1. Candles, candles, candles. I know it sounds weird to start off a cocktail buffet discussion with candles, but “the vibe” is crucial, and a space with overhead lighting turned off, lit by candles and low lamps is inviting and intimate.
2. Have a specific theme or gimmick or purpose. Mine was easy—not only was it a Christmas party, but it was also a friend’s 50th birthday, so there were jokes and toasts and celebration. But whether it’s a dress code (one time, just for the hell of it, I said, “All men please wear turtlenecks,” and they did!) or a silly gift exchange or a “Best of 2013 List” or whatever, having an event or a focus can really help the arc of a party.
3. Music matters. Once a party gets going, especially if there are a lot of people, the music can seem unnecessary, an afterthought. I mean, who cares, if no one can hear it? I would respond, there may be times when no one can hear it, but there are also lulls when it provides anything from energy to a simply-comforting background. My three Christmas go-to artists are Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Chieftans’ The Bells Of Dublin (with many guest singers), and a blend of Sufjan Stevens’ homemade Christmas songs.
4. Get a bar cart. I had an old book cart from when our school redid the library, and we realized 15 years later, hey, this can become a bar cart. Having a self-contained (and transportable) station for drinks and all of the supplies is both convenient and civilized.
5. If guests can’t pick it up easily, don’t serve it. With a little creativity, there aren’t many foods that can’t become finger foods, and many of them become fun because they are finger foods.
6. Make a punch or a pre-mixed batch of drinks. I live amongst a beer and wine crowd, which is fine, but when my daughter whipped up a couple of batches of Philly Fish House Punch, many guests wanted that instead, either to try something different or just to kickstart their evenings. Having a prepared cocktail can be easier on you and your guests.
7. Surprise guests. And I mean surprise them in two ways—first, do something unexpected, like walking around with a plate of piping hot mini mac and cheeses, so that food becomes conversation, and, second, surprise them by adding someone unexpected to the party list. The latter was easy for me, since my daughter brought her roommates down from college and totally enlivened the party. But, really, any slightly-unexpected person not only brings fresh conversation, but also will likely give you a different perspective on your party group.
8. Costco and Trader Joe’s are your best friends. Both have reliable, inexpensive wines. Both have good-quality appetizers that can supplement what you make and that you can improve with a homemade dip. Example: I always thought spanakopita were kind of “ho-hum,” but if you make a tzatziki dip to go with them, the flavors justify serving a frozen appetizer. Most of all, these two great grocery chains have the basic supplies—cheeses, produce, fruit, crackers, seafood, etc. to allow you to put out a really nice spread that you can afford.
9. Put snacks around the house. Some people will get pretty deep into a party before they actually make it to your buffet table, and they will appreciate the little bites that sustain them while deep in conversation. I made 4 that were very successful (and fun to make)—gougeres, spiced nuts, bacon candy, and sweet, hot peppers stuffed with blue cheese.
Finally, I would suggest that, while some people cater, I never do. Not only can we not afford it, but I also think it means more to guests when they know that we took the trouble to create the menu and drinks. Well, most of it anyway.
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