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.
- 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.
- 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, 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.
- 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.