People make a party, and we don’t just mean who’s on the guest list. “The way I look at every moment of a party, it’s a time for a person to let loose and relax,” says John Terzian, Los Angeles nightlife impresario and cofounder of the H.Wood Group.
Of course, there’s an art to gathering people in a room and easing them into a less-inhibited state. The essentials? An attentive host, great music, smart conversation and alcohol. Mood lighting doesn’t hurt, either. But, according to Terzian, there are lots of little touches that distinguish a novice host from an expert.
To help you look and feel like the latter, Robb Report spoke with hospitality professionals and entertainers to get intel on everything from choosing a dress code to nudging the last guest out at the end of the night. And because many more readers will be attending, rather than hosting, we slipped in secrets to being the best guest (spoiler: phones down and no surprise plus-ones).
1. Don’t Arrive Empty Handed
Yes, you should buy your host a gift. Think beautifully packed baked goods, linen cocktail napkins or Champagne. Star of the Bravo series Southern Charm and socialite Patricia Altschul likes to gift books, potted orchids that hosts can “plop down anywhere” and gin for fellow martini drinkers.
Whatever you do, just don’t show up with fresh flowers. “It actually gives the host more work to cut the stems, find a vase, fill it with water and put it out on display,” says Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette and Instagram etiquette star at @mykameier.
2. Let a Chef Do All the Cooking
What mood do you want to set with your holiday meal? How do you want guests to feel? Are there restaurant dishes you’d love to see on the table? What are your favorite cookbooks? These are all good starting points, says Michelin-star chef Curtis Stone, when you’re narrowing down what you want to eat and who will cook for your party.
Stone is making that process even easier with Gathar, an online platform that matches hosts with private chefs in his native Australia, Los Angeles and, soon, Dallas. Hosts select (and can customize) menus that run from $27 per person for so-called grazing tables to $345 lobster-steak-truffle dinners. No matter your vision, here are Stone’s tips for pulling off the meal of the season.
1. “Understand what a caterer or chef does best. Then don’t stray super far from that skill set, because then you’re asking for their first attempt at something. You wouldn’t go to a Mexican restaurant and ask them to make sushi.”
2. “Tell the chef the most important thing is that the food is delicious. Fancy plating can take extra time and then the temperature’s not quite right. You may want to be super inventive, thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t have burrata and tomatoes.’ But that might be more delicious than the burrata with green beans a chef ends up serving.”
3. “Chefs aren’t offended when you tell them how you want it to go down. Sometimes chefs get to a point in a dinner party, when everyone is having a lovely time and maybe the kitchen is in view of the guests, so we start second-guessing ourselves. Do they just want me out of here? Do they want a surface clean or for me to get into that stove and give it a good scrub?”
3. Dim the Lights, Cue the Candles
If the sun has gone down, so should your overhead lighting, according to Terzian, who like to light lots of candles for a chiaroscuro effect. “When you walk into a bright room, I don’t care how gorgeous the house is, it just won’t set the mood.”
4. Plan the Playlist
“Music is going to dictate how the party goes. Oftentimes, it’s an afterthought. Guests walk in the door, and you realize, ‘Oh, what should I have on?’ ” Terzian says. “If you want people to dance, you have to cater to that. If you want a mellow cocktail party, go with old-school Christmas and Sinatra. You can’t go wrong with Jackson 5–type classics or even old R&B. I tend to stay away from modern music at parties. You want everyone to know every word of every song. It’s a rule of thumb I have because people just gravitate toward that kind of music,” he says.
5. Set Up Your Guests Like You’re a Matchmaker
“People underestimate the power of seating—who is sitting next to whom,” says Marcy Blum, celebrity wedding planner and owner of an eponymous events company. “With rare exceptions, I’m an absolute stickler for place cards. If you have the luxury of telling a guest, ‘I’m sitting you here because on your left is someone who wrote a novel about the subject you’re obsessed with, and on your right is someone whose kid is trying to get into the same private school your kid is in,’ it’s very thoughtful and specific. People really appreciate it,” she says.
6. Don’t Just Assume You Have a Plus-1
It’s never ok to bring an unexpected, uninvited guest to a party, according to Meier. “The host may not have enough food, beverages, seats or room for an extra person, and it may be very awkward for everyone!” She says. If you’re not sure if you can bring a date or tagalong friend, just ask with plenty of advance notice.
