We all know her, or we want to be him, even if we’ve only seen them on The Barefoot Contessa or in the glossy, fantasy world called Pinterest: the calm, gracious, charming host of a fabulous cocktail hour, backyard bash, or dinner party. Not excessively fussy, but elegant and classy, with a sassy and original spin that keeps things fun. Delicious food, killer cocktails, perfect tunes, festive atmosphere, and strategic lighting so everyone looks gorgeous. Their party is full of engaging, intelligent, and witty guests who RSVP on time, never ever arrive early nor too late, bring a fabulous bottle of wine, ride the fine line of overindulgence [but don’t topple ignominiously over it], and maybe pitch in a little to find more napkins but don’t take over the entire kitchen operation. For this host with the most, the clean up fairies arrive over night, leaving the house spotless and the coffee's ready to go in the a.m.
The reality, as we all know, usually falls somewhere between this effortlessly glamorous ideal and a mosh pit of an unorganized shit-show after which you leave wondering if your children might have, in fact, contracted cholera. It’s next to impossible these days to get it right without some lingering insecurity for all involved; the navigation of acceptable and appropriate, formal and casual, the nebulous expectations of hosting and being hosted. It’s a common, modern lament that there seems to be a Secret Codex of Entertaining that we should probably adhere to, but the decoder algorithm is suspiciously absent. Unless, of course, one went through the Southern sorority system or attended cotillion prior to the 90s. Or unless you happen to be Cody Derrick.
As one of my friends—a self-identified “clueless man”—lamented, he has “no idea how to entertain people apart from 'keep cold things cold, hot things hot, make sure that music doesn't overwhelm conversation, and don't hit on the married women.'” Adhering to Einstein's maxim on minimalism [make things as simple as possible but no simpler], he’s got the right idea. The basics: avoid food poisoning, and if the point of the party is for people to have actual conversations, keep the volume tolerable. As far as married women go, skating the fine line of harmless flirtation and imminent ass-kicking is a problem immemorial. [Good luck, James].
Beyond those basics, we like to step it up a COLLECTIVE notch whenever possible. No doubt, there are numerous and complex variables to consider, including regional and cultural norms, social demographics, and a sliding scale of generational expectations meshed with the level of familiarity or anonymity the guests may share. One person’s “casual” summer party may mean seersucker jackets and sundresses whilst nibbling crudités; their neighbor’s interpretation of “comfortable” may lean more towards t-shirts, beer in the cooler, and blowing shit up with bottle rockets. The great thing is: both are right, and both of their parties sound like a total blast. We’d love to go to either one. But can you imagine showing up for the schmancy garden party in a PBR tshirt and clutching a bag of Cheetos for the hostess? Or heading to the pyrotechnic beer bash in a vintage silk dress and skyscraper heels, cringing when the host assigns you the job of shucking oysters in the kitchen? Ouch. We’ll spend the night being super self-conscious and maybe a touch resentful we didn’t get the memo, in either case. Like most instances of “using your manners,” great hosting [and guesting] essentially boils down to creating and participating in an environment where everyone feels welcome, valued, and prepared to have a good time.
Similar to cultivating a thriving interpersonal relationship, a great party depends upon some common principles of respect and communication. Let’s be real: only an asshole of the highest order is going to snicker if someone doesn’t know which fork to use for the escargot. And so few actually give a damn about correct pinkie-finger altitude during tea sipping. Fundamentally, great entertaining relies upon using judicious common sense and a huge whopping dose of self-awareness tempered with some empathy and humor. It’s when these basics of respectful human interaction get thrown out the window [via egotism, excessive mescal consumption, etc.] that slight annoyances can escalate into douche-baggery. We’ve all heard about or witnessed the horror stories. Maybe we’ve even unknowingly participated in creating them, much to our later remorse. The guests who arrived a half-hour early, and to the host’s utter shock rearranged the furniture and buffet table during the short time he snuck off to change into his party clothes. The hostess who assigned a guest [whom they just met] the non-stop job of tending the bar for the entire night or a nasty bit of trash hauling after the guest gave a perfunctory “what can I do to help?” query. The person who arrived to a seated dinner party with a bag of groceries to prepare their vegan contribution, making a shit-tastic mess in the kitchen and monopolizing the host’s time away from other guests. The hostess who attempted chateaubriand for the first time ever, then threw a hangry crying fit when it didn’t turn out. And that’s just the grown-ups. Don’t even get us started on the kid parties.
