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I'm having a cocktail party - need advice

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I've been reading many posts on chowhound about food and party etiquette (both hosts and guests) and wanted some advice/opinions about a cocktail party my new husband and I are hosting.
We secretly eloped in May and are celebrating our marriage in July with a cocktail celebration, starting at 7:30 pm, at our new house. We sent out announcements within a week of returning from our honeymoon, then about 2 weeks later sent out invitations to the party. We are expecting about 80 people. We'd like it to be more of a cocktail party than a wedding reception, despite the fact that's what we're celebrating. E.g I won't be wearing anything like a wedding dress.

Some questions and issues:
How much food to serve? (it will be staffed)
We are serving wine, beer and sparkling wine (just enough for a toast) - how much should we have?
If it tacky not to have liquor for mixed drinks? (We don't drink hard liquor and don't want the extra expense) We'd like to keep it simple.
What to have for those who don't drink? (ie. pregnant or designated drivers)
Decorations? We're renting tables, linens and plates - no cutlery since it's all finger food.
Any suggestions for interesting, non-wedding-y desserts? (simple, please - no chocolate fountains).
Any interesting decoration ideas? It will be mostly outside on our 3rd floor deck and in our backyard.
Any advice is welcome.

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  1. First off - congrats on your marriage!

    Re: food - are you having it catered? If so - let the caterer decide on quantities. If not - I think I'll let those who've done catering help you out there. My first inclination would be to say 6-10 passed hors' do'eurves per person, but that might be high (or low - I just don't know!)

    It is not tacky NOT to have mixed drinks, IMO - you're paying for it. And for those that don't drink - orange juice, cranberry juice, water, and/or a non-alcoholic punch would work.

    Perhaps some small fruit tartlets might be nice for a dessert or bite-sized assorted cheesecakes. Or maybe let people make s'mores? LOL Totally "non-wedding-y" there!

    I'm not big on decorations, so I can't help you there. But I'm sure you'll get lots of great advice here - and again, congratulations!

    1. Check some recipe books out of the library. There are ones just for entertaining, such as Martha Stewart's HorsD'oeuvres handbook. It gives ideas of amounts, depending on the type party. Only appetizers, fix 8 to 10 and make enough for 3 per guests. Other books will give you drink amounts.

      I have an 1969 Better homes and Garden Guide to Entertaining. It lists amounts of beverages you need for guests such as one bottle of wine 4 to 8 servings.

      It is your home and you serve what you want. Lots of people serve bottled waters, soft drinks, fruit punches, sparkling grape juice. Mixed drinks are a huge pain for groups over 6 or 8. Don't worry about that one.

      Desserts: cookies, brownies, cupcakes, ice cream bars or the little cups that come with a wooden spoon, mixed minature candy bars, rent a cotton candy machine.

      I love bubbles. How about little battery run bubble machines as center pieces. Place bottles of bubbles on the tables also. They come in all types of bottles, including champagne shapes, cell phones. Pinwheels stuck in small flower arrangements. You are outside, use the wind.

      Remember the two of you are to have fun at this party.

      Congratulations on your marriage.

      1. Not sure if you are having it catered, but if not, you should consider it. 80 people is a lot of people and I would think that you would want to spend time with your guests.

        Not tacky to just have wine, beer and no hard liquor. People won't miss it. They will just drink what you have.

        1 Reply
        1. re: valerie

          I agree about the catering if you can afford it. I did a 50 person wedding tea for my sister, and just came back from her birthday party for about 170 people. Even though the latter was grilled burgers and hot dogs, and she pretty much bought everything else, it was an awful lot of work and it's hard to enjoy yourself when you are making sure that the guests' needs are met.

          I agree with the other posters about not worrying about serving mixed drinks.

        2. Because your party is at 7:30PM, you need to go heavy on the food or, as tacky as it sounds, people will leave to go out to dinner. I was in catering for years, and whenever someone wanted to do a cocktail reception during what is traditonally a "mealtime" I would suggest they at least include a Pasta option to fill people up, especially when drinking is involved. Not serving hard liquor is fine, and probably a wise decision if you are not serving dinner.

