Cocktails, dinner, wine, and cheese—whether the party you're planning is casual or formal, standing or seated, big or small, Food & Wine archives are a treasure trove of festive advice. We've gathered 40 of our favorite entertaining recommendations and exhortations from the past four decades—here's to great parties and the next 40 years!
No bartender? No problem. Large-format party-friendly drinks will keep everyone's glasses filled—and will mean hosts won't be stuck mixing custom cocktails all night.
You can also have a free-form bar setup and let your guests' creative juices flow. "Almost all great cocktails involve a few fundamental categories of flavor: strong, sweet, sour and bitter most commonly, plus the outliers floral, smoky and spicy (like cayenne pepper, a new drinks trend right now). With the right proportions, it's possible to play a mix-and-match game of ingredients, which makes coming up with a new drink strangely easy."
Want a more customized DIY experience? At the drink station, have a little sign with a suggested festive cocktail recipe or two so that guests can make their own. (Here are some of our faves.)
Even better, avoid live cocktail mixing by pre-bottling drinks—and maybe even adding a personalized touch by putting your guests' names on each bottle.
(Oh, and don't forget to keep some non-alcoholic drink options on hand!)
Serving wine? Make sure it's at the proper temperature. Here's how to get those bottles ready, even in a jiffy.
A wine party is an easy no-fuss idea for a get-together, but make sure there's food (so people don't leave too early in search of food) and that it's on point—here are some of our best wine party recipe recommendations.
Also fun for a wine party: Picking a theme—and giving your guests a culturally immersive experience. For example, you could serve one wine each from several different regions in Italy, or from several different Italian grape varieties.
Party Food Ideas
Think small, go big—the easiest way to feed a crowd at an informal gathering is with gorgeous small bites. Here are 25 hors d'oeuvres, perfect for the late-summer season.
In a pinch, remember that toasted almonds are the best nut to keep on hand for parties. "They stay fresher longer than more oily nuts, which tend to go rancid quickly," says Chef Maria Sinskey. "I also keep a bottle (or two) of Champagne or sparkling wine in the fridge; that distracts guests when I’m finishing up the cooking."
Save yourself last-minute stress by planning ahead—and making ahead. Look for crowd-friendly recipes—like any of these delicious hors d'oeuvres—that can be prepared up to 24 hours in advance.
How much food you need to prepare depends on a variety of factors—how many guests are attending, how long the party will go on—and some basic arithmetic. Here are tips from renowned bartender and drinks master Jim Meehan on exactly how to plan a cocktail party.
Pot lucks are always fun—and remember, they don't have to be large-format. You could even do a pot-luck party with cheese.
Speaking of cheese, it's the quintessential party food—in both solid and liquid form. "Whether it's queso fundido or Cheez Whiz, everybody loves hot, bubbling cheese, so I host a fondue party every year," says Chef Ken Oringer. "I make mine with Comté and Gruyère and serve it with bread and charcuterie. It's basically an inverted grilled cheese: Who doesn't like that?"
Label all of your dishes so that you don’t have to keep explaining what they are. Take into consideration any guests with allergies and label your dishes accordingly.
A word to the wise: Stay away from dips if you’re worried about staining your carpet.
Pace yourself, and your guests. The sequence of events at a dinner party is just as important as what's on the menu.
Just remember that throwing a party doesn't have to destroy your life for a week. "Serve dishes that are delicious whether they’re hot, room temperature or even cold, so people can eat when they get hungry," says Chef Susan Feniger. Here are more expert tips on keeping things under control.
When in doubt, go for foods that can all be served at room temperature. Especially when you're planning on eating outdoors. "Almost the entire menu—including this refreshing salsa—is meant to be served at room temperature, taking pressure off the host and keeping the mood easy and breezy."
Double or nothing: Upgrade your summer cookout and wow your friends and family with this easy burger idea. It's big, it's bold, it's easy—and bonus: it's Instagram-friendly.
For sit-down dinners, getting the menu right can make or break you—but no need to stress about it. Here's how to craft a tried and true run-of-show (you can also check out some of our best, most-successful dinner party recipes and ideas).
A simple, delicious, crowd-pleasing fall-winter dinner party dish? Anything braised. "The ultimate wintertime entertaining dish is a braised dish," says Chef Daniel Boulud. "You can prepare it the day ahead, or during the day before the guests arrive, and you might even have time to go see a movie. The house smells so good, and there are so many braising recipes you can use from all over the world. You can make something simple or more complex, depending on your mood. But above all, braising is all about taking it slow, which is important to do during the holidays."
Just because it's a dinner party doesn't mean you have to be a prisoner to the dinner table format. "I’ve had Thanksgivings where stayed in the kitchen and ate food as it came out," says AndrewWK. "It wasn’t laid out in this formal ‘and now it’s Thanksgiving’ moment. We would make one dish and eat it, then another, and then another with some turkey. We just hung out. And that was one of the best Thanksgivings I’ve ever had."
