative fortunes brings with it a new evolution in the power dinner party. Indeed, it has been between courses and over the relatively relaxed tables of Notting Hill that much of the new-style, green, feminine and youthful Toryism has emerged among a set of like-minded young politicians and media professionals - including, most notably, Cameron himself, shadow chancellor George Osborne and new MPs Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey. Other diners share a common lineage in the Conservative Research Department, including close advisers Steve Hilton and George Bridges and sympathetic modernistas in the traditional Tory press including the Telegraph's Alice Thomson and her husband Ed Heathcote-Amery of the Daily Mail.

If ever a neighbourhood could offer the perfect inspiration both for a fashionable post-modern dinner party and for an inclusive, multicultural political movement, then this is it. Late-night pow-wows dissecting the direction of the Tory Party in popular local eateries such as Kensington Place, which specialises in simply cooked fresh food, have set the tone for home entertainment. And there are grocers such as Fresh & Wild to source quality organic produce (just right for environmentally concerned Tories), and caterers such as Ottolenghi, whose colourful meringues and fruit tarts more than excuse any idea of buying in dessert.

For those that can afford it, this is the perfect food for relaxed dinners served in a yummy-mummy-meets-dress-down-dad family environment. An influential journalist and recent diner with David Cameron confirms that he is a keen cook. Perhaps in deference to traditional Tory tastes, a good old-fashioned roast remains his signature dish - alongside a bottle of Claret - but, just like his policies, he's serving it up in the modern manner. 'Too Nice To Be a Tory', by Jo-Anne Nadler, is published by Simon & Schuster at £10

The literati
John Walsh

Food Toulouse sausages and mash
Table talk "I simply don't know what's happened to poor Martin Amis"

Hosts with the most Julian Barnes and Pat Kavanagh

Two hundred years ago, the classic literary dinner party took place at Charles Lamb's. A century later, the bookish supper to attend was at whichever central London salon Henry James - the most inveterate "diner-out" in history - happened to be holding forth. Thirty years ago, it was Hampstead - where Kingsley Amis, Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd and the young Melvyn Bragg regularly held court. Today, Kentish Town is the locus of literary regaling, chez Julian Barnes and his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, or in the circuit of friends around Amanda Craig, a hostess of charm and energy who (rather coolly) invites writers without their tiresome partners.

North London doesn't get all the action, though. west London - Notting Hill, Ladbroke Grove and Holland Park - is now fully colonised by convivial publishers and writers, most notably the Pinters, Baroness James and Sebastian Faulks.

Literary dinners differ from others because of an atavistic Bohemianism: we may be doing rather well, they suggest, but we're still basically inky-fingered scriveners whose days are filled with fictional ghosts and frustrated by malfunctioning laptops. The lighting will be muted or wholly candle-powered. Guests are more likely to eat in the kitchen than in a dining-room with Villeroy & Boch porcelain. The quantity of wine will always take priority over the quality of food, which tends to the unpretentious tried-and-tested. It's almost a rule that conversation will steer clear of literary criticism, classical quotations or reviews, and deal instead in sex, money and the shortcomings of agents.

Gossip tends towards whether certain people are Worth All The Fuss (Zadie Smith) and mildly bitchy wonderings about Whatever Has Become Of...? others (Martin Amis). Politics seldom features for long, because writers feel awkward when advancing views that have been chewed to death in the papers; it feels like intellectual plagiarism. They are more at home listening, with slightly affected fascination, to the monomaniacal details of others' new projects, mentally noting "Well that's never going to sell..."

Literary dinners are a camaraderie of hopeful obsessives. As for the perfect seating neighbour, it's simple. If a chap, it's Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times's fiction editor. If a lady, it has to be Deborah Moggach.

The foodies
Hermione Eyre

Food Arbroath smokies and rabbit's brains
Table talk "Have you ever tried veal cooked in its mother's milk?"