          1. Congratulations! What a wonderful way to celebrate.

            As for soft drinks, I find lemonade and iced tea a nice offering. You can buy cartons of lemonade, pour it into nice glass pitchers, and slice a few lemons into it to make it look special. Juices are nice but not my preference for an evening cocktail party.

            You indicate "no cutlery since it's all finger food" but I would suggest that you offer cutlery. Not everyone likes to eat finger foods with their fingers, especially if it's a little greasy (mini-egg rolls, for instance) or potentially messy or may take more than one bite. Especially if folks are going to be a little dressed up.

            Desserts - chocolate-dipped strawberries, cutout cookies in fun shapes, decadent brownies. For bite-size, I love mini black-bottom cupcakes; there are lots of recipes online. Fresh fruit skewers are refreshing. Or why not ask your guests to bring some desserts?

            As for decorations, simple bunches of fresh flowers are always enchanting. You may be able to raid someone's garden at this time of year (with their permission, of course!). I'd use flowers and nothing else.

            Good luck, and most of all, have fun!

            1. First Rule of all Rules: don't obsess. it doesn't have to be perfect and if you try too hard it will show - it needs to look effortless or everyone is uncomfortable. the guests are there to celebrate, not fuss over what is or is not offered. as the Japanese Tea Master (Sen no Rikyu?) said "one sweeps the garden path, but not too carefully"

              when I was doing corporate events, I'd usu. plan on at least a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer for every 2 people (assuming there would be non-drinkers and prob. leftovers)

              listen to NJcook.

              I much prefer cocktails, but if none available - I'm fine (we're not children after all - or are we?). as for non-alcoholic drinks, a little juice goes a long way (can you drink something that sweet all night?) go with the tea and lemonade suggestion with club soda and a few other options (a pot of coffee just in case), if kids are present though that's a whole different kettle of fish.

              1. You state that you have already sent out invitations -- How did you describe the event? Did you specify "cocktails and light appetizers" or something of the sort? Unless you spelled out hors d'oeurves only, explicitly and specifically, then I think a reasonable guest is going to come without having eaten dinner and is going to be hungry. I'm not saying you have to serve big main dishes, but I think you are going to have to plan on a dinner equivalent of food. And you may want to put them out buffet style, in waves, rather than having servers pass them.

                I also am in the minority so far, but if you labeled the event a "cocktail" party I think many guests will expect cocktails -- meaning hard liquor in addition to beer and wine. I know when I envision a cocktail I think of a mixed drink. Now you know your guests better than I do -- age, drinking and social habits -- and you also know whether you specified any particular level of dress or informality for the party. If almost all of your guests are early twenties and dressing outdoor casual that is one thing. But if your parents and a lot of their age relatives and friends are coming and dressing up for a party in lieu of a wedding reception (and maybe even bringing gifts) then that sets up a whole different level of expectations.

                1 Reply
                1. re: nosh

                  I also think there would be cocktails if you labeled it as a "cocktail" party but wouldn't be disappointed if you just had wine and beer. If you want to get hard liquor, no need to get the top shelf stuff if it's going to be mixed with other stuff -- eg. cosmopolitan, rum and coke, etc.

                2. I really agree with some of the posters who said you should serve cocktails since you called it a "cocktail party". Maybe you could get a member of your family to do the bar tending. As far as food is concerned, the time, 7:30PM, means more than finger food goodies. I would start with that and later have the caterer set how platters of turkey, roast beef, ham along with cheeses and interesting mayo, mustard spreads and a couple of salads. Outdoor candles on the tables, colorful linens. Tree lighting with those tiny lights is attractive. Also, the caterer may know where to rent large palm type plants. The heavier food would only require forks for the salads.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Gail

                    Maybe one way to deal with the "cocktail" issue is to have one "specialty" cocktail, and then beer, wine, soft drinks. That said, I've had some what large gatherings for "drinks" at Christmas before the annual Park Avenue Christmas tree lighting, and just served Champagne and soft drinks. I don't think, particularly in this case, that people would RSVP yes or no based on whether they thought hard liquor drinks would be served.

