Some people put some Boursin and water crackers on a plate, open a bottle of wine and call it a party. But for men and women who care about style and food, such an approach is unthinkable. They understand that while the party gods are arbitrary and capricious, intelligent planning can make the difference between a smash and a dud. They've developed a list of essentials--from reliable corkscrews to outrageous centerpieces--that never, ever let them down. Here, 50 experts spill their secrets and name one item they've come to rely on.
1 fine art
MARY BOONE art dealer
"What you look at while you eat is terribly important. I have paintings by Brice Marden and Ross Bleckner in my dining room. But I keep no art in the kitchen, only food."
2 an icemaker
JULIA CHILD american icon
"I have a separate icemaker, a U-Line, because sometimes ice from the freezer picks up other flavors and can taste like onions." ($600 to $1,000; 414-354-0300)
3 flora danica plates
PRINCESS MARIE-CHANTAL OF GREECE socialite
"My husband and I like to use the Flora Danica plates we received as wedding presents."
4 party favors
NINA SIMONDS cookbook author
"I send my guests off with lovely wooden chopsticks or with bags of candied ginger or other spices that aid in digestion, all tied up with beautiful ribbons."
5 a grill
STEVE ZAHN actor
"I'm a barbecue freak. That's the big thing for me. And after we do the dishes, I'm the activity director."
6 lots of money
JOCK SOTO ballet star
"What do you do with the money? You buy lots of wine. And then you spend even more to hire a chef."
7 a great corkscrew
JOHANNE KILLEEN AND GEORGE GERMON chef-restaurateurs
"The Screwpull lever wine opener is the ultimate corkscrew -- a piece of genius. It's a must if you're serving lots of bottles of wine." ($139; Geerlings & Wade; 800-762-WINE)
8 cuban coffee
RUBEN TOLEDO designer
"I rely on one brand called Café Pilón--any old bodega has it. It's a very fine, powdery coffee. Once you brew it, you mix the first few drops with sugar, and that makes incredible foam and gives it the flavor of Cuban coffee."
9 olives and bowls for the pits
DANNY MEYER restaurateur
"Olives are the best hors d'oeuvres because you can have them waiting for the first guests while you're still making last-minute preparations. I like bowls from Quimper, France, that complement the colors of the olives."
10 round or oval tables
PAUL BERTOLLI chef-restaurateur
"Round or oval tables are better than square ones because guests can see one another better and talk across the table."
11 pepper mill
MADELEINE KAMMAN culinary grande dame
"You need one like the Peugeot that can give large and small grinds and everything in between." ($17 to $45; Zabar's; 800-697-6301 or 212-787-2000)
12 three-screen cooking timer
AMANDA HESSER food writer
"My mother gave me one last Christmas. At first, I thought it would be useless, but now I love having it. I can cook several things at the same time without worrying that I'll burn one." ($35; West Bend; 414-334-2311)
13 a stellar guest list
DOMINICK DUNNE author
"Who is the perfect dinner guest, you ask? I am."
14 two very quiet dishwashers
JAN WEIMER kitchen designer
"I own two Askos. I can run them between courses without interfering with party chatter." (from $700; 800-367-2444)
15 vermouth mister
B. SMITH lifestyle authority
"My Misto sprays out just the right amount of vermouth for the perfect martini." ($22; Kitchen Classics; 888-954-3877)
16 wine for the cook
JACQUES PÉPIN culinary ambassador
"People always ask, 'Do you cook with wine?' My answer, of course, is I do. When preparing for a big party, I particularly enjoy a glass of light white Vouvray."
17 helping hands
AL ROKER tv weatherman
"Each guest has to change my baby's diaper at least once. I think that's a nice division of duties."
18 stone fireplace
JOANNE WEIR cookbook author
"I had one specially designed for my kitchen because It's fun to involve my guests when I spit-roast and grill."
19 do-it-yourself bar
DONATA MAGGIPINTO entertaining expert
"When guests arrive I'm usually putting the finishing touches on dinner, so it's nice if they can help themselves to a drink--although someone always seems to volunteer to play bartender. My bamboo drinks table is from Restoration Hardware." ($395; 800-762-1005)
20 comfortable dining chairs
LARRY BOGDANOW restaurant designer
"So many people have chairs that are unpleasant to sit on. Check out restaurant furniture for inspiration--most of the time it is designed for comfort. I like the Cafe Leather Armchair from Fong Brothers." ($700; 323-583-6481)
21 fleur de sel
CHRIS SCHLESINGER chef-restaurateur
"People are always blown away by the fact that I'll spend $20 for a pound of salt. I serve it in a little dish and let my guests sprinkle it on food themselves. It's terrific with raw oysters and other types of finger food. I'll also serve marrow bones--they're a great conversation piece--or grilled foie gras." ($50 for 2.2 pounds of salt; Mushroom Man; 800-945-3404)
22 a phone number
WENDY WASSERSTEIN playwright
"All I need is the phone number of a great caterer, like David Ziff in New York City." (212-289-6199)
23 snow globes
RICHARD MASUR president, screen actors guild
"We have two of those snow globes that you shake--one of New York and one of Hollywood--and we use them as centerpieces, because we're bicoastal."
24 a big question
GEORGETTE MOSBACHER political fund-raiser
"After the first course, I throw out a big question, and everyone discusses it. One of the most interesting was about David Duke running for Congress. I keep my centerpiece very low so it's easy to talk across the table."
