I believe that the cocktail party has changed since I started hosting them 10-ish years ago. They went from an event with great food, cocktails and friends to an event that has the only main purpose of being Pinterest/ Instagram ready. I always think that layout, the look and feel are important, but I feel that often times people are so worried about it looking “perfect” that they forgo the quality of the food and the drinks. While I do work on the aesthetics of the party, I will never forgo the experience of the party: the ambience, music, cocktails and food.
I learned how to host proper cocktail party from my sister-in-law. She is the consummate host and has legendary Halloween parties in New York every year, among others. She has a lovely New York City apartment and everything is always set up beautifully, but she pays most of her attention to the ambience, music, food and drinks, complete with impeccably appointed servers and bartenders that tended to your every need. While we don’t have servers at our cocktail parties, we always have a bar with a bartender to help out and add to the experience. I always request that they help me pick up glasses and plates during the party too. Which helps relieve my stress, so that I can deal with more important things like talking to my guests. Surprisingly enough having a bartender is not that expensive. I learned a trick from an old work colleague who used to hire bartenders in New York from the Columbia Bartending Agency. Yes, you heard that right, all of the bartenders are students at Columbia University, so not only do you get a great bartender but you are helping them to pay for their education. The bartender we used several times in New York was actually working on her masters in education.
- Don’t Over Look the Food and Drinks – I’ve been to parties where the host was so worried about how the party looked in photos, that they forgot the importance of the food and drinks. The food served didn’t taste good and the wine served wasn’t the best (trying to be nice….) If you don’t offer enough variety, or good tasting options, your guests will leave the party early because they’re hungry and want to eat. Same goes with the drinks.
- Know your audience – when we were in New York City you had to have parties during the week because many people commuted in from outside the city and no one come to a weekend party. In Los Angeles it’s a different story people are much more likely to attend a party that is on a weekend night, especially because the traffic on the weekend is much lighter than during the week. I live in LA so a lot of people are calorie conscious. I had a holiday party at my house and I decided to make a cranberry cocktail with champagne knowing that a lot of my friends like to drink champagne but the two drinks that were the most popular were tequila and soda and vodka and soda. You have to know your audience so that you get the right food and drinks and you schedule your party at the right time. Emily Post says that you should invite people with in one week to 4 weeks before the party. In New York you definitely needed to give more lead-time in LA one week is perfectly fine.
- Make a party play list– this is one of my favorite parts…probably because I was a DJ in NYC (yes, it’s true). I usually stream the music from my iPad so that I can have my phone on my during the party (I always get running late texts, etc). My favorite app to help me DJ is djay 2 I have a running “Party” play list that I keep updating, by deleting the songs I’ve heard too many times, adding my new favorites. One thing to remember is to always keep the energy and spirit up. While I love Simon and Garfunkel (one of my mom’s favorites), it’s probably not best played at a cocktail party. Also add some that people remember and can sing to if they want, think pop and retro songs like ones from Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Yes, it’s a bit Wedding DJ-esk, but it makes the party more enjoyable for your guests, which is the most important part of being a good host.
- Setting up the bar – In my experience red wine will always be more popular than white wine. Red wine ranges from lighter options like a Pinot Noir down to a heavier Cabernet. My advice would be to find something in the middle that would please both. Make sure that you always have your major liquor and drink mixers on hand. I would at least have vodka, tequila, rum, whiskey and mixers like soda, tonic, coke, sprite and cranberry juice.
I always like to have a signature cocktail too – I like to make a little table tent with a photo and list the ingredients to entice guests to order it. If you don’t have a bartender, make a drink that can easily be premade in a pitcher, then poured as your guests want it. A mojito and sangria work very well using this method, if the drink needs to be topped with soda (like the mojito), just add it as the finishing touch before serving. That said, my signature cocktails were much more popular in New York City than LA. This goes back to my previous Tip #2, “Know Your Audience.”
- Think About the Little Things and Anticipate Questions – Make signs for things that may not be obvious to your guests. Is your bathroom hard to find? Make a sign. Are some of your friends gluten free or vegetarian? Make some simple signage for your food items. Is your front door hard to find, or if you ‘re like me, you ask attendees to use a side entrance. Make a sign so they know the right way to go. I also use a LED arrow to help out too. I like to use Canva to make my signs fun looking too.
- Think About the Flow and Set-up– The flow of your party is very important, you want your guest to easily be able to navigate your party. This can be done with the help of signage and setting up concentration areas far apart. You never want to have the bar next to the food, because this would create a concentration of people in one area, thus in habiting flow and mingling. People should have to walk across the room to get from one station to another, that way they are enticed to talk to new people and see a different area of the party. Make sure to have enough trashcans around the space so that people will know to put any trash into the trashcan rather than leaving it around the house.
Move furniture so that nothing impedes the flow of the party. Sometimes this is kind of hard to do if you have a giant couch that you don’t want to move. I certainly have that situation in my house. At a previous party, I learned that a side table we have by the bathroom entrance was in the way when you someone was waiting in line for the bathroom. That’s a simple thing to simply move.
- Make a list of everything – I love lists, I make lists of everything and my favorite virtual tool is Evernote. I make a list of the food and drinks that I’m going to serve, which later makes building a shopping list super easy. With Evernote, you can make a checklist of things that you need to do and check off items as you complete them. I like to make checklists of my week-of party preparations, then another one for the day-of items that you need to do to prepare the space, for me that means moving the dog items to another room or moving liquor/ wine that you don’t want to be consumed during the party. This is an important one for me because we get wine every wedding anniversary and age it. I would be so sad if they were consumed without me knowing about it.
So there you have it. The perfect plan for a summer cocktail party whether you’re hosting in LA or New York or anywhere in-between. The most important thing is to remember that a little prep beforehand will go a long way to making the whole event that much smoother. One last thing …don’t forget to have fun at your own party