                    1. re: MMRuth

                      this is what I would do one or two specialty cocktails and you have to have coffee esp if older people are going to be there..it is always what the ask for.

                  2. You have already gotten a lot of good suggestions from a lot of people, but here is my two cents anyway:

                    I agree that the time of the event says more meal than cocktails, so I would go heavy on the food, if possible. But if you are not going heavy on the food have it passed so people don't feel like they can stand by the food and just chow down. Maybe just heavier food items like an interesting take on a meatball or etc. Something that you can have less of but will fill people up if you can't go heavier on the food.

                    I think the idea for lemonade, iced tea, club soda or sparkling water (a favorite for people who have chosen not to drink anymore) for the non-drinkers with coffee is a great idea, that should cover most tastes and be fun and summery. And could be good for kids too.

                    We had a cocktail party with mainly wine and beer, but you could get a cocktail if you asked because it was in a restaurant and they would do it. If you didn't want to have a full bar, you could have certain specialty mixed cocktails (you could do a champagne cocktail and have the mix and just pour in champagne, or something fun like a mojito or margarita or etc). I know Martha Stewart has great cocktail recipes you can do beforehand. I have a few friends who only drink liquor, but perhaps you don't?

                    If you have kids juice boxs and capri suns seem to be a big hit at big parties my family has, and the parents aren't mad that it is unhealthy like soda or some juices that are so sugary.

                    I always like pie as dessert, it isn't really weddingy (although cupcakes could be fun and just a little weddingish). And summer has such great fresh fruit pie. I always think it is super cool when people pick desserts that have special meaning to them or are favorites. And italian friend had wedding canolis, another friend had a cake similar to what his Mom would make him for his bday every year, another german chocolate because that was her favorite. It is always neat when it means something.

                    I also agree to get utensils, even plastic ones, when people get all gussied up sometimes they don't like to eat with the fingers.

                    I think lighting is a big thing to make a good looking party, especially if it will go past dusk... maybe some of those lantern lights put in neat places, table top candles of some kind. You could also do some fresh flowers, just something simple and clean so you don't need too many.

                    Good luck and congrats.

                    Oh and music! Put some speakers out on the deck and put on your favorite playlist or CD.

                    1. Agree with other posters on the "cocktail" issue. I'd have a signature cocktail for the bride and one for the groom & call it a day! Personalize them, if he's from KY - bourbon based, if your fav color is pink - Cosmo! Pick something that can be made ahead in bulk and can be easily served & passed or put in pretty pitchers on the bar table.

                      Dessert wise, how about something like an ice cream station. Serve pre-scooped ice cream and let them top with their choice of fresh seasonal fruit and a shortbread cookie. See if a local bakery could personalize the cookies for you with a monogram or image that represents you as a couple. Use the cookies for favors, too!

                      Assuming you don't have a theme, so decorations probably should be pretty simple. I love the strings of lights in the trees & bushes a la Tavern on the Green. The dollar store is a great place to pick up votive candles in bulk. Put them on all tables and hardscapes (edge of steps, along top of retaining walls). Flower wise, use blooming plants, like Gerber Daisies, Hydrenga or African Violets. Put them in terra cotta or glazed pots around the perimeter & smaller pots on tables and buffetts. On dining tables tie tulle or ribbon around the potted plant and surround with votive candles. They'll also make a great favor for your guests or a great addition to your landscaping!

                      1. oops- yes, catered. Meeting tonight with the caterer, and the food will be mostly passed, including mini burgers, lamb popsicles, salmon tartare and dumplings. Plus a few platters on tables with dips, veggies, cheese, etc.

                        The invitation reads 'To toast the marriage of XX and XY, please join us for a cocktail celebration at our new house' Nothing mentioned about food.

                        Oh ya, there will be NO KIDS!!!

