When I have company over, I always like to have a little cheese tray out so everyone can have a little nibble, drink some wine, and chat. It's a really classic, elegant way to start a dinner party, and it takes a hell of a lot less time to put together than a tray of fussy hors d'oeuvres. I think that doing a good cheese tray requires some thoughtfulness and planning, though, so I thought I'd give a little explanation of how I do mine.
My game plan for a cheese plate is to have something sweet, something savoury, some good bread or crackers, and maybe some marcona almonds or other good nuts. Sometimes I put out a few different kinds of cheese, but the other night we just had Jason's friend Ed and Ed's six-year-old son over, so I went with just one wedge of a standout cheese -- creamy, buttery St. Andre. This has been one of my favorite cheeses since college, when my roommate and I would breakfast on little slices of St. Andre toasted in whole wheat pita bread.
I always, always, always want something on the plate to cleanse the palate -- especially if I'm putting out olives (don't forget a little plate or bowl for pits), or a really strong cheese such as a gorgonzola. Grapes are perfect for that. I also like to put out two kinds of bread or cracker, since not everyone likes the same kinds. On this plate, I used original flavor Mary's Gone Crackers, which are really cruncy and nutty and delicious (and gluten free, to boot), and theoretically chive-flavored crackers from the Fine Cheese Co. I say "theoretically" because even though these crackers looked like they had little flecks of green, I could not discern any chive flavor. I won't be buying those again -- they were okay tasting, but not good enough to justify the price.
When I'm putting out more than one cheese, I try to think about what my guests like and how the cheeses will go with the meal as a whole. I think it's a bad idea to use a really pungent cheese before the meal, because such strong flavors can blow out your palate too early in the meal -- though if you're doing a cheese tasting at the end of a meal, a really stinky Gorgonzola would be great (I'd like it with some dried fruits and toasted nuts). To make everyone happy, I usually include one brie-like cheese and one sharp cheddar, and then go with whatever I feel like having for a third cheese. Cheeses should always be served at room temperature to really show off their flavors, so be sure to take them out of the fridge a couple of hours before your guests arrive.
One last thing I always try to think about is color -- cheese and bread alone on a plate is monochromatic and boring. Depending on what you're serving, use grapes, olives, roasted bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs, apples, pears, or other fruits and vegetables to brighten things up. Use a plain, clean white plate as your canvas, and all the colors will stand out beautifully.