With avoiding these traps and pitfalls to optimal socializing in mind, we talked to some of our favorite hosts with the most about what they consider the tip-top “Do’s” for throwing a superlative bash. Rudimentary shit, really. Call it our Entertaining 101 guide, sans secret decoder ring, if you will. Party on, good people.
Set the tone from the get-go. Hosts take some responsibility for helping their guests know what to expect. The invitation—whether by Evite, engraved stationary delivered by the butler, group text, or carrier pigeon—should give clear timing instructions, and a suggestion of the formality level [or lack thereof]. For example, “Please join us for a special celebratory dinner with friends. Cocktails at 6, dinner served promptly at 7:30; festive, semi-formal attire,” or “St. Patrick’s Day Open House, 7pm to midnight. Wear green or you’ll get yer ass pinched. Children and dogs welcome, as long as they don’t drink all the Guinness.” Hosts: if you need a head count, make your method of RSVP obvious; guests, follow up with that shit. Really.
Oh, the progeny. A good friend wisely said, “there’s no such thing as taking a vacation when you have little kids. You just take the show on the road.” So, so true, and it also holds for entertaining. Compromises like having a sitter on site, providing entertainment like balloon animal pony-riding magicians, or a designating a separate dining area for the short set is undoubtedly helpful for crowd management. However, either the parents are distracted from mingling with other grown-ups because they’re managing their own young ‘uns, or they are completely oblivious to their darling offspring’s raucous destruction of the host’s domicile. Somebody always ends up in tears. Hosts: make a decision and stick to it; it’s either a grown-ups party, or a kid party [at least until the offspring reach the golden years when they’re old enough to truly entertain themselves but aren’t yet illegally breaking into the bar]. And if you think the kids aren’t spying, you’re completely delusional. A rousing night of Cards Against Humanity will inevitably be followed the next morning by your toddler’s lilting query of, “Mommy, what are dick fingers?” For reals.
Meet & greet. Our resident host with the most, Cody Derrick, has done more than his fair share of throwing and attending fabulous soirées. He says that there are three absolutes for hosting: make sure your guests are welcomed graciously and immediately receive a beverage, ensure that the lighting is flattering, and that the music is on point. After that, “everything else is all about courtesy, managing details calmly, and encouraging your guests to get to know each other and have a good time.” Don’t make so much work for yourself as a host that you can’t be with your guests and enjoy the party. We love Ina Garten’s philosophy of entertaining: only commit to making a couple of dishes you are dead solid preparing, do it well ahead of time, and buy the rest [like appetizers and dessert] so all you have to do is some last minute plating. Hate cooking? Cater some or all of the food, bring in a couple besties as pre-party prep assistants, or hire help with serving. This host likes to make sure that the bar is stocked with appealing non-alcoholic options beyond Diet Coke, like flavored mineral waters or a “mocktail” made with tea or fruit syrups. Also, “don’t tell guests to take their shoes off” for a glam party, recommends Cody. It’s one thing to insist that the kids’ mucky snow boots line up by the door for a casual family-friendly bash, but as he points out, “if guests make the effort to dress up for an event, required disrobing is never appropriate. Get your carpets cleaned after the party.”