25 venetian glassware
ADAM TIHANY restaurant designer
"I have a wonderful assortment of Venetian glasses. The different colors create a kaleidoscopic effect that transforms the dining experience into a carnival."
ART GARFUNKEL musician
"Humor and water come to mind as two essentials. You have to be funny and down-to-earth. But I'm also an Evian man. In the Nineties, you've got to have water."
27 creative martinis
PIXIE YATES fashion designer
"A Lemon Drop Martini, with Absolut Citron, fresh lemon and a sugar rim, is a killer aperitif."
28 one-pot meals
BRET EASTON ELLIS author
"Risottos seem to work well for a large group of people. While you're stirring the risotto, everyone comes into the kitchen to hang out. It makes cooking a more communal sort of thing."
29 a fire
GEORGE WHIPPLE tv reporter
"When I have people over, I always have a fire, because to me it symbolizes home. In the country, I cut and split the wood myself--that way it warms me twice."
30 a china collection
ELSA KLENSCH tv fashion reporter
"Everywhere I go, I collect china--Paris, Japan, China. I've got this enormous collection, and I mix the patterns and make the table very joyous."
31 colorful cushions
VERA WANG fashion designer
"I like using seat cushions in lavender and mandarin orange and blood red. My dining-room walls are a strange mustard that can pick up any color."
32 an immersion blender
JACQUES TORRES pastry chef
"My Braun lets me puree sauces and soups directly in the pot and saves time on cleanup." ($20 to $50; 800-BRAUN-11)
33 a cleanup crew
PIA LINDSTROM tv reporter
"The critical thing for parties is somebody to clean up afterward. I don't mind cooking, but I hate the next day."
34 tiered plate racks
NICK MALGIERI pastry maven
"I scour flea markets for plate racks, which I fit with my dishes. They're great for hors d'oeuvres because guests can help themselves--you don't have to pass around trays."
35 empty space
BUCK HENRY actor
"When I have a party, I empty the place out, or I rent a completely empty barn, even if it's just for one person. I don't care whether people have somewhere to sit or not, just as long as they don't break anything. I just can't take any chances."
36 silver and crystal figurines
DARCI KISTLER ballet star
"I put out the silver and crystal animals I got as wedding gifts. Some of them might be Baccarat. People, especially sophisticated people, like to take them home. I get very upset."
37 rock crystal
JEFFREY BILHUBER interior designer
"I'm completely besotted with rock crystal. I'm like a chandelier looter. Every time I see a chandelier, I keep thinking it would be so much better if I busted it apart for a centerpiece. By the way, I loathe banquettes. Whenever you sit on one, it's as if you're wearing a Velcro suit."
R. COURI HAY society editor
"I always think a big bowl of caviar on crushed ice is essential."
39 african daisies
AMY JO JOHNSON actress
"I put them all around the room in pots."
40 a ban on booze
MARY TYLER MOORE actress
"What distinguishes my entertaining style is what I don't serve--and what I don't serve is wine."
KATIE COURIC tv journalist
"I don't do that White Castle thing anymore. Now it's melted Velveeta with Fritos. No, honestly, I never entertain."
42 red wine
BROOKE SHIELDS actress
"I don't have a specific year, but I do love Gaja. My ex-husband was always a better entertainer than me. He makes the perfect margarita. His margaritas were what always set the evening off. He still does it for me, actually."
43 a tuscan grill
CASS CALDER SMITH architect
"It slides into a fireplace and you can cook on it--it creates a European atmosphere." ($130; The Gardener; 510-548-4545)
44 a guest book
MARK GILBERTSON charity fund-raiser
"I'm on my third one since I moved to New York 10 years ago. It's fun to look back over the years and see what's in there."
45 exotic accents
REGINE TRAULSENÜBER hostess
"I don't serve salmon like everyone else does. Sometimes I serve Moroccan food. Three cooks start working one week before the party. And spices arrive from Morocco by plane."
46 rectangular platters
ANNE QUATRANO AND CLIFFORD HARRISON chef-restaurateurs
"We always seem to be entertaining on a grand scale. We use the platters from Banana Republic because you can fit a lot on them, plus the shape makes the most of our long rectangular table." ($20 to $38; 888-BR-STYLE)
47 oval copper pans
STEVEN BRIDGE kitchenware retailer
"Cookware that can go from the oven to the table means you have fewer serving bowls to clean. I think that oval-shaped copper pans with two handles are ideal. They come from France in all sizes and are rustic yet elegant."
48 large white cotton tablecloths
ZARELA MARTINEZ chef-restaurateur
"White lets me add my own touches--sometimes I'll wrap an embroidered fabric, like a scarf, around a platter. White allows everything else to stand out."
49 white-and-gold plates
ROBERT HOMMA antiques dealer
"Some of mine are 150 years old, and they're from Limoges, Bavaria, Japan. I mix and match styles with the same color scheme for a buffet table so everybody has a different plate. It's a way of making everyone feel special."
50 a nonfloral centerpiece
FE FENDI-SARACINO socialite
"I decorate the table with whatever I have in the kitchen--not flowers but vegetables or breads--or with different shades of colored crystal."
Style experts interviewed by Jeffrey Slonim. Additional reporting by Lily Barberio and Angie Spensieri.