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The Pleasure of Your Company
Who doesn’t love to receive a party invitation? But what kind is best for your affair? Will it be custom, handmade or store-bought? You might be surprised to learn that having custom-quality invitations printed is not unreasonably expensive today, thanks to modern printing methods, including thermography, a technique similar to engraving that costs half as much. “From fill-in cards to the kind you print on your computer at home, the selection today is really amazing,” says Dawn Handworker, a stationer who owns Truly Yours LLC in Bethel. She offers a wide array of papers and styles at price points from 75 cents each (for fill-ins) to $10 or more for elaborate engraved invitations. Why choose snail mail over e-vites? “It’s always special and more exciting when an invitation comes in the mail,” she says.
Location, Location, Location
Survey your space (we’re going on the premise here that your gala will be held at home). “The first thing I tell clients is to get the guest list together, because you need a good idea of numbers to determine how your home is going to work,” says event planner Bishop. “Will you need to borrow chairs, or will it be standing room only?” However spacious (or not) your home is, she advises you to consider setting up a beverage station that makes it easy for guests to get drinks themselves. “It relieves you of bar duty,” she says. If your affair is more elaborate, rest assured that all manner of equipment can be rented—from glassware and chafing dishes to chairs, dance floors and even portable bars.
Will all the food at your gathering be catered, all prepared by you, a combination, or will you be asking friends to pitch in? Cost will certainly enter into this decision, but it’s important to consider time, stress and your level of expertise in the kitchen—plus how much you want to mingle.
A full-service caterer handles it all—from writing the menu to wiping down your counters after the last guest leaves. Some will allow you to mix and match catered dishes with your signature dip or homemade lasagna. Many won’t, for insurance reasons (if someone gets sick, there may be no way to find out for sure if the culprit was your tandoori chicken or the caterer’s chilled shrimp).
“The first thing I ask a client is what the kitchen facility is like,” says Ivy Mellow, coordinator of off-site catering for River House in East Haddam. “It’s always nice to showcase some cooking in the kitchen, but you can’t do a hot dinner for 60 if you have only one oven! We like to do stations—people enjoy the variety—but now we’re adding something to the traditional offerings. You can still have a potato station, for example, but add lobster and it’s special.”
Hoagland loves to cater interactive parties, where guests are invited to participate. “There are clients who want everything served, and we can certainly do that,” she says, “but I like to cater the way I entertain. I like to give people something to do. We might have them choose from different sauces for a pasta dish, or I might say: ‘There are the clams, and there’s the clam knife!’”
Menu selection should depend, at least in part, on the age of the crowd, says Jeff Rapoport of Jordan Caterers in Cheshire and Darien. “Younger guests tend to look for farm-to-table food, menus that are fresher and cleaner—sustainability,” he says.
“Many of them have grown tired of grilled veggies and crudités and are looking for more interesting vegetarian dishes.” A well-rounded menu is important. “Always offer meat, fish and vegetarian options,” says Rapoport, plus “at least a few bites of hors d’oeuvres. And then sweets for an hour or so before you plan on your guests leaving.” Comfort food is in. “Guests often like very simple things, like short ribs that have been braised in sake or beer,” he adds.
Your food should look like it belongs, says Rick Kerzner, owner/chef of Emily’s Catering Group in Bristol. “I like tying in the decor with the food,” he says. “Choose softer linens in a darker color, with shimmery, silvery white serving pieces. Food should be seasonal. We like cranberries and beef wrapped in phyllo, shepherd’s pie on a tasting spoon, something comforting like grilled cheese with tomato soup in a demitasse cup. In the last couple of years we’ve seen people really take the pretense out of holiday parties. We even rolled out winter barbecues last year—it’s casual. summer food in winter, and not what guests expect.”
“A menu can be impressive without going over the top,” says Cronin of Tallulah’s. Think visuals. “Great visual presentation adds to the excitement of the actual food. You can take a basic pasta dish, but serve it in something special,” she says. And if you think dinner has to feature beef tenderloin and lobster, think again. “We do risotto stations, and comfort-food stations featuring homemade macaroni and cheese with truffles, beef stew.”
Drinks of one kind or another are a given. In fact, the secret to an unforgettable holiday party is no secret at all, according to Hoagland. It’s simple: “Serve cranberry mojitos!” What else is new in cocktails? “Ginger liqueur seems to be all the rage these days,” she says, so “think ginger martinis.” While most people expect alcohol to be served, you may prefer not to—or you may want to offer up some seasonal nonalcoholic beverages like mulled cider or hot cocoa.