What the hell is a “hostess gift,” and when should I bring one? “Unless it’s a casual ‘stop by’ invitation with your closest friends, never, ever arrive empty handed to a party,” advises Mr. Derrick. Hosts shouldn’t expect that every guest will bring a gift [after all a gift isn’t a gift if it’s required], but it is a thoughtful custom acknowledging the effort that the host has made in opening up their home, and in thanks for the invitation. It doesn’t need to be extravagant or expensive, nor something intended for the festivities. Some of our favorite gifts to give and receive are a bottle of wine, a beautiful coffee table book, notecards, candles, charcuterie, cheese, a pot of homemade jam, napkins, or artisan chocolates. Flowers, small houseplants, or fresh herbs are lovely, as long as they are already in a pot or vase. “Rule number one for the hostess gift,” says Cody, “is never offer anything that creates more work for the hosts when you arrive,” like loose flowers. A dear friend in New Orleans adores it when guests bring her coveted and creative handmade treats, like a jar of roux for gumbo. Cody appreciates it when guests include a personal note with the gift, or maybe a favorite cocktail recipe jotted down to accompany the bottle of whiskey.
What can I bring? Ah, the kitchen. This is the place where things literally get sticky. Some hosts love an interactive party, where everyone ends up in the kitchen, bringing food to prepare on the spot and helping set everything out in casual camaraderie; for some hosts, that many cooks stirring the pot lines up there with Dante’s ninth circle of Hell. It’s particularly sensitive in the Beehive State, where as one Wasatch native put it, “in Utah, every party turns into a pot luck, from a BBQ to a wedding. It’s a crap-shoot what’ll show up, even if you tell your guests not to bring anything.” In our experience, it’s up to the host to set the tone and be clear about it; “we’re having Moroccan food” should be a clue not to wing it and bring a taco salad, or, “please join us for dinner; if you’d like to bring something, we always welcome more wine.” A brilliant friend hosted a holiday party where she’d beautifully designed the main bar/food area and didn’t want this sparkly wonderland detracted from with a gazillion mismatched containers. The invitation read, “if you’d like, bring a sweet to share,” and her guest’s dessert contributions had a nice station of their own. Unless you know for a fact your quirky BFF is okay with guests taking over her kitchen, never ever arrive with, say, your fruit salad in the form of a grocery bag of whole melons and ask the host for a knife, cutting board, serving vessel, and work station. When in doubt of your host’s style, go with plain white ceramic serving dishes or organic materials like wooden cheese boards; it’ll usually match anything from vintage silver to mid-mod melamine. Any contribution to the event requiring space in the freezer, fridge, oven, or stovetop must have prior approval by the host. Not negotiable.
It’s all in the timing. Hosts, we all know it happens. Something gets in the works and you’re behind schedule, the weather’s messing with your garden party, or the hubby is still at work and he was in charge of getting ice, like, two hours ago. Roll with the punches: your guests usually don’t know the spectacle you had in mind when you planned the event unless you tell ‘em otherwise. Guests, be good listeners, follow directions, and again follow Cody’s maxim, “never make more work for the host.” Unless you have been specifically invited by the host to do so, never ever ever arrive early [oh Lordy don’t, just don’t]. If you’re right on time and keep asking what you can do to help, pitch in where and how the host suggests, but don’t take it upon yourself to clean, rearrange, or plate unless specifically asked to do so. Red flag: if you’re one of the first guests and your hostess says, “please, help yourself to a drink in the living room; just give me a minute to finish up back here and I’ll be right out,” get the fuck out of their kitchen and stay out of the way. As Cody says, “Guests should be guests. The last half hour before a party starts is when it gets ugly. No host wants their guests to see that mess, especially if they’re running late.” My sister, who’s always one to pitch in, recommends that “a great hostess has ‘jobs’ in mind for earlier arrivals so they don't feel like they are just standing around” [my job for early guests: grab yourself a drink, and get me one while you’re at it, pretty please].
Gratitude is always in style. Ideally, every guest should say goodbye and thank you in-person to the hosts before they leave, and take their dirty dishes with them [okay, rinse them off a bit if it’s not in the host’s way]; a huge pile of “lost and found” items can be frustrating post-party. Final word from Cody: “always thank your host within the next day or two after the party, even if it’s just a quick text or phone call. Even better, write a thank-you note and put it in the mail.”