’Tis the season for cocktail parties, tree trimmings and countless other decadent reasons to drink Champagne with friends. We asked restaurateur Will Guidara for his entertaining tricks and tips. So before you send out the next batch of invites, steal his secrets for a guaranteed good time.
Holiday Party Guide
Credit: © John Kernick

Each night, I throw a dinner party for hundreds of people. I own a restaurant in NYC, Eleven Madison Park, that has three Michelin stars, four New York Times stars, a bunch of sommeliers, big wine lists, multicourse menus—it’s a fine-dining restaurant through and through. I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else, but growing up I hated fine-dining restaurants. They seemed so stuffy and definitely not fun. From an early age I felt the pull to hospitality—my dad is a lifelong restaurateur, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps—but I was more drawn to casual places. In fact, my dream job was to run burger joints.

Yet somehow I found myself with an offer to head up this fancy restaurant in NYC with a crazy-talented, Michelin-trained Swiss chef named Daniel Humm. I didn’t want it to be a boring, cold place. Life is too short for that. Sure, fancy restaurants are supposed to be luxurious and over the top. But if I was going to spend 14 hours a day there, mine needed to feel more like home.

In the year that followed, many of the ideas we implemented were inspired by exactly that: home. Every time we’d consider a new course or a new step of service, we’d ask, “How would we do it if we were having friends over for dinner?” And, before I knew it, fine dining was fun.

The next several years were so intense, I didn’t have time to invite friends over for dinner anymore. But it’s 11 years later, I’m married now, and I’ve recognized the need for more balance in my life. I’m once again taking time to connect with friends at home over food and wine. However, owning a Michelin three-star restaurant has raised my guests’ expectations just a little bit! So I’ve tried to take my dinner parties to the next level. What’s funny is, I now find myself taking lessons from the restaurant back home with me. These are my essential ingredients for the perfect party.

Be present.

We talk about this in the restaurant constantly: Genuine hospitality only exists if you can forget about all the things you have to do and focus on the people you are with. How do we accomplish this? Organization and preparation. The more things we can check off our to-do lists before you walk through our doors, the better chance we have to be fully present when you do. The biggest mistake people make when having guests over? Being “in the weeds,” as we say in restaurants. Don’t drop off chips on the coffee table and rush back to the kitchen. Plan your day and don’t overextend yourself; that way, when everyone arrives you can relax and be with them. That’s the point, after all.

Create the right vibe.

Eleven Madison Park can be an intimidating place. People make reservations months in advance, and there’s a ton of anticipation as they get dressed up for a four-hour meal in a room with a 35-foot-high ceiling. Our first priority when they walk through the doors is to strip all that away, to help them relax and enjoy the ride. Hospitality is all about human connection and making people comfortable. So we communicate with guests as we would dear friends, and we spend endless hours focusing on lighting, candles, music. Do the same at home. Put together a playlist and pay the extra few dollars so that the songs aren’t interrupted by ads. Set the table; make it nice.

Don't try to show off.

In the beginning, we served a 15-course menu with smoke-filled glass domes and all sorts of things set on fire. But we’ve started to feel that meals like this are more about the chef and restaurateur than they are about the guest, so now our mantra is “less is more.” The same is true at home. People aren’t coming over for a life-changing dining experience; they’re coming to spend time with you. Err on the side of simple, delicious food, and serve communal courses in the middle of the table to encourage people to connect.

Play games.

Some of the most celebrated courses at our restaurant have been inspired by card tricks, three-card monte and hangman. Even in a restaurant as formal as ours, there’s something beautifully connective about friendly competition. Don’t be afraid to do this at home. Everyone has a stack of old board games somewhere. When you pull one out (not Monopoly) there will be groans. Once that game gets going, though, the fun will continue for hours. Trust me here!

Send 'em home with something.

At Eleven Madison Park, every guest goes home with a jar of our housemade granola. It’s a humble way to end a special meal, but, more importantly, it’s a way to relive the experience the next day. Also, it’s just nice to give someone a present. The best part of doing this at home is that it’s unexpected. It could be anything: some freshly baked cookies, a copy of that evening’s playlist, even a soigné doggie bag (you’re not going to eat all of those leftovers anyway). Or feel free to steal the granola idea—it’s a good one. —WILL GUIDARA, RESTAURATEUR