The most wonderful time of the year is, in many ways, the most exhausting. The month-long parade of holiday shopping, gift wrapping and travel makes it tempting to skip the office party, let alone host a gathering of your own. Opening your home to friends and loved ones doesn’t have to be a dizzying affair, but rather an occasion to unwind and enjoy one another’s company—host included.
Creating an ambience of warmth sets the tone as soon as guests arrived. Devising a lighting strategy in advance is a simple, yet elegant plan that can be implemented with ease the day of the party. “I always like to create an inviting feeling for any party—large or small,” said interior designer Lisa Melone Cloughen. “Lighting, or lack of it, is essential.” Use overhead lighting sparingly—table and floor lamps supply amble ambient light that is softer and more diffused than harsher lights from above. Candles can serve as accent lighting and décor. Deck the mantle with a variety of candles and holders such as tapers, pillars and votives.
Arrange furniture to dictate flow before the doorbell rings. “Define your bar area and food serving area to suggest where groups should gather,” said professional home stager Meridith Baer. “Drinks and food should be separate, so a single area does not get too congested. Setting up a bar cart in a low traffic area (a healthy distance away from the hors d’oeuvres spread) will make refreshments easily accessible and provide guests with breathing room to indulge. Leave the party food on the coffee and side tables. “I often set my bar cart in the back of my living room and eliminate some of the furniture so people can chat and enjoy a cocktail,” Cloughen said. “I consider the bar another opportunity to up the festive vibe. I usually drape the table in a great color or pattern, ditto for the cocktail napkins.”
Don’t be consumed by decking the halls with traditional holiday décor like kitchy elves and reindeer. “Some of the best ideas can be found at the supermarket,” Baer said. “Big bowls of seasonal fruit offer a welcoming message. I like to stick to one or two colors such as white and green: a bowl of limes, bowls of green apples and white and green hydrangeas, for example.”
Vodka, rum, gin, tequila and table wine are basic necessities for a home bar—no matter the time of year. For holidays, colorful libations and seasonal tastes highlight the occasion in a memorable way. On the liquor list: “Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, Peppermint Schnapps, vanilla vodka and spiced rum,” said Jay Ozdemir, bartender at Spiro’s Restaurant & Lounge in Rocky Point. “And cinnamon, eggnog, whipped cream, chocolate syrup and candy canes are on my shopping list.”
The variety of spirits and mixers gives guests the option to mix what they fancy, but when in Rome…“You should definitely have a signature drink. It will make your guest feel important that you are making something special for them,” Ozdemir suggested. “You can make a good holiday cocktail with brandy, RumChata, creme de cacao and cream. Sprinkle some nutmeg on top and they will come for more.” Prepare garnishes and pitchers of cocktails in advance to maximize time. Just pour it in a shaker, add ice and shake when it’s time to serve.
It’s not all about the booze. Festive “mocktails” are a must-have. “You will have designated drivers and people that don’t drink so you don’t want them to feel left out or looking sad with a coffee mug.” A non-alcoholic holiday favorite is a Cranberry Fizz, which is simply made with ginger ale, cran-apple juice, cinnamon sugar and or lime served in highball glass. And when someone has had enough, tell them it’s last call. “You can tell them you want them to get home safely and remember how great this party was without a hangover tomorrow…Coffee and dessert station is right this way.”
Making of a Menu
Rule number one: don’t use a holiday party as an excuse to test-drive a new, impressive (read: complicated) recipe. “I would not try a never-done-before dish on a large party,” said chef Guy Reuge of Sandbar in Cold Spring Harbor and Mirabelle Tavern in Stony Brook. “Furthermore, I would make sure that I come up with a dish totally adapted to the number of people I have to serve—avoiding any technical problem when ready to serve.” Aim for easy and sophisticated dishes that can be trialed far in advance of the festivities—or stick to tried-and-true ones.
To sidestep spending the entire night in the kitchen, select a menu that can (in large part) be prepped ahead of the event. “Some recipes call for prep work the day before, but you also can do the peeling and chopping of vegetables the day before,” Reuge said. “Always read a recipe carefully and set the whole ingredients on your work table before starting cooking. It saves time as you do not have to constantly run around for your ingredients.”
Making note of your guests’ food restrictions is another way to tailor the menu. “It is important for the guests to know the food being served to them—allergies, likes and dislikes can be an inconvenience.” Buffets are perfect for large groups since it’s likely everybody will find something to enjoy (safely) while sipping the evening’s signature cocktail. The serving style also makes the service more efficient, cost effective and less stressful.
Knowing the amount of food to purchase and prep, naturally, depends on the number of guests. There are tricks to keep in your back pocket to avoid going overboard at the grocery store: “I know that my fish or meat portion per person has to be seven to eight ounces,” Reuge said. It is better to have a little extra than not enough—who doesn’t love holiday leftovers, anyway? “A steamed potato can always become a potato salad later on.”