Host with the most Gordon Ramsay

"The beef man's in town. Come round tonight, OK?" Thus one foodie invites another to dinner. To overhear them, you would think that "beef" was code for a more pernicious substance but, in fact, what the beef man peddles is Argentinian rump cap, sold privately in bulk.

This is the focus, then, of the feaster's feast. While most people have dinner so they can see each other, foodies see each other so they can have dinner. Bourgeois concerns such as time, place and cutlery are given little thought. There will be no place settings or tactful assays at matchmaking: the guest of honour is always the animal about to be consumed (or in the case of vegetarian foodies, the heirloom root vegetable).

Hence you might eat the freshest sardines you have ever tasted while sitting on cushions on the floor. Or you might eat a delicate paté of Arbroath smokies from a chipped plate while drinking wine out of a mug. Your host will not notice that half the guests haven't been introduced, or that a Socialist roué is sitting next to a virginal young Conservative. They will be far too busy making sure that the butter is clarified.

Etiquette is relaxed - just so long as you don't hog the blowtorch when it's passed around the table during the crème brûlée course. Topics of conversation will include Calvin Trillin's ' The Tummy Trilogy', the correct interpretation of foreign-language recipes, and if anyone has had the good fortune to try veal cooked in its mother's milk?

As a non-foodie, I have often felt lucky to attend these kinds of dinners. I will never forget the addictive sting of one chocolate and chilli mole - cooked the same way Frida Kahlo had it on her wedding night to Diego Rivera ("Just a recipe, I picked it up from a little restaurant in Oaxaca..."). And on Valentine's night my boyfriend, a food writer, cooked us exquisite Barbary duck. After this, I remarked on the strange fact that my hairdryer was in the kitchen, to which he replied that this was no accident - he had used it to blow dry the duck to crispiness.

But, sometimes, gourmet dinners are memorable in the wrong way. I wish I could forget the chaps (pig's cheeks). Their texture was neither flesh nor fat, more a muscular kind of slime. It was like eating freshly extracted breast implants, but I felt I had to soldier on to please my boyfriend, who had served them up with pride. The rabbit's brain comes a close second. This was extracted at the dinner table, when our host whacked the rabbit's tiny cranium with a hammer. Teaspoons were then distributed, and the split skull was passed around like port. Frankly, role-model chefs such as Gordon Ramsay have a lot to answer for. As does, Fergus Henderson - the visionary chef of London's St John restaurant - who created "nose to tail eating".

Because for every foodie recreating his offal-based dishes, there are five innocent invitees struggling to eat them.

The rock'n'rollers
Alex James

Food Who cares?
Table talk "I'm listening to Bolivian folk at the moment"

Host with the most Elton John

Successful musicians, the ones it would be good to sit next to at a dinner party, are all having way too much fun to sit down for that long. Who in their right mind would be interested in dinner when you could be eating ice cream in bed with as many girls you can squeeze in?

Musicians do enjoy each other's company, but dinner is a bit formal for people you don't know that well. Plus, you're working in the evenings. If you were in the same city as a band you like, which often happens, you're more likely to end up eating Twiglets in their dressing-room than sitting round a table.

Divas are always good company in restaurants, though. The glamorous restaurant is the natural environment of the diva. I'd always try to have dinner with Marianne Faithfull or Françoise Hardy, if our paths were crossing. That would be time well spent.

Ten years ago, they horrified me, but I actually love dinner parties now, they're the entire basis of my social life. When it comes to hosting them, Elton John is the master. But people in bands spend a lot of time doing interviews, so direct questions, particularly music-related, tend to be a bit tiresome at dinner. And if you were thinking of working with someone, you wouldn't invite them round for dinner, you'd meet them in the pub. It's great having musicians for dinner once you know them, though. I think the ideal guests would be Sophie Ellis Bextor and her husband Richard Jones. They help with the washing up, too.

I think artists are the most interesting people to sit next to for dinner, but musicians really come into their own after the food. Hopefully, they can make some music. Music, food and love - it's the best recipe I know.