                        I still disagree about the cutlery, esp, since most of the food will be passed. And, I can't think of too many of our friends who exclusively drink liqour. Most of our friends are big into wine and esp. beer in the summer on the patio. We live in Toronto, so we don't have any regional drinking quirks, other than drinking a lot in general.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: thenurse

                          If your caterer is competent, and I'm sure that they are, they should be able to figure out how much food you need. It sounds like it will be nice.

                          As oldbaycupcake mentioned above, I like the idea of the strings of lights on trees and lots of candles. Looks really pretty as it gets dark. Flowers are nice, but add to the cost.

                          1. re: valerie

                            Exactly - your caterer will be able to tell you the quantities of food for the # of people attending.

                        2. I've hosted many "cocktail" parties in my life where we've only served beer, wine and soft drinks and no one complained that they didn't get a mixed drink. I do like the idea of a signature drink (margaritas, Cosmos, mojitos) and would suggest asking sparkling cider to your non-alcoholic options.

                          1. I think you already have lots of good advice about the foods and drinks. In short I concur, if you did invite folks for cocktail | don"t think that means you need to have a full bar. Perhaps the caterer could suggest a signature cocktail or punch - maybe something reminiscent of your honeymoon. Also I think you may want to have something like a simple wedding cake, but not too elaborate. Just a nice cake that the caterer can then cut into slices. It makes for a really nice photo and it will re-enforce the reason for the gathering.

                            As a former event planner, I tend to obsess about the logistics. Here are some things to think about in advance. You may want to have someone greeting guests at the door and answering questions -- where is the washroom, where to put the gifts (because you will get gifts even if you said not gifts), address any parking issues. 80 people will mean alot of parking issues, where to put coats, etc.

                            You will need some place to put the gifts. If you wish a nice table in hallway may suffice. Or may want someone putting them away from the guests - to keep those who didn't bring a gift from feeling guilty.

                            I wouldn't spend too much on decorations, assuming that your house is nice. Just get some flowers.

                            You may want to include some kind of marquee (tent without sides) for the backyard as a guarantee against bad weather.

                            All in all, the simpler is it, the less there is to worry about. Just enjoy it and have a good time.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: pengcast

                              I'm lucky because my SO is a pretty competent amateur mixologist and really enjoys bartending at our parties -- if any of your friends are like that you could ask one of them to help out as I think was suggested above. At any rate, having a tended bar really adds to the festiveness, we've found, as does having a signature drink (and it need only be one) for the evening. I once made up a drink for a girlfriend's wedding shower and she was quite tickled :-). We also had an all lemon-drop party that went over well (SO quiety poured the odd straight martini for some of the more hard core types). But it occurs to me that you could choose a signature drink that (again as mentioned above) could be pre-mixed and might represent you as a couple better. If you're big wine drinkers, maybe a really excellent traditional sangria or a lighter white-wine based one? Both rather nice for an outdoor affair in TO at this time of year...

                              Hope it all goes beautifully, as I'm sure it will because you are going to be surrounded by people who wish you well.

                              Ask your caterer about amounts for the wine, beer etc even if s/he is not providing it. And buy more than you need and return any unopened stuff later (I think LCBO allows that IIRC).

                            2. I worked as a caterer for years and can say that serving beer and wine is just fine. There are very few people who won't drink one or the other. Italian sodas and lemonade are good for non-alcoholic. Avoid juices and colas as they are heavy and will be too sweet after one or two. Lights and candles will be plenty for decor. The party is starting late evening, so flowers will be invisible after a little while and will add to the expense.

                              Definitely go a little heavy on the hors deouvres. The time of your event means some people will show up hungry. Ask the caterer to use smaller trays when passing. People will only take one or two apps at a time instead of stocking up from a large tray. Strange but true that folks will eat more if they see more all at once.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: mojoeater

                                As a non-drinker, I have to disagree with avoiding juice. I think lemonade has a very strong flavor and not everyone is really into fizzy beverages. There are plenty of mild juices out there that can be quite refreshing and delicious, along with unsweetened tea of some sort.