It’s that time of year again: Days are longer, the weather is warmer and mother earth calls us to enjoy the splendor of the great outdoors. Party time!
I’m no stranger to throwing great parties, or so I’m told. When I was growing up, just about anything, from a drop of rain to a major holiday, was reason enough for my parents to entertain. My favorites were always our summer pool parties. When it was clear that one of these parties was beginning to take shape, my older brothers would quickly disappear. I would jump into action, helping my mother coordinate all the details from table dÌ©cor to the menu. I was just having fun, but those early party-planning skills would serve me well later in life. Today I can throw a party for 100 without even batting an eye.
Here’s what I’ve learned. First and foremost, the best social gatherings are all about bringing a group together to celebrate an event, a person or even a place. An event can be as simple as a fabulous dinner centered around a special bottle of wine or a gorgeous saddle of beef. How does one celebrate a place, you ask? This year, for example, I am celebrating the Sweet 16 birthday of my home, which is known as Rosebrook Gardens. I’m planning something similar to a housewarming, except this is a yearlong celebration of my home. I began preparing early this year, as I knew this was going to be one of the biggest parties I have thrown to date.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the idea of throwing a great party. Here are some new and fresh ideas that will make you the host(ess) with the most(ess).
AGENDA The first step is to decide what type of gathering you want to have. Is it a standard summer barbecue or a more formal event? I always begin my party planning with an agenda. This is where you conceive the idea and begin to write everything down, starting with the date, the time, the place and the reason for the party. Being organized and planning ahead is crucial. A binder can help you stay on track, but I find it easier to create a project plan on an Excel spreadsheet, so I can see at a glance what tasks are completed, which are pending and their expected completion dates.
THEME Some of the most memorable parties I have attended or thrown centered around a creative theme. Each September, I throw an annual Southampton party where I ask everyone to wear only white. It’s such a refreshingly simple and beautiful end result, with everyone dressed in white against the backdrop of a lush green garden with splashes of color. Wine-tasting parties are wonderful as well, especially if you can partner with a local liquor store to teach you about different wines from around the world. An elegant English tea party, with dainty cucumber sandwiches, scones and other small bites, is another great option. A Moroccan-themed party is fun and exciting, with colorful and exotic foods. How about a tapas party with homemade sangria? In my neighborhood, we love our annual progressive dinner party where we visit each home, view the gardens, sip cocktails and enjoy one course at a time from a menu that has been planned well in advance.
FLOW AND SPACE No matter how informal or formal, understanding flow — where to place an open bar, when to serve, when to clear and when to serve dessert — can make or break a party.
Outdoor spaces can be segregated into zones to best accommodate your crowd. Inside, be aware of room size and number of guests — there’s nothing worse than a big open room with only 10 people in it or a small room packed with 25. If you are having a sit-down dinner, that room should be off limits until dinner is served. Hors d’oeuvres and cocktails should be served in another area.
Even coffee and dessert can be relegated to another area for good flow and movement.
Guests love to be escorted and told where to go and when. The best host will always be in charge. You don’t have to be a drill sergeant, but with a sit-down dinner you must be firm, lest your gorgeous saddle of beef be ruined. Simply say, “We’re ready to sit down for dinner everyone, so please follow me.”
If kids are invited, you’ll want to plan attention-engaging activities for them that allow adults maximum opportunity to mingle. Games make it fun, and fun makes it memorable, so consider anything from a classic game of croquet to volleyball, touch football or even a jump-rope competition.
INVITATION Invitations are, for lack of a better word, your “calling” card. You’re calling on the recipient to join you for a festive retreat from their lives into yours. Mailing an invitation has become a lost art — help me resuscitate this traditional way to invite someone to your home! Where you get the invitations doesn’t matter a bit. Whether you design them online, write them out on blank note cards or order them from a stationery store, an invitation creates a sense of excitement and makes the recipient feel special.
A proper invitation gives the details of the gathering, including the occasion, when and where to show up, and clear direction on what to wear. You can be clever in other party details, but vague classifications like “beach formal,” “country casual,” or “festive attire” leave people annoyed.
If this is a birthday party or other event that would normally require a gift, the invitation is the appropriate place to request no gifts or to refer guests to a registry or a charity. A good invitation will also include helpful information such as directions, where to park, a rain date and even the landline of your home should anyone need to call. This has been extremely helpful to me because, during my parties, I don’t carry my cell phone and really prefer that guests follow suit (parents of small children excepted).
