Hosting the ideal fall dinner party is easy: Just get an idyllic log cabin in the woods with a huge fireplace and drape cashmere blankets on every couch and chair. Unfortunately, that’s just not a possibility for most people. But that doesn’t mean the ultimate cozy dinner party is out of reach. Here, chefs share their best tips for creating a warm and inviting atmosphere for the best-ever fall and winter parties.
1. Light lots of candles. “No matter the season, candles add warmth and coziness to a dinner or cocktail party,” says Shawn McClain of Green Zebra in Chicago. “We use a combination of pillars, tea lights and tapers, and even the battery-operated ones that flicker to look like candles. They’re impressively candle-like. We’ll set those on our coffee tables and credenzas so we don’t get so stressed about burning the house down.”
2. Start a fire. At Mott St in Chicago, chef Edward Kim lights a small bonfire on the patio to celebrate the start of fall. “At home, lighting a fireplace or a small fire in the backyard will create the same inviting and warm atmosphere,” he says. “The smell of burning wood and leaves is a sensory experience that most people love, and it encourages them to huddle up next to the fire and socialize.”
3. Host a fireplace s’mores bar. “Create a spread of ingredients in your living room,” says Colorado chef Kelly Liken. “You can use all different kinds of chocolates and cookies to spice things up. It’s a great way to gather around the fire with friends and family after a great meal.”
4. DIY aroma therapy. F&W Chef-in-Residence Grant Achatz pours boiling water over rosemary sprigs. “It perfumes the air,” he says.
5. Float some flowers. Even in the winter, chef Gayle Pirie of San Francisco’s Foreign Cinema likes to decorate her table with flowers like gardenias. “Float them in shallow vessels of water around the table,” she suggests.
6. Think vintage. “To me, cozy is synonymous with a retro or vintage vibe,” says chef Jake Bickelhaupt of Chicago’s 42 grams. “Antique mirrors with patina and family heirlooms like china, silverware, flatware, or even a cool punch bowl, are great ways to add that vintage touch to a space. If you can get your hands on a turn table and play vinyl albums, bonus!”
7. Create a crafting corner. “My wife and I have blank table setting cards and we let people decorate their own. We’re not talking about a hot glue gun and feathers. For me it’s about interaction, getting guests involved in an easy way.”
8. Think outside of the centerpiece box. “We like to use fresh decorations and natural materials,” says Randall Selland of The Kitchen in Sacramento. “We use beautiful wreaths and mini Christmas trees made out of abalone shells.”
9. Break out some cinnamon and nutmeg. “Whether it’s in sugar cookies, pumpkin pie or a savory pork roast, baking spices have a calming effect and put everyone in a festive mood,” says Chicago chef Tom Van Lente.
10. Revive teatime. “People don’t always expect to have tea at a party,” says chef Charlie Palmer of NYC’s Aureole. “But if they’ve come in from the cold they’ll really appreciate it. There are so many great teas out there now—make sure you have a nice variety of standard teas and also some flavored loose leaf varieties. Tea never goes out of style.”
11. Don’t forget the hard stuff. “I learned a great trick from Chef Rick Bayless when I had dinner at his house,” says chef Paul Virant. “At the end of the meal, he brought out a sampling of tequila and mezcal and all the guests chose which spirit they wanted to taste. It was a fun, interactive experience that warmed you inside and out.”