Last year, my boyfriend and I threw a holiday cocktail party, our first as people who share a front door. Before your mind wanders to some swanky affair or fine china town, I should tell you that this was by no means a fancy soirée. Yes, I wore my “company” romper and we spiffed things up around the house, but it wasn’t glitzy. There were paper plates (small and tasteful, though. We aren’t animals!) and some of the appetizers’ cooking instructions consisted simply of the word “defrost.” But a holiday cocktail party it was nonetheless, and I learned a few things from co-hosting it. Ten things, to be specific. And here they are, straight from me to you:
- Food: delicious and decorative
Sure, people laughed when they saw the pyramids of Krispy Kreme seasonal donuts that I’d placed on the table as festive, edible decor. But were they laughing when they were scarfing them at the end of the night? Well, also yes, but that’s just because they were having such a good time. Sprinkles aside: food is a wonderful thing to behold; don’t sweat perfectly placed decor throughout the house if you’ve got a great-looking table full of snacks.
- High and low: it’s a lifestyle
The aforementioned paper plates: low. A mix of quality vintage and new barware, along with some of our best serving pieces: high. I’m just saying that your entertaining style doesn’t have to be either fancy or casual. It can be both.
- Table runners: who knew?
In addition to my newbie-ness in the cooking department, I’m also a fresh face on the table linens scene. Imagine my surprise, then, when a table runner purchased at the last minute transformed— nay, elevated the whole look of the table. It was eye-catching but less formal than the full coverage of a tablecloth. The tube top of table decor, one might say. If I were having a party this year, I’d get this one.
- Pre-made is perfectly fine, but homemade is worth it
There was no way we were going to make 100 mini quiches or delicious teeny spanikopita by scratch. But hummus? Sure. And people noticed. We also made blue cheese-stuffed, bacon wrapped dates, adapted from a recipe in James Beard Award-winning chef John Sundstrom’s gorgeous cookbook, and, just before party time, these bar nuts. Those were a big hit and filled the house with a great, toasty rosemary scent.
- Let guests know if something is spicy
My high school social studies teacher made an appearance at the party (long story), and I’m pretty sure that he was the one who ditched the hot peppers-topped crostini in our upstairs bathroom. That’s what I get for that last, sad excuse for an essay I turned in 20 years ago, I guess. In hindsight, we probably should have put a place card with a fire symbol by the dish or something. Some people just don’t like heat; it’s only nice to warn them.
- Pick a cocktail and stick with it
This was a smart move by my very smart boyfriend. He picked this delightful bourbon and Campari drink (which we recently dubbed The Cocktail for Thanksgiving) and played bartender for the night, which gave him a chance to interact with everyone entering the beverage zone. People could pour themselves whatever else they wanted, too, but it made things easier to serve a single cocktail.
- Designated drivers deserve drinks, too
Just because it’s a cocktail party, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s imbibing. Put some water, sparkling cider, and, if you’ve got room for it, a bowl of non-alcoholic punch out.
- Anticipate and display offerings
We didn’t think to make room for the 17 bottles of wine, six bags of chips, and multiple plates of homemade baked goods that our guests brought and that would plague my waistline for the next few months. The result? A cluster in the kitchen. To avoid one of your own, set space aside for what your guests might bring. Not just a crammed-in spot on the counter, either— prime real estate. Host/hostess gifts should always have a place sur la table (sorry).
- Place a small, lined wastebasket near the main food action
I know this is a hotly contested topic. To those who say that it’s unsightly to have a garbage can in plain view near or tucked discreetly under the table where your food is, I say this: how sightly is it to have wine rings and greasy cupcake liners on your furniture? That’s what I thought. If people don’t know where to put it, they’ll leave it. Lesson learned.
- Be cool… and remember why you’re there
If you know me, then you know that “Be Cool” is a mantra that I have enjoyed and mostly failed to live by since summer camp in 1986. Well, let me tell you: those carefree sunny days felt far, far away as I stood in the kitchen during our party, cursing an uncooperative tube of chèvre. Enter my friend Colleen, who is, hands down, the best party hostess I have ever known: cool, calm, collected, and always cocktailed. Where I might panic at the realization that we were running low on cheese twists (ps how good do these look??), Colleen would probably laugh and pass the chips. She’s like the ultimate party guest who just so happens to be hosting. And don’t get me started on her mini cheesecakes. Anyway, there I was, my hands smeared with unwilling goat dairy, not at all cool or collected. Colleen touched my shoulder and said, “There you are! Come join the fun.” Ohhhh. That’s right. A party is supposed to be a good time, even if you’re the one throwing it. With that realization, I abandoned the task at hand and returned to my friends, family, and hot pepper-less former teacher in the other room. So I guess the final and most important thing that I learned from hosting a cocktail party is this: extra appetizers and small stuff be damned; when you’ve got good food on the table and great people gathered together in your home, there’s already plenty to enjoy.
What are your top tips for throwing a cocktail party? And are you pro or con the table-adjacent tiny trash bin? Leave a comment to let us & other SK&S readers know.