Everything you need to host a fabulous cocktail party, including setting up a bar, easy hors d'oeuvres, and planning tips.
Cocktail parties are my favorite get togethers to host. They're easy to plan and glamorous yet relatively inexpensive you can serve high priced items like caviar and still have some money left over because you'll only be serving small bites. Plus, since you'll be making several different types of hors d'oeuvres, there's plenty of room to experiment in the kitchen.
When planning your party, it helps to choose a theme. This doesn't mean all your guests have to show up dressed like pirates or their favorite movie stars-a theme can be discreet, such as a flavor or color that is present throughout the entire evening. A creative theme can make your party feel special without adding to your budget, and it will help you come up with ideas for food, drinks, and decorations.
The key to any great party is for the host to have as much fun as the guests. This guide will make the experience easy and stress-free: It covers all the planning, from selecting a menu and setting up the bar to decorating your space and renting extra glassware. Plus, be sure to check out the handy charts to help you figure out exactly how much food to prepare and how many drinks to buy.
The traditional cocktail party fare is hors d'oeuvres-small, savory finger foods that can be eaten in one or two bites. The recipes included here are all good examples. Typically, hors d'oeuvres are served before a meal and are not meant to be a substitute for a meal-the French "hors d'oeuvre" translates to "outside of meal." However, nowadays I find that it's common for hors d'oeuvres to wind up replacing meals, so if your party takes place during normal lunch or dinner hours, plan to serve enough food to constitute a meal.
The more formal way to serve food at a cocktail party is butler service, which means passing hors d'oeuvres on trays. Easier and more casual is setting up your food buffet style so guests can help themselves. (Unless you have a dignitary or two in attendance, no one will think this is the least bit improper.) You can also combine these two methods, serving most of your food buffet-style and passing a few hot items.
If your space is tight, use a round central table as the one and only food station. For larger rooms where guests have plenty of space, it's better to spread the food out on smaller tables. Try to place food stations within easy access of the kitchen so you don't have to balance trays while walking through the crowd.
Keep Hot Food Hot
Serve hot food on smaller trays that can be frequently replenished so the hors d'oeuvres don't have time to get cold.
Set Up Snacks Early
Before the party starts, set out some easy snacks such as nuts and olives so guests-including any early birds-can help themselves. If possible, also put out any room-temperature hors d'oeuvres. This will give you time to greet your guests at the door without worrying about feeding them.
Use Butler Service for Pricier Hors d'Oeuvres
Food set out buffet-style will be consumed in greater quantities than the passed items, so if your budget is tight, place the less-expensive items on the buffet and serve the pricier ones as passed hors d'oeuvres.
These guidelines are designed for a full bar, but with a few adjustments they can be applied to the smaller setups required for a themed bar or signature cocktail bar. The main difference is that for a full bar, you'll set out one or two bottles of each alcohol and mixer, while for a themed bar or signature cocktails, you'll put out several bottles of your chosen spirits and mixers. If you're serving signature cocktails, it's even better if you can have the drinks premixed in pitchers, which you'll place on the bar along with ice and garnishes.
• Unless you have an actual bar, use a large (approximately six- to eight-feet-long and 30-inches-wide) table and place it in a spot where guests will have easy access to it and room to mingle.
• Place alcohol-at least one bottle of each and a few bottles of more popular items like vodka-in the middle of the table so that they can be reached from different angles. Arrange ice, mixers, and garnishes on both sides of the alcohol so that guests have two mixing stations. Glasses and napkins should be set up on both ends of the table where they are easily accessible. If you only have one set of bar tools (see our checklist below), arrange them near the middle of the bar so guests can share. If you have two sets, place one on either end of the bar.
• Use an ice bath to chill beverages like wine and beer (this will leave your refrigerator open for food storage). Fill a tub or large bucket with one part water, three parts ice, and a handful of salt-salt causes ice to melt at a lower temperature so the water will get colder faster. Be sure to fill the bucket only about halfway so that it doesn't overflow when you add drinks. Put in beverages at least 30 minutes before the party starts. You'll find information on how much ice to purchase in our drink quantity chart.
• To help guests mix their drinks, have a bartenders' guide handy or print classic drink recipes on cards and place them at the bar.
