The first cool breezes of autumn usher in the season of entertaining. Halloween parties and harvest dinners roll into Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah…and before you know it we're ringing in a New Year.
Here are some of our favorite tips for welcoming guests and making gatherings of any size memorable and fun (even for the hosts).
Note Bene: We're big list-makers, and never more so then when planning a party. Even if your memory is the envy of elephants, pre-party chaos can make things slip your mind. So we write it all down, from the guest list (and RSVPs) to the menu and grocery list to the food prep and cooking schedule. You'd be surprised at how many tasks you can cross off in advance, making event day so much more relaxed. An added advantage: when guests arrive early (and someone always does), you can put them to work on whatever's next on the list.
Set the Scene: Setting the table is one of the things you can (and should) do the night before. That will give you time to see what you're missing, make sure everything's clean and ready, and play with combinations of linens to find just the right look. Add color to your holiday table with napkins and a runner or seasonal flowers. For casual gatherings, mix and match placemats and napkins (like our Cross-Dye Napkins, Farmhouse Stripe Napkins, Farmhouse Napkins) any way that pleases your eye. Scatter coasters on tables around the party zone, so guests can set their glasses down as they nibble hors d'oeuvres and chat.
Strive for Balance: Professional chefs and caterers have lots of helping hands in the kitchen, so they can offer elaborate course after elaborate course, all with flawless timing. We mere mortals, on the other hand, need to find balance on the menu between simple and complicated, if we're going to get through the night without a disaster and have time to actually enjoy our guests. In addition to doing all that you can in advance, we recommend including easy-to-execute dishes like a cheese and charcuterie selection, served on a cutting board, or wedges of fresh pita arrayed around a bowl of hummus. Pair an impressive entrée with fresh, steamed veggies drizzled with good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Or create colorful, ingredient-intensive side dishes, but keep the main course easy with a roast. Unless you love to bake, delegate dessert to a bakery, or opt for something simple but sublime like a platter of chocolate truffles or locally made ice cream topped with fresh fruit from the farmer's market.
Ricotta Ice Cream via sweet paul
The Right Light: It's called "mood lighting" for a reason. Too bright, and your dining room will feel like a cafeteria…too dim, and it'll feel gloomy. For lighting that's festive (and flattering), we recommend you turn off, or at least dim, overhead lighting and cast a warm, convivial glow with masses of candles, conventional or flameless. String lights swagged along picture rails and mantels create a magical twinkle, and if you choose clear or white, they can stay up straight through New Year's Eve. The new LED string lights are energy efficient and they stay cool, so it's safer to tuck them amid greenery and other decorations.
Cue the Soundtrack: Create a playlist that follows the flow of the event – from the first mingling guests (upbeat, but not overwhelming) to the peak of the party (energetic and fun) to the late-night lingerers (mellow, but not morose). Remember that a seated dinner calls for laid-back music, while a cocktail party requires tunes that keep the atmosphere fizzy. If creating a party-specific playlist seems too ambitious, stack suitable cds by the stereo or cue up your favorite albums on your music player in advance. Just don’t overlook the music entirely. The last thing you want—after awkward silence -- is for a guest to start playing DJ after a few glasses of wine.
Expect the Unexpected: Know that no matter what you do and how carefully you plan, something is bound to happen that you didn’t anticipate. Unexplained no-shows or surprise plus-ones. Running out of ice or buying a turkey too big for your roast pan. Placing bottle of champagne in the freezer "just for a minute or two" and then forgetting all about it for three hours. It's OK. Most of the time, no one will know but you. As long as everyone's having fun, it doesn't matter anyway. And by "everyone," we mean you too…so breathe deep, let go of perfection, and join the party.