The following observations, culled from the collective experience of several seasoned party goers, may be clipped and filed in your desk calendar for handy reference. Those who sometimes have to choose among several simultaneous receptions may find it useful.
For quantity and quality of buffet offerings, movie people tend to give the most lavish receptions on the Washington arts freeloader circuit. Oil companies are also worth watching, as are several embassies, but their receptions are only occasionally related to the arts. (Everyone misses Ardeshir Zahedi and thanks heaven for the Wachtmeisters, of course.) An exceptional occasion (like J.P. Rampal's 60th birthday or a $1,000-a-ticket gala) may inspire some arts groups to unusual heights, but at run-of-the-mill receptions by most local music groups (the National Symphony or the Washington Opera, for example), the experienced party goer can usually sense a tightness of budget behind the scenes. Some small local groups (tiny opera companies, for example) achieve a reasonable standard by bypassing caterers and getting volunteers to do home cooking. Food at receptions by the Washington Ballet tends to have the quality of good home cooking, substantial and unpretentious, even on the special occasions when it is catered. This may be because the mothers of two of the dancers are professional caterers.
So, when you must choose, movie people are usually the best bet. They cultivate the big-spender image, and they probably do it more heartily at the Kennedy Center (an international status symbol) than elsewhere. A good example was last week's reception for the opening night of "Napoleon," which featured an excellent but not ostentatious buffet -- very much in the spirit of Francis Coppola, who doesn't seem quite sure whether he is a millionaire or bankrupt.