The New Labourites
Francis Elliott

Food Tuscan wild-boar stew
Table talk "I told Tony I thought it was a waste of time, but you know how charming he can be"

Hosts with the most Tessa Jowell & David Mills (pre-scandal)

Dinner with a few New Labour friends follows a template familiar to most residents of the more fashionable postcodes of north London; he'll cook, it will probably be Italian and the conversation will become more competitive somewhere between the third and fourth bottle of wine.

But just as the brand has aged and changed so, subtly, has its dinner party. The clique of Islington lawyers that served each other home-made pasta and plotted the take-over of the party in the early 1990s now runs the country. When Tony Blair has a dinner party these days it's in Chequers, the wine is brought up from the Government's best cellars and the guest list appears on a freedom of information request three months later. For our purposes, that simply can't count.

The spatula has instead passed to the next generation of young thrusters pressing their partners and homes into service. The David Milibands, the James Purnells, the Douglas Alexanders: all still occasionally dine at home with friends. So the invitation will be to Primrose Hill not Upper Street and your fellow guests are more likely to be from the arts than politics. The presence of journalists is not unknown, but rare enough to provoke a ritual condemnation of the media distortion and who, really, is responsible for spin. This can be tiresome.

He still cooks, of course, but there is less wine than there was. Somehow the conversation will still end up about how busy he is - the endless travelling, red boxes and boring meetings: "I told Tony that I thought it was a waste of time, but you know how charming he can be." Sadly, nobody will get very drunk and start fighting, throw up or roll a spliff on an Arctic Monkeys CD cover.

Instead, the party will end just before 'Newsnight' amid yawns and moans about having to be in Brussels at 8am the next day. It's not what it was. Something perhaps sensed by David Cameron, whose political positioning seems to take place always in his (desirable) kitchen. Cameron is in danger of seizing the controls of the brushed-aluminum range from New Labour hands currently too busy, it would seem, to "rustle up something I had last summer in Tuscany".

The fashionistas
Susannah Frankel

Food Tiny, exquisite patisseries
Table talk "I'd have my toes surgically removed to fit into those Balenciaga shoes"

Host with the most Donatella Versace

As dinner parties go, it was fabulous even by fashion standards. Caviar, champagne and strawberries served to 200 guests in a Paris nightclub with a live set by Robbie Williams, courtesy of Donatella Versace. This is an industry that is spoilt rotten at the best of times, after all. More champagne, white-truffle risotto and sugared mascarpone at Giorgio Armani's Milan HQ and endless champagne-fuelled, Calvin Klein-hosted soirées at New York's most stylish new eateries are just some of the other privileges enjoyed by this most privileged of crowds in recent years.

The banquet served up to celebrate Dries Van Noten's 50th catwalk presentation, however, upstaged anything that had previously been experienced. Around 250 guests, each with their own silver-service waiter, were served delicate salads, lightly poached fish and jewel-like patisseries. As if that weren't enough, as coffee was poured the lights went up and the 50-metre-long table top was transformed into a runway for the designer to showcase the forthcoming season's designs.

The rules are always simple: small but perfectly formed portions, little or no fat (a dirty word on every level), fine wine (champagne is ubiquitous, but a good red is better) and a really quite surprising amount of sugar. Lighting must be subdued at all time and the evening's events should ideally move at a speed satisfactory to those without, well, let's just say the most enduring of attention spans.

The aristocracy
Meredith Etherington-Smith

Food Nanny's best stodge
Table talk "Of course, our MP behaved like such a wimp over the Hunt Bill"

Host with the most Prince Charles

Twenty-first-century aristos are quietly flourishing but keep a low profile. By the same token, aristo dinner parties, whether in deepest Devon or the freezing Highlands, are flourishing too. These are not pay and display affairs, rather a jolly gathering of the trade union. For the country aristo dinner at (stately) home is an affair of quarterings. Two thirds of the guests gathered at any piece of ancestral Chippendale board will be related to each other, as in second cousin once removed, sharing various quarterings on the massive family escutcheon. This can, for the non-family guest, lead to a great deal of confusion when everyone else shares surnames and Christian names.

