The dinner party is back, but this is no help-yourself, peasanty- pasta affair. Today's home entertainers like to be dressed up to the nines - and that's just the table. James Sherwood reports
When The Blairs and Clintons shared a slap-up meal at Sir Terence Conran's Le Pont de la Tour restaurant, they obviously thought it was a thoroughly modern way to dine. For most professionals, limited time and a fistful of Diners Club cards is an excuse to eat out every night. But true urban moderns are rediscovering the pleasure of the dinner party. We are dining up rather than dining out: spending the restaurant budget on crockery, glasses, napkins and decorative objects that will last forever. People are taking pride in intimate, private evenings at home.

But while rough-and-ready pasta-pot gatherings are becoming a thing of the past, there's nothing stuffy about the new way of dining. London store Dickins & Jones has caught the new mood in dining-room style with its "At Home" collection, which covers the entire fourth floor. "Formal dining is being superseded by a more casual, innovative mood," says assistant buyer Susan Parry. "Few people buy - or can afford to buy - a complete dinner set. They want more fun, eclectic pieces, mixing colour, pattern and textures."

Today's customers shop for tableware the same way they would buy accessories: a scented candle by Gilles Dew Avrin, designed for specific hours of the day; a kitsch sequinned napkin for pounds 6; a Palais Royale, eau-de-nil porcelain plate edged with dull gold at pounds 33.50; funky silk organza napkins for pounds 25 a shot. "Dinner parties - and dinner settings - in the Nineties have to be fun. Who cares what fork you use?" says Parry.

Our more eclectic taste in food demands more from our tableware. Wedgwood just doesn't cut it for rice bowls and heavy crockery doesn't work with modern food. Gone are the days of the wedding- present table-set to last a lifetime. At Habitat, tableware is bought in the same seasonal spirit as high fashion. The plain white china (from pounds 3.95) and simple glasses (Botticelli from pounds 2.50) are reasonably priced and are made to last. This season, plastic is the big story; cheap, durable and in neon brights. "Young people are more design-conscious than their parents," says a Habitat spokeswoman, "and because everyone is more knowledgeable about food and wine, they want to present it in a modern manner."

"We have a limited amount of time these days," says Tyler Brule, editor of interiors bible Wallpaper. "So, when we're entertaining, it is usually post-work impromptu. I recommend no-fuss, plain, white tableware, with mountains of orchids as centrepieces. You need to get all your ingredients in Waitrose on the way home. And ply your guests with booze to give you that extra 45-minute buffer zone."

If the style gurus are into home cooking, then what hope the restaurant? Rebecca Mascarenhas, owner of Sonny's in Barnes, London, says, "Look at the popularity of the River Cafe cookbooks. People will always love to dine out, but they also love to recreate the dishes they eat at home. Public demand prompted us to open the deli next to Sonny's." Mascarenhas and her husband James entertain at least twice a week. "Dining at home is relaxing and infinitely less fussy than the whole restaurant experience. The crockery should be simple enough not to overwhelm the food so I stick to modern white plates. But I also have a collection of beautiful old cutlery. Everything on your table should be for using, not for show."

The new market for dinnerware has also prompted the established design houses to rethink their policy. Christofle in Hanover Square has been manufacturing French, silver-plated cutlery since 1830. A 12-setting canister may set you back pounds 3,000 even if it is guaranteed for three generations. "We don't expect most of our British customers to place an order for that kind of figure," says retail manager Ross Greenshield. "What we are doing is letting our customers know there are no rules and no accepted protocol any more. The only rule with tableware is that you should truly love it."

Because today's customer thinks about practicality as much as aesthetics, Christofle has a range of durable dishwater and microwave-proof, gilt- edged, dinner services. "If they don't go in the machine, people aren't interested," says Greenshield. In the past six months, Christofle has introduced couture crockery by fashion designer Christian Lacroix. As well as wealthy types buying whole sets, there are those Christofle customers who save up to buy a plate for pounds 34 with each month's pay.

The upper echelons of the dinner-service market have adapted well to the Nineties' market. Thomas Goode, by appointment to the Queen among others, used to be like the Victoria & Albert Museum with its frock-coated assistants and porters. "The old school feel has given way somewhat to a more comfortable, relaxed atmosphere," says designer Peter Ting. Prices are no longer prohibitive and the service is much more accommodating. A bespoke service, where you can design your own china, is attracting design conscious twentysomethings as much as those who want the family crest on their butter dish. One of the most desirable ranges is the KPM original, Forties, Bauhaus-style tableware, starting at pounds 40.

Those of us still nervous about throwing a dinner party or even buying our first crockery since 1970 - that is, all who have seen Abigail's Party once too often - could do worse than calling in the experts. Dinner party decorator Mackinlay Savy has been commissioned to organise everything from the grandest formal to the most intimate dinner a deux. It also sells the lion's share of pieces used in its decorative schemes. Hiring several sets is the way many modern hostesses choose their permanent collection crockery.

"I'm a great believer in decoration with a purpose," says Graham Mackinlay. People may think gothic bronzes and tactile little objects are too much. They are conversation pieces and also show that you have made an effort to entertain your guests with their surroundings." James Savy adds, "Our customers are dallying with more decadence than before. I'm not saying that all of our commissions are extravaganzas, but people want to have fun now and we give their party a frisson of excitement and daring."

The beauty of modern dinner parties is that you can create that frisson yourself as tableware becomes more a fashion purchase than an investment. If you've been paying attention, you'll know it can be both. Post work impromptu, anyone?