12 Top Entertaining Questions, Answered

With some easy planning, you can host a party and keep your cool.

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Photo by Minh + Wass

Hostess anxiety may not have an entry in the Physicians' Desk Reference, but the symptoms are obvious: fear that no one will show up, worry that those who do will stand around and blink at one another in silence, utter certainty that your guests will go home hungry.



When you're the hostess, your perfectionism spikes like a fever, but meeting your own high expectations (and the lesser ones of your guests) is not impossible. And you can probably get away with a lot less work than you think―a little artfully arranged takeout here, a simple flower arrangement there, a bottle of red, a bottle of white, and you've got yourself a cocktail party. Here, caterers, event planners, and etiquette experts answer your top questions.

The Invitations

Should I mail invitations, or can I e-mail them? 
"Mailed invitations signal that an occasion is a special event, whereas an e-mail or a phone call is more casual," says Stephanie Belger, event manager at Jane Hammond Events, in San Francisco. (Guests are more likely to R.S.V.P. to a written invitation, says Belger.) Whatever your method, it's a good idea to extend invitations three to four weeks prior to the event. Remember that electronic invitations are appropriate only if your guest list consists of people who check e-mail frequently (this may not include your 80-year-old aunt Ruth).

How many people whom I invite will show up? 
Obviously, the type of occasion and the guest list will affect the numbers. But for bigger parties, when you've invited close friends and distant acquaintances, "a good rule of thumb is to expect 70 to 80 percent to show," says Laurel Szeto, owner of Laurel and Party, a Santa Monica-based event-planning company. Most people who are polite enough to R.S.V.P. are polite enough to show up (or call if they can't). If someone who hasn't R.S.V.P.'d arrives, be gracious and make room.

Do I have to tell my neighbor about our party in advance? And do I have to invite her?
It's always polite to warn the neighbors before you entertain, especially if you expect a big crowd. If your party will be outdoors and the nostalgic music will definitely carry, or if your guests will take up a lot of street parking, it's even more important to spread the word. Honore Ervin, coauthor of More Things You Need to Be Told, and one half of the Etiquette Grrls advice duo, suggests saying something like "We're having a party this Saturday, and things might get a little noisy―although we'll try to keep it down, of course. People will be driving over, so please don't have anyone towed!" (Make a joke out of this.) A few days' notice is OK―any longer, Ervin says, and they might forget. If you don't normally socialize with the neighbors, you're under no obligation to invite them.

How do I gracefully tell people that I don't want their kids at my party? 
Deal with this delicate issue in person or over the phone, rather than specifying on the invitation that kids aren't welcome, suggests Amy Nebens, author of Gracious Welcome (Chronicle Books, $20, barnesandnoble.com). Most guests will realize that cocktails or a Saturday-night dinner party aren't kid-friendly occasions, but if you're concerned, you can always clarify your position when guests call to R.S.V.P. Say something like "It will be so nice for all of us to have some grown-up time for a change" or "I hope you won't have any trouble finding a sitter on a Saturday night."

I've invited people for drinks, and they've expected dinner. I've invited people for dinner, and they've shown up already "having had." What time means drinks, and what time means dinner? 
For a cocktail party on a Friday night, start at 6 or 6:30, so people can come straight after work and go for dinner afterward, says Gary Arabia, a Los Angeles caterer and chef-owner of Global Cuisine. A Saturday night cocktail party can start later, Arabia says, adding that cocktail parties around the dinner hour are OK, as long as your invitation makes clear that dinner will not be served. Weekend dinner parties generally start between 7 and 8. Having drinks first allows all your guests time to arrive; let your invitation convey the details: "7 P.M. cocktails, 8 P.M. dinner."

The Drinks

How much alcohol, and what kind, should I have on hand? 
Rather than stocking a full bar for your next cocktail party, have a short list of red and white wines, sparkling water, and one specialty cocktail―preferably something simple, like margaritas or sangria, suggests Chef Rossi, owner of the Raging Skillet catering company, in New York City. Mix up a large batch of the house drink and keep it in a big container in the freezer, refilling serving pitchers as needed. Prop up a sign to let guests know what they're pouring, and plan on serving approximately three to four drinks per person for a two- to three-hour party. Stock some beer, too, if you'd like.