That's the other distinguishing fact about the aristo dinner party. The guest list is almost always multi-generational. The young, once out of Nanny's care, are seen and very definitely heard; non-aristos are very often shocked to witness the determined first-growth claret consumption of the heir-but-one.

By the time the company has navigated four corridors and the Grand Staircase on the way to the dining- room, Borridge the butler is shakily staggering in with a tureen containing clear soup (thick soup is not aristo) which he will slop into the priceless (and chipped) Worcester Imari soup plates. Table decorations are immemorially either silver galleons in full sail or coveys of silver game birds. And a reassuring row of mis-matched but beautiful 18th-century glasses stretching out at each place.

Food, cooked by Nanny, who has taken over in the kitchen now the young have flown, is simple and robust; effective blotting paper for the wine that will be consumed. In winter, it's almost always game - if not from home turf, shot on a neighbouring demesne. In summer, huge salmon scaled in cucumber slices are supine in seas of bright-green coloured aspic. For afters? Nursery puddings. In winter, treacle tart and cream, in summer strawberries and cream. And lots of vaguely local cheese to blot up the port the men ladle into themselves, while - this still happens - the womenfolk take themselves off for repairs and to the drawing-room for coffee and stickies.

And what does everyone talk about? In winter, shooting bag tallies or whom is now sleeping with who - they always know. The state of their local hunt, and the wimpishness of their local MP, over the Hunt Bill are perennially popular topics, while the young are quizzed about nascent careers as supermodels or assistant roadies on the Stones tour.

And then it's time for bridge, carpet bowls, and more drink. An aristo dinner demands, above all, a head like the Rock of Gibraltar and a photographic memory of Burke's Peerage, circa 1930.

Ten famous dinner party moments

Death in Babylon

Alexander the Great died 11 days after being taken ill at a lavish banquet in Babylon, June 323BC. However, it was less the food and more likely his drinking that led to his death, aged just 33.

The Last Supper

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all give accounts of the Last Supper. The menu of bread and wine was livened up by an atmosphere thick with betrayal. The meal also featured that most sought-after piece of tableware, the Holy Grail.

Pepys' stiff upper lip

Samuel Pepys refused to cancel a dinner party he held on 2 September, 1666, despite much of London being ablaze. He wrote in his diary: "We had an extraordinary good dinner."

Wilde repartee

Oscar Wilde (top) is one of the most popular picks for "dream" dinner parties, as he was able to talk about anything. Given the challenge of talking on the subject of the Queen, he replied: "The Queen... is not a subject."

Proust meets Picasso

On 18 May 1922, British writer Sydney Schiff and his wife Violet assembled an incredible party in Paris, including Proust, Joyce, Picasso and Stravinsky. However, Joyce's account of it isn't inspiring: "Our (omega) Famous dinners (cont.)

talk consisted solely of the word 'no'. Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said 'no'. Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such. Proust said 'no'. And so on. The situation was impossible."

The wit of Winston

Churchill was famous as a dinner guest for his put-downs, including his reply to Nancy Astor when she said that if she was his wife she'd poison his coffee: "If I were your husband, I would drink it."

Pass the sick bag

President George Bush Senior (below) committed the ultimate dinner-party gaff at a dinner in Tokyo in 1992 by vomiting on his host, the Japanese Prime Minister. Bush later said, "I just wanted to get a little attention."

When Guy met Madge

Madonna and Guy Ritchie met in 1998, when Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, invited both to a dinner party. When Guy heard Madge was attending, he asked to be sat beside her, the sly dog.

Put it away, Cherie

When the Blairs invited Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to dinner in summer 2000, the party didn't go to plan. Dacre said he was "appalled and incensed" by Cherie's behaviour. Her crime? Breastfeeding baby Leo at the table.

Jude's darkest hour

The news that Jude Law had cheated on his then fiancée Sienna Miller with his nanny came to light after one of his children spotted them in bed and then announced what she had seen at a dinner party held by Sadie Frost.