Scale the guest list to your space.
Too many people make for a noisy, uncomfortable party where guests can’t get food or drink and have to claw their way to the bathroom. Better to invite fewer people; use seating and lighting to create the illusion of a more intimate space, so guests don’t feel they’re rattling around in a big empty room. A hidden plus — you’ll have space in case some of the guests bring friends along. And, apparently they will. A younger colleague suggests factoring three add-ons for each guest you invite. So 10 guests would generate a total of 40 attendees — can your space (and your budget) handle that? Adjust the official list accordingly.
Send a real invitation.
Emails are fine for very casual get-togethers. For more important or formal entertaining, consider writing out and mailing an invitation. Yes, you’ll have to buy stamps, but you can do that online. Imagine the impact when your invite arrives in the mail amid all the circulars and bills. It will immediately stand out. However you decide to extend the invitation, make sure all particulars are listed: where, when, why and whether you expect your guests to bring anything. (I don’t, but that’s the control freak in me — I want to plan the experience.) Be very, very clear about what they can or can’t wear. No jeans at your sit-down dinner for 12? Tell ’em upfront — but be realistic; know your friends. You also might want to give prospective guests a sneak peek at the menu, so those with dietary restrictions can alert you if there’s an issue. (Even so, make sure there are some vegan and/or vegetarian dishes on the menu.) Ask guests to RSVP, and set a date by which to respond — an email will work fine for that.
Shop in advance.
Buy the liquor, beer, wine and soda ahead of time, and store in a cool, dark place, preferably a location you can lock up, so roommates can’t get at your stash. If it’s cold out and you have a secure outdoor area, stow the beverages there a few hours before the party begins, instead of clogging the refrigerator. Just remember to keep an eye on it, so nothing freezes or wanders off. How much to buy? Depends on how much you and your friends drink — be honest in estimating. (At a multicourse dinner party, I generally count on the equivalent of one bottle of wine per person if all that’s being drunk is wine.) Decide on your menu ahead of time too. Look to offer a combination of dishes you can easily and cheaply make in advance with ready-to-eat items picked up at the supermarket or ordered in from a restaurant. Absolutely avoid anything that requires last-minute cooking or preparation — and that includes outdoor grilling, because no one wants to wait around for half-cooked burgers rushed to the table reeking of charcoal starter.
Rearrange your space, if necessary, for the party.
I adhere to the Sit Your Butt Down school of interior decorating, meaning that when I feel the urge to sit down, I sit down. There better be a chair or sofa there. Ditto for tables. I want to be able to put down a drink or a dish, safely, on a table without having to go in search of one. So, walk around your space, drink in hand. Think about where people are going to want to gather, and think about where you’d want to sit if you were a guest at your own party. Is there a seat there? Make it so — even a folding chair will do. At the same time, make sure you don’t clog entries or pass-throughs with too much seating.
Ensure your place is party-ready.
Anything you really care about that can be broken or damaged should be placed out of harm’s way. (Please don’t whine in front of your guests if something does break — that’s life.) Stock extra rolls of toilet paper in the bathrooms. Put out hand towels; paper ones will do. Securely stow any items of a personal nature — really open your eyes to what might be hiding in plain sight in bedrooms and bathrooms.
Make eating easy.
Write up identification tags for the food, so guests know what they’re eating. If you are feeling especially conscientious, you might want to note which dishes are gluten-free or vegetarian or contain nuts or meat. Assemble the platters and bowls and serving utensils you’ll need to properly present your menu. Make sure you have enough plates, cups and cutlery for your guests. I have always loved real plates and metal cutlery, but paper and plastic work too. Have lots and lots of napkins.
Be prepared for smokers (and vapers).
Today, people are less tolerant of smoking. It’s understandable, but the thoughtful host still tries to accommodate guests. Don’t just hand them an ashtray and point to the street, unless your building has a no-smoking policy. The perfect guest will likely insist on going outside anyway, but you should be ready for the less-than-perfect partyer. Can you gussy up a back porch or set aside a little-used guest room for smokers? Do make sure any butts are fully extinguished before throwing them in the trash.
Speaking of smoke — snuff the candles.
I love them for the intimate, magical feel they can give a party, particularly if it’s a dinner (count on one lit taper on the dining table for each guest if the room is to be lit totally by candles). Yet I’m very wary of combining open flame with a crowd, especially if there’s lots of drinking going on. Stick with your basic lamps and lighting fixtures and, perhaps, use lower-wattage bulbs to create a more intimate feel. A string or two of white holiday lights, artfully arranged, can be charming and create a candlelike effect.
Put away the phones.
This sounds great in theory, but good luck getting people to actually do it. Perhaps the best strategy is an age-old one: Distraction. Get any guests glued to the phone to start talking with you and with other guests. You might even want to take them gently by the arm and walk them over to the snack table or the bar — anything that will focus their attention back on the party.
There will always be the rare guest who arrives early or right on the dot. Expect the majority of guests to arrive 20 to 45 minutes after the posted start time for a party. Have a few nibbles out at the ready, but plan to bring out the bulk of your party food about an hour into the party.
Offer a lot of nonalcoholic beverages. Gently redirect those who are overindulging to other pursuits — like eating or sleeping. Keep the telephone number for a cab company handy. Or, you might want to sign up for the various app-based ride services, so that you can smoothly cover the cost for a woozy guest (just remember to politely ask for reimbursement later). Take it easy on the drinks yourself — you want to stay fairly alert and sober to tend to your guests.
Watch the noise.
Voices convivially raised in conversation and even song are hallmarks of a successful party. Do, however, be mindful of your neighbors, particularly if you live in an urban neighborhood. Start turning down the volume by 10 p.m. Just Kidding, don’t turn the volume down, turn up.