When serving wine with dinner, figure on two to three glasses per person, says Roberta Frechette, chef at the President's House at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where visiting dignitaries are entertained. One bottle holds at least four glasses; you'll need two to three bottles for every four people. Fine-tune the formula based on what you know about your guests.

When do I need to splurge for a bartender? And is there any way for me to forbid him from wearing a bow tie and a black vest? 
Hire a bartender if you're having 40 or more guests, says Debbie Barnes, a former caterer and the director of sales at Party Rental Ltd., in Teterboro, New Jersey. "You want everybody to have a drink as soon as possible," says Barnes. "It's something to hold on to that makes people feel comfortable." Having a professional behind the bar expedites service, eliminates messy amateur drinkmixing, and frees you up for more important things. The cost of bartending services varies by region: You can expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $25 an hour, plus tip. While the bow tie and black vest are traditional, if you're having a more casual event, you can politely but firmly insist that the bartender not dress like a penguin.

The Food

I don't want to spend the night passing around hors d'oeuvres or replenishing the buffet. What can I serve that's low-maintenance and good for setting down in one spot? 
Bowls of spiced nuts and olives and oversize platters of antipasto or store-bought Middle Eastern specialties, like hummus with strips of pita and stuffed grape leaves, require almost no preparation and can be left out even in hot weather. Fruit and cheese platters will stay chilled if you serve them on a marble serving piece that's been placed in the freezer overnight.

And don't forget the ultimate way to lighten your cooking load: takeout. Barnes served Chinese takeout at her last big party. There were some raised eyebrows when the deliveryman arrived as guests were having cocktails, but "people loved it," she says. "I just set out the white boxes on big platters with chopsticks for people to serve themselves. And I was surprised at how inexpensive it was." Mexican and Thai are two other crowd-pleasing take-out options.


The Room

How can I make my place look festive without spending a fortune on fresh flowers? 
Event planner Belger suggests placing a bunch of tulips, all the same color, in a small vase on the coffee table. "Monochromatic arrangements are best because they're easy and they always look pretty," she says. And let mood lighting take care of the rest. "Dim the lights and cluster about 20 tealight candles in votive glasses on a tabletop in your welcome area," suggests Cara Kleinhaut, owner of Caravents Production and Design, an event firm in Los Angeles.

Crowded parties can get hot. I'd like to make my place welcoming, not sweltering. Is that possible? 
"The two things people most often overlook when throwing a party are music and temperature," says Barnes. Remember that more bodies mean more heat―so avoid inviting more people than your space can comfortably handle. (Barnes's rule of thumb for a cocktail party is four to five square feet per guest.) If you have central air-conditioning, Barnes suggests setting it a few degrees lower than normal before your party, then monitoring the temperature as the room fills up. Remember that as people drink―or eat spicy food―they tend to feel hotter.

The Mingling

Short of handing out name tags and staging trust falls, how can I get people to start talking to one another? 
One of your responsibilities as a hostess is to make introductions that help people find common ground: "Joe, meet Samantha. She enrolled her dog in obedience school, too." Traditional guidelines dictate introducing the "less important" person to the "more important" person, saying the more important person's name first. But etiquette authority Peggy Post, author of Emily Post's Etiquette, 17th Edition (Harper-Resource, $40, barnesandnoble.com), says, "The most important thing is to make the introduction. Just do it! If you draw a blank on someone's name, don't use that as an excuse to skip an introduction. Just be honest and say, `I've drawn a blank.'" It also helps to appoint a friend to help get people chatting while you attend to other hostess duties.


The Cleanup

How can I enjoy my company when the bubbling volcano Mount St. Dirty Dishes awaits me? 
Although common sense might dictate that you wash as you go, you should, in fact, spend minimal time cleaning while your guests are still there. "Everybody gets stressed out by dirty dishes in the sink," says Amy Nebens, "but part of entertaining is presenting an easy, simple, graceful style." This means not rushing to the kitchen to clean up before the guests depart. (By the same logic, it's not right to trail them with a Dirt Devil.) It's perfectly fine to spend a few minutes clearing plates or organizing the kitchen, says Nebens, "as long as you set your guests up in the other room and make sure they are chatting easily."