Cocktail Party

How to Throw Parties That Everyone RSVPs ‘Yes’ To

Indispensable tips and tricks from Food52's most enthusiastic host.

November 21, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

I love throwing a cocktail party. Yes, even in a city where people never stop running, and time is a scarce commodity. To me, a great house party harks back to a time when technology didn’t run our every minute and we always made time for cocktails, good food, and conversation in the company of family and friends.

Just one-year shy of graduating to official New Yorker status (it's the 10-year rule!), I’ve thrown my fair share of apartment parties. (To anyone who is nervous about throwing a party in a small apartment, I can testify that the lack of space can create the most intimate of evenings!) From tartan-clad Christmas parties and pastel-drenched Easter brunches, to a whimsical President’s Day affair—complete with appetizer-size bites of America’s most iconic foods—I’ve tried my hand at it all.

I’ve learned a lot about entertaining along the way. I've also learned that I don't do shortcuts. Instead, my mantra is to be strategic, because careful planning always pays off in the end. So, here’s my checklist for planning a memorable party. Because the best parties seem like they are effortlessly thrown together...but aren't.

This year's Easter brunch spread Photo by Peter Themistocles

The Kick-off

  • Don’t take on a cocktail party for 40 people before you host one for 10. Remember, baby steps. Take a day to decide how many people you can fit in, based on factors like space, day and time, and planning time available. When you've got that buttoned up, think about invites. I like to (snail) mail guests their invitations: it's a personal touch that makes them feel special. Plus, who doesn’t love receiving mail that isn’t a bill?

  • It’s time to start planning your menu! The foundation of any cocktail party I throw is a cheese board, charcuterie board, and a crudité platter (pick one, two, or all three). Think of these as the triumvirate of entertaining—easy to assemble, with options for seasonality and theme; require no cooking; and always a crowd-pleaser. Since they require minimal prep, you will have the time to focus on two or three appetizers that stand out.
  • Menu planning is fun, but do you take the time to read through all the recipes to understand each step that's required to take a dish to completion? A few years ago, I hosted a winter brunch and thought, “What could be better on a cold day than fresh-out-of-the-oven cinnamon buns?" I bought all the ingredients but never read the many steps involving multiple resting periods in the freezer! Let's just say I learned my lesson the hard (and long!) way.

The Week Of

  • My rule is: If it can be made ahead, do it. Many recipes can be made up to a certain point and then frozen. Pop the frozen appetizers onto a sheet pan and you have homemade appetizers cooked to perfection in no time—no one needs to know you made them last week! Plus, your kitchen won’t look like a war-zone when your guests arrive. Pssst...in my opinion, one can never have too many sheet pans; they are one of the most essential kitchen tools I know. These ones are my go-to; I have an assortment of sizes for every task imaginable:
  • Setting up a bar for a crowd can be tricky, because it involves so much of everything: spirits, wine, mixers, glasses, and garnishes. For large groups, I try and do punches—this eliminates the set-up of a traditional bar. This punch is a staple in my repertoire. I adjust the simple syrup because I don’t like sweet cocktails, but you do you. You can typically mix these large-batch cocktails in advance as well—just add an ice block when ready to serve and enjoy!

    Fun tip: Throw garnishes into your ice blocks that compliment your cocktail—as the ice melts the garnish will add to the visual interest of the punch!

The Day Before

  • The day before, I take the time to lay out each platter and serving dish (menu-appropriate, of course) on the table to make sure I like the visual placement. This eliminates the last-minute rush of figuring out what goes where. A few large boards are also always great to have on hand: they are versatile and can be used for just about any appetizer you can think of, think a hot dip and all the accoutrements.
  • Details really stand out, and they create memorable events! Small touches like a scented candle in a bathroom or a small bud vase of flowers near the sink don’t go unnoticed. I’ve gone as far as hand-painting Easter eggs to match the invitations I mailed to guests, Excessive? Perhaps. But people noticed.
Easter brunch is only complete when we have a bowlful of hand-painted eggs Photo by Peter Themistocles

The day of (Aka, it's party time)

  • In all the last-minute frenzy, don’t forget the basics. Things like cocktail plates, straws, and napkins are best to keep on hand because they are often the things you forget in the last minute! I hate paper straws and like many others, I’m trying to reduce my usage of single-use plastic, so these glass straws are the perfect alternative—and come in a variety of colors! Oh, and ice—don't forget the ice!
  • This might sound silly but plan your party outfit in the morning. It’s one more thing to think about, but, honestly, the last thing you'll have time to worry about when pulling all the final pieces together. And don’t forget to account for time for get ready!

  • My final tip is actually for when the last of the guests is gone, the dishwasher is loaded up, and the empty bottles taken to the recycling bin. This step involves you reflecting on your party. As an enthusiastic entertainer, I keep a book with notes from every single party I throw: menus, guest lists, timelines, even anecdotes. It's really helped me learn from my mistakes. If a party notebook sounds ridiculous, at least make mental notes. What cheeses did you serve; did some go down faster than others? Did you run out of appetizers? Did certain vegetables on your crudité platter wither in an hour? The more you reflect, the easier it will be to throw together your next party. And the party after that.

What tips & tricks do you swear by when planning a party? Tell us in the comments below.

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8 Comments

elisamama December 10, 2019
I do a variation of Anne M's post it notes. Instead, on the backs of old business cards, I write the name of every item I will serve or need to put out, not only the main fare but everything - salt, pepper, cocktail napkins, beverage tools, etc. One card for each item. I put the cards out on the serving platters, on the bowls and even in the space where I later put an item later. If it is a big event, I will put the cards out 2 days ahead, before I have retrieved items stashed away. I save the cards and use them for the next event, since many parties feature the same fare. It also helps me not to forget things that need to be put out later. As soon as I put the item out, I remove the card and add it to the stack of cards for the next event.
 
Max M. November 22, 2019
party king. Love this!
 
Anne M. November 22, 2019
John, your tips are great and your buffet table is fit for Instagram. However, I have learned that if I put all of the food on my dining room table, no one leaves the dining room. So I now place a platter in the family room and another in the living room and two to three on the dining room table. And then I pass appetizers on platters throughout the party. In terms of planning, I put all the platters out the night before with the proper utensils and put little yellow post its on each platter for identification. Guests who know me well laugh and say that they will one day eat a post it by mistake!
 
Cody K. November 22, 2019
These parties sound amazing! Would love to read another article featuring excerpts of the highs & lows of your party journal.
 
freshparsley November 21, 2019
Thank you, John! What great ideas and such an encouraging tone. I especially appreciate someone who enjoys entertaining and just owns it and acknowledges what a pleasure having a successful event is - one where people enjoy themselves and connect and eat good food. Your friends are lucky to know you!
 
Jay T. November 21, 2019
Fabulous tips, and LOVE the idea of keeping a party journal! Having attended many of your soirées personally, I attest you are truly the host with the most! Wonderful article, Peter!
 
Maggie S. November 21, 2019
SUCH a delightful and informative read. Your Easter spread looks divine, too.
 
Aja A. November 21, 2019
Love the idea of the party journal at the end! Never thought to take notes after hosting, great tip Peter. Host with the most!