Strapped for ideas? Take a trip to your local farmer's market to suss out the best produce and seasonal inspiration. Then do what Ina Garten does and use her three-point game plan.
Party Themes, Guest Activities, Decor, and More
On the day of your party, make your home smell amazing—and appetizing—with onions (surprise!). "If you’re not cooking anything that has a strong smell, begin caramelizing an onion in butter about 15 minutes before guests arrive. Your house will smell divine."
For some great conversation starters, don’t write names on your place cards. Rather, write clues for each guest. For example: “Has encyclopedic knowledge of fried chicken" or "Traveled the farthest to get here.”
A handwritten menu lends a personal touch to the meal. "If you’ve taken the time to create a lineup of stellar dishes, why not give yourself some credit? Simple Kraft paper should do the trick—extra points for rose gold lettering!"
And don't worry if all your plates and glasses don't match.
Going out for brunch can be overrated, but inviting friends over to your home for brunch is definitely underrated. Here's a cute idea for name cards-slash-eggs: "For a fun brunch table place setting, write names on soft-boiled eggs and place them in pretty eggcups."
Pro tip: If you're hosting a big party, it could be nice to have some help. "Discreetly ask your favorite local waiter or bartender if they do freelance work on the side," suggests Clinton Kelly.
Consider innovative plating inspired by your favorite restaurants or travel experiences. Instead of dinner plates, serve your first course on butcher blocks. A charcuterie or cheese starter works brilliantly.
Just for fun (and because it's so trendy), maybe do some of your prep and service tableside—a bar cart can be repurposed into a carving station or sauce stand.
Cheese-tasting is a great way to get a group of strangers interacting with each other (nothing better to break the ice than talking about food, at least IMHO). Here's how to organize a proper cheese tasting board; everyone will be impressed.
Make dessert even more fun but creating a customized experience for your guests—an ice cream sundae bar, perhaps.
Make your home smell like a celebration with carefully selected spices and hot water—it's easy. "I like to play with aromas in my cooking, and the holidays are associated with so many nostalgic smells: pumpkin pies out of the oven, a turkey roasting, a pine tree if you do a tree. Giving a nod to all that, you could set a beautiful glass bowl or vase in the middle of the table, and fill it with cut oranges, vanilla beans, foot-long cinnamon sticks, whole chestnuts or walnuts (it’s best if you can toast them in their shells and crack them with the back of a knife) pine branches (if you can’t pick them outside, you can always find them at a florist, or disassemble a grocery store wreath)," says Chef Grant Achatz. "I prefer a vase because I like height, plus it takes up a smaller footprint to leave room for the food. At first it’s bordering on Martha Stewart; it just looks like a nice arrangement. But when you bring out your beautiful roasted main course, whether it’s goose or beef or turkey, bring out a teapot of hot water. As the plates go down, pour the hot water into the vase to release the aromas. The room will be perfumed with cinnamon, orange, roasted nuts and pine, and all those smells will spark memories and get people talking. What seemed like a pretty centerpiece becomes a real conversation starter. The only tip I have is to make sure the bowl or vase is made of tempered glass so it doesn’t crack when you pour the hot water—that would be a disaster."
Looking for an innovative way to dress up your table? "The best centerpieces are edible centerpieces! Bring color to the table with fresh fruits and vegetables, charcuterie boards, loaves of rustic bread and hearty blocks of cheese."
The right music can set the mood—just make sure things don't get too mood-y. "My husband and I typically stay away from holiday music, though we have this annual argument about Mariah Carey’s song All I Want for Christmas Is You: I love it and want to play it every other song. But my husband hates it, so I try to slip it in and my husband gets really upset," says Chef Joanna Chang. "But generally speaking, we stick to nonseasonal stuff. We know from running our restaurant that you want something that will add to the party and not detract. We tend to pick songs that are fun, poppy and bright."
No matter what, remember that you should be prepared for anything—even some, awkward guest behavior. "On two separate occasions, years apart, a guest started making out with my bartender," says Clinton Kelly. "It always happens at the end of the night, and at that point, if the other guests are gone, who cares?"
After the party is the after party
Put that leftover wine to use. "Since there always seems to be some leftover wine—not in people’s glasses, but in the decanter or the bottle—I’ll take that wine, add some vinegar to it, and then use that for salads and other vinaigrettes after a couple of weeks’ time," says Chef Scott Conant. "Let’s say you have two cups of wine leftover: I’d add about a quarter cup of vinegar to that at most. That’s your starter—or what they call the mother. Put a cork in it and let it sit on your counter for a few weeks, the mother will turn the rest of the wine to vinegar. Sometimes when I tell some people that tip, they like to tell me there’s never any leftover wine in their house. So here’s another tip: Don’t drink so much. Leave some left over for your vinegar."