I recently went to an extravagant party in honor of the Super Bowl. Retired football player Joe Montana was there, as was former Tonight Show host Jay Leno. Many of San Francisco’s top chefs and bartenders served up scrumptious bites and cool cocktails. A replica of the Golden Gate Bridge stood tall in the main hall, and live seals swam in a tank, greeting partygoers with wet kisses as they walked into the grand event. There was so much hype around this party that I assumed it would be the best one of my life—yet it wasn’t.
Since then, I haven’t been able to stop wondering: What makes a party great? I’ve narrowed it down to nine essential elements. Without these things, a party can be good, but it won’t have your guests waking up the next day thinking, That party was unbelievable! To ensure your guests can’t stop talking about your sensational event even weeks after the last bottle of bubbly was popped, these are the nine crucial components of how to throw a party.
An Enticing Invitation
One party planning ingredient that is often overlooked but shouldn’t be is the invitation. Why? Because it sets the tone for the event. Upon opening a thoughtful and enticing invitation, your guests will immediately feel excited for the party to come. An alluring invite comes in all shapes and sizes. Beautiful, thick calligraphy is lovely, but so is a heartfelt and hysterical email. Include all the pertinent information (time, location, occasion, dress code, etc.) and any other fun tidbits—the more personal the better.
An Interesting Group of Guests
There should be a bit of exclusivity to your event. You don’t want to invite everyone you know. Instead, come up with a number of guests, say 10 for a dinner party in honor of your half-birthday or 50 for your parents’ 40th-anniversary celebration, and curate an interesting group of people. Pull people from all aspects of your life. Think your new office mate would hit it off with your high school buddy? Invite them both to the dinner and make sure to seat them next to each other. Consider your guests’ individual personalities. The best crowd will include introverts and extroverts, great conversationalists and excellent listeners, and people of all ages.
At the Super Bowl party, the entire floor of an Atherton mansion had been cleared of its furniture to make room for an elaborate décor scheme. The kitchen was transformed into a beach boardwalk, the living room a game cave complete with beer pong tables, and everywhere you looked there was something that caught your eye. Your event doesn’t have to be this over-the-top, but you should transform your space—even if it’s a studio apartment!—with fresh flowers, twinkling candles, and a pretty tablecloth. Streamers and balloons are also welcome. Colorful throw pillows and blankets and a hanging sign that says “Happy Birthday, [Name]” in glittery letters are other awesome ideas.
A Lively Playlist
Without music, a party can feel like a meeting, so turn up the tunes and set the mood with a lively playlist. If you make a playlist, be sure to have several hours of music and choose songs that will move along the event. The music that plays during dinner should be different from the songs that play afterward. Keep things chill and mellow during the meal, and then bring out the dance tunes to get the crowd moving. Another idea? Set Spotify to a favorite channel. If it’s a bigger party, like a wedding or anniversary, consider live musical talent. A band or DJ will take the pressure off the hostess. If for some reason the music stops midway through the party, be sure to reset it immediately!
The best hostesses are thoughtful and will cater the little details of her event to delight her guests. She’ll serve a menu of the guest of honor’s favorite foods and decorate with their favorite color. A seating chart with place cards, a chalkboard with the evening’s menu, a favor that guests will actually enjoy later—all of these little things, when added up, make for a memorable event. Don’t overlook the details!
It’s not a party without a delicious spread of food, so don’t overlook the menu. It doesn’t matter if the party takes place during odd hours, such as a bridal shower that begins after lunch at 1:30 p.m.; you still have to have some sort of snacks for your guests to nibble on. You don’t have to be a crazy cook to set up a gorgeous cheese platter; you simply have to befriend the cheesemonger at your local market and arrange everything on a platter.
It’s also perfectly acceptable to serve platters of crudité from Costco or fried chicken wings from your favorite Korean joint, as long as you take everything out of the package. Plate on elegant serving platters or chafing dishes to keep the food warm. If you want to make a menu of homemade dips and dainty finger foods, do as much as you can in advance. You don’t want to be slaving away in the kitchen while your guests are enjoying themselves in the living room!
For some people, alcohol is not a necessary element of a fun party—I am not one of those people. Of course, you don’t want to play bartender all night, so if you can make a cocktail in a big batch before the party, do so. Make a big pitcher of margaritas or a punch bowl of sangria, and then as your guests arrive, offer them a beverage. Other options are to set up a bar and let guests make their own drinks, or simply offer beer and wine. Proper glassware is preferred, but not obligatory—Solo cups are fine in a pinch.
An Element of Surprise
Whether it’s a photo booth where guests can snap funny pictures, a performance by a jazz artist, or an entire table covered in delectable desserts, there should be an element of surprise to your event. It doesn’t have to be crazy, just something nobody was expecting. Serve bread from the hot new bakery in town that has a huge waiting list, have an after-dinner port tasting, or open an expensive magnum of red wine—it is a party, after all!
My cookbook collection is getting out of control, so at a recent dinner, I asked each of my guests to select a book from the shelf and take it home with them. It was an unanticipated gift and also a way for me to edit my collection. The surprise element is one of the things your guests will be talking and texting about tomorrow, so get creative!
Group Bonding Activities
Games are good; basically, you want to get everyone to do something together that will make them more relaxed and friendly. They don’t have to be cheesy, but adding an element of competition to your soirée will liven things up. Trivia and charades are classic, timeless party games—they never get old, because they are fun! Want something more modern? Cards Against Humanity is an awesome way to get people chatting, and Table Topics are good for a more subdued dinner party. Other ideas: croquet, Mexican Train, and karaoke.
Follow these tips on how to throw a party and you’ll be well on your way to earning the title of host of year.
This post was originally published on February 17, 2016, and has since been updated.