7. Commit to a Dress Code
And don’t go with “black tie optional.” It’s noncommittal and confusing for guests, says Angel Ramos, the creative director of bespoke-menswear brand 18th Amendment. “The only thing we have are memories and photos. If you look at your photos and go, ‘Oh my gosh, people look terrible,’ it’s like, well, you told them ‘black tie optional.’ For one person, that means a navy suit. For the other, it’s a pair of jeans and a navy blazer. It’s easier to say black tie. Then you wear a tux. If you don’t have a tux, buy a tux. If you can’t buy one, then don’t go to the party.”
If you have a more esoteric dress code in mind—say roaring twenties or black-tie festive—Ramos recommends sending guests a digital lookbook. “It’s a fun and elegant way of giving guidance. You’re putting it out there: This is the mood,” he says. “At the same time, it shows the guest this is serious. This is how you should be dressing.”
Decoding the dress code
Men’s Looks Ramos Recommends This Holiday Season.
- Black tie: tuxedo, bonus points for a cream jacket
- Black-tie festive: black trousers with a tartan jacket or vice versa
- Cocktail: velvet dinner jacket, tuxedo trousers and a turtleneck
8. Let the Drinks Flow (N/A Ones, Too)
“I go to a lot of parties where people just serve beer and wine. No one wants that. They need liquor,” says Terzian. The nightlife impresario suggests hiring a bartender to make a specialty cocktail and making sure drinks are available wherever guests will congregate to eliminate back-and-forth traffic around the bar.
But post-pandemic, some of your guests may be drinking less. “Until recently, it was almost a given that you’d drink more than you wanted to at a holiday party,” says Jon Neidich, founder and CEO of New York’s Golden Age Hospitality. Neidich likes to stock no-fuss flavored seltzers for guests.
Alba Huerta, James Beard Award–winning bartender and owner of Julep in Houston, recommends setting up several water stations and making a non-alcoholic punch. “It gives people permission to take a little break if they want to,” she says.
9. Be the Most Interesting Guest at the Party
It will happen. You’ll get stuck with a bore or have to pivot quickly from perilous politics. Maybe you just want to inject some life into the party. For inspiration, we asked CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Mo Rocca for topics he’d toss out to liven up a gathering.
- So where are you spending your next pandemic?
- I want to compliment this cake, but I know I’m not supposed to call it “moist.” What’s a better word
- Favorite Rust Belt vacation spot?
- Chihuahuas: Are they dogs or overgrown rats?
10. Slyly Deal With the Drunken Guest
Huerta’s advice if a guest has two punches too many? “It’s more about defusing the situation than the dynamic of ‘We’re in charge and you’re not being responsible.’ You don’t want to be a hall monitor in your own home,” she says. “I take the approach of saying, ‘Hi, maybe we drank a little too much punch. How’s it going? How can I help?’ That’s the way to put yourself at the service of others.”
11. Live in the Moment with the Phone in Your Pocket
Holiday parties are designed for IRL connection, not digital consumption. Altschul says, unless you’re a doctor, tuck away your phone for the evening. After all, we’ve been tethered to screens more than ever the past two years anyway.
And if you want to snap and share a party pic, follow Meier’s rule of thumb: “When in doubt, ask the host before you post!” (Not everyone wants their home and guest list on blast.) The same goes for group photos. Check with everyone to make sure they’re OK with you splashing their likenesses all over social media.
12. Embrace the Ghost
Sometimes, slipping out the door without a fuss is the best option. “There’s something negative attached to it, like you’re too messed up and need to leave before you say or do something you’ll regret. But, depending on the occasion, sometimes it’s better to disappear,” Neidich says. Make sure to greet your host at the beginning, and, if it’s an intimate affair, you should say goodbye, but anything bigger than 40 people, feel free to make a stealth exit instead of spending an hour glad-handing as you try to get out the door.
“We often think people care more about us leaving than they actually do,” Neidich says. “When people are enjoying themselves, no one is talking about ‘Where’s so-and-so?’ They’re involved in their own moments.”
13. End the Party on Your Own Terms
One of the problems with a great party is some guests may not want it to end. Neidich admits he’s never been great at gracefully nudging people toward the door, but Huerta says it’s your house, your rules. “You can call last call at your own party,” she says. “Call it at 7pm or 3pm. You can give everyone a note. You can call it out over a loudspeaker.” Cut off the booze. Turn off the music. Turn up the lights. Assess how guests are doing. Does anyone need a ride? Talk to the valet if someone is too intoxicated to drive. “All those things actually do transfer from the bar to home, and it gets guests to understand it’s time to find your keys, time to go home, time to go to bed,” she says.