• Throughout the party periodically check to see what needs to be replenished.
On average, 60 percent of invited guests will show up to a party. If you invite closer friends only, about 75 percent will come. Men tend to show up less than women, so invite more guys if you want the sexes to be evenly represented. Always invite some new faces to make the party more interesting. And, since there are always last-minute cancellations and no-shows, invite one extra person for every ten who say they are coming.
If your party has a theme, use that to establish the look of your invitations. For example, in lieu of a traditional invitation send an object that communicates the theme of your party. If you're hosting a backyard party and serving grilled food, print all the party details on a mitt-something so unexpected is bound to get people excited and will keep the RSVP rate high.
Always invite some new faces to make the party more interesting.
Or, keep it simple and use e-mail invitations, which are easy to send and make keeping track of RSVPs a snap. Add some personality with a photo of yourself or background music. Even easier: Skip the invitations altogether and pick up the phone. This works particularly well if you're inviting a small group of close friends.
If dress code is important to you, mention it in the invitation, especially if you would like guests to coordinate with the theme. And, if you want guests to leave by a certain time, consider adding an end time to your invitations.
Take Two Trips to the Grocery Store
To make your grocery shopping easier, organize your list by departments and divide it into two rounds. One week before the party, purchase items that will keep, including alcohol. One or two days before the party, shop for perishable items.
Divide and Conquer
Look at your menu and decide which items can be prepared beforehand. Examine each recipe-oftentimes, almost all the prep work can be done one or two days in advance. This gives you plenty of time to get everything done and to make up for any kitchen mishaps along the way.
Make a Checklist
For the day of the party, make a list of every task you need to accomplish, including any cooking. Arrange everything in the order it needs to be done, and make note of how much time each item requires. If you want to be super-organized, take a cue from professional party planners and make a schedule detailing when to serve each hors d'oeuvre. This will help you figure out specific timing in the kitchen, but it isn't essential.
Prep Ahead of Time
Have all trays clean and decorated in advance so that as you put the finishing touches on recipes they can go straight on the tray and out to your guests.
To make sure you enjoy your party as much as your guests do, you'll need to do some preparty prep. Below is a timeline to help you get everything done on time, plus tips for keeping both the planning and the party low-stress.
Four weeks before:
• Choose a theme for your event.
• Determine where in your home you want to host the party.
• Decide on a menu and drinks.
• Make a guest list and design the invitation.
Three weeks before:
• Send out invitations (if it's a smaller group of close friends, you can wait until two weeks before).
• Create a shopping list and cross-check with your menu.
Two weeks before:
• Plan the layout of and decorations for the party space.
• Create a shopping list for any decorating supplies.
• Buy, rent, or borrow any extra equipment needed.
• Hire a server or bartender if necessary.
• Make sure your stereo and speakers are working and create your music playlist.
One week before:
• Verify your guest list and call or e-mail guests you haven't heard from.
• Buy any decorations needed except flowers and other perishable items.
• Place order with florist.
• Purchase ingredients that will keep.
• Write a service plan for your party, including how you will prepare before the event and how you will cook the food throughout the week.
• Start any possible cooking or food prep.
Two days before:
• Purchase the rest of the food, including perishable items.
• Decide what to wear to avoid any last-minute fashion stress.
One Day before:
• Pick up flowers.
• Clean up and decorate the party space and bathroom.
• Decorate and arrange furniture, food tables, and bar.
• Set up the bar or drinks station, making sure you have all the necessary equipment.
• Prepare as much as possible from your menu.
several hours before:
• Buy ice.
• Double-check that you have all the food and supplies you need-this is the time to make a last-minute run to the store.
• Finish preparing the food (except last-minute heating and garnishing).
• Cut up and prepare all bar garnishes.
• Queue up your playlist so it's ready to go.
two hours before:
• Get yourself ready.
• Cool any beverages that need to be chilled.
thirty minutes before:
• Put finishing touches on food and drinks-to keep hot food hot, store in a 125°F oven until you're ready to serve.
• Arrange any room-temperature food on the buffet or food stations.
just before the party starts:
• Set ice and garnishes on bar.
• Turn on music.
• Double-check everything, sip a drink, and welcome your guests!