FOOD When it comes to the food, you have two options: Hire professionals or do it yourself. First, you must decide whether you are having a sit-down dinner, a buffet or passing heavy hors d’oeuvres. I love the heavy hors d’oeuvres option, because while there’s more work in the kitchen, there’s less set up and break down, and guests are free to mingle. Many grocery stores and specialty food shops have delicious hors d’oeuvres you can simply heat and serve. A mix of hot-from-the-oven and room-temperature hors d’oeuvres allows you to always have something out and not be stuck in the kitchen heating up a new batch. As for timing, you needn’t rush to pass any hot ones until you have a few guests already settled with cocktails. When it comes to tasty small bites, serving an ample array of them — I like to place them on white platters of various shapes and sizes and then have them passed around — keeps the cocktails flowing and your guests well fed.
For sit-down dinners, consider treating yourself to professional help — you’ll enjoy the party and your guests even more. If you choose to do it yourself, make sure you have some helpers to serve and remove dishes after each course. It’s fine to enlist your foodie friends who love being in the kitchen and are eager to pitch in. Manners alert: If you are the chef, no one should start eating until you are seated. That also applies if you have friends cooking. For sit-down dinners, seating should be assigned with place cards. I always follow the conventional rule: I separate couples and alternate guests by gender. This truly makes for more interesting dinner conversation. A fun twist is to have all the men rotate one position clockwise at dessert; this gives everyone someone new to talk to and buys some time while you clear the main course.
A buffet is a great way to entertain in a more casual way. I prefer to use my dining table (chairs removed), which offers plenty of room for the food as well as for napkins, utensils and the small party trays I love to use. When setting your buffet table, make sure you make it a show-stopper, planning the dÌ©cor and table design far in advance of party time. For added drama, I place the food on platters of various sizes and on top of cake stands of varying heights. This adds visual interest to the table and actually creates more room. I keep hot dishes fl at on the table itself, but smaller, lighter items, such as sauce boats, vegetables, condiments, cheeses and fruit, are great stacked. If possible, create a buffet station that allows for 360 degrees of flow around the table rather than the traditional buffet line that only allows access from one side.
The aforementioned party trays are not only decorative and inexpensive, but also allow you to decentralize the food by placing them (with napkins, etc.) in multiple locations. This provides an easy and wonderful way for your guests to migrate throughout your home or out into the garden. Trays remove the fumbling that comes with guests trying to juggle a plate, utensils and a glass. At Rosebrook Gardens, guests are welcomed into the garden and encouraged to discover the little mini-buffet vignettes throughout the property. There they can delight in delicious food and the beauty of the garden at the same time, while helping me avoid having guests crowded into one room.
Now for the most important topic: cocktails! Having a bartender is great, but for most of my parties, I set up a self-service bar. Some folks are extremely particular about their cocktails and like them just so. I do my duty as a host by getting guests their first drink, then explaining that they should feel free to help themselves the rest of the evening. Make sure the bar (which should be in a different location from the buffet) is well-appointed, with all of the tools your guests need to make your signature party cocktail or open a bottle of wine. Don’t forget a recycling bin.
While a fully stocked bar is not necessary, it should have plenty of whatever you plan to offer. Keep things cold by using galvanized aluminum tubs filled with ice for beer and non-alcoholic drinks, and smaller galvanized buckets for wine and vodka. I enjoy serving rosÌ© for summer and return to red wine come fall.
THE GIVEAWAY I love for my guests to remember their time with me, so I make it a point to give them something special to take home. Party favors have gotten a bad rap, but they can be a wonderful way to remember an event — especially if they are connected to the party’s occasion or theme. It can be simple and inexpensive. For example, for an outdoor dinner party, I’ve given a small plant in a terra cotta pot. This summer at a Rosebrook Gardens party I’ll be giving something custom-made that represents the house — no, I’m not giving away the secret. Need ideas? How about a custom-printed T-shirt or baseball cap? If you create a special drink, give guests a pre-printed recipe. How about putting your special salad dressing or homemade pickles in a small mason jar for guests to take home? Or send follow-up emails with photos featuring that guest? A party favor sends the guest home with a little something to remember that a good time was had by all.
If there was a guest of honor at the event — for example, someone celebrating a birthday — consider a separate party favor for her. Have a guestbook on hand so guests can write a personal note. The years will come and go, but the guestbook will serve as a wonderful reminder that lasts a lifetime.
Throwing the perfect party isn’t hard at all when you know what to do. I hope these tips will help you fill your summer months with friends, food and celebration. My invitation is in the mail, right?
And there you have it.