Deirdre Kelly



 The most successful party thrower always has a secret formula. The aim, says veteran hostess and writer Sondra Gotlieb, is to keep ’em laughing until the wee hours: “When they stay late and don’t get up from the table and everyone’s animated and nobody’s staring ahead, when you’re dead and they won’t leave — that’s the sign of a good party.”

Here’s how to get there from here — a compilation of tips from some of Canada’s party experts.




When it comes to the guest list, the experts agree: Mixing is key.

“We always have a bit of a different group, but there are always lots of creative people — designers, stylists, photographers,” says West Coast writer Sarah Reeder, co-author of Vancouver, The Unknown City, who loves to entertain. “We also always mix up the ages — we are in our early 30s, but have guests ranging from their 20s to 50s.

Mixing the ages makes it more fun for everyone, as long as everyone’s on the same wavelength.”But a house full of interesting people becomes a scintillating party only if the host/hostess knows how to stir it up. Be especially attentive to introductions, especially if people don’t know each other.  Sam Hiyate, president of The Rights Factory in Toronto, calls it the killer pitch.

“For everyone on your guest list, you should have a one-line killer pitch, like ‘X was a stripper in Tokyo,’ and you should have their whole resume down pat,” Hiyate says. “Because, as you introduce someone with the killer pitch, i.e., the most interesting thing about them within the context of the guests at that particular party, then you can also say, ‘Y once changed Canadian law’ and then add, and ‘Y also taught English in Hong Kong.’ Ideally, you should go beyond the introductions, and actually stay for a few moments to speak with X and Y before leving them to their own devices.”




Most people don’t go to parties to look at furniture, but you naturally want your digs to look their best. So use the tricks of the stylist’s trade: lighting and colour. Reeder swears by her soft romantic lighting for making every party magical. “I put tealight candles in clear glasses wrapped with white rice paper, which has the effect of little Japanese lanterns everywhere. Lights are on dim. You want everyone to feel like a movie star.”

Calgarian Mark Musters, a New York-based party planner to the stars, prefers votives and pillar candles in the same colour family to create an intimate atmosphere with little cost. “Or float a gardenia in a martini glass or in fish bowls with floating candles,” Musters adds. “Each container can contain a different cluster of flowers. I like a mix of three together. Think texture. Depending on the time of year, use local florals to draw in the season.”



Think of it as your party’s soundtrack.

Jamie Maw, former food editor of Vancouver Magazine, says music is the focal point of his monthly Sunday gatherings. “Music is always Ella Fitzgerald, Chopin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Mozart and also us, sitting around the piano.”

If it’s a dancing party, Hiyate hires a DJ and decides in advance when the tunes should be cranked up maximally. A little furniture arranging is always in order.

“Set everything up so that if the floor starts shaking, nothing will break. And, of course, your insurance should cover you if serious damage starts to happen. If you don’t have serious insurance and you want to throw a big party, get the insurance immediately. Some floors have been known to collapse from large groups dancing thunderously.”


Never go with a theme.


“It’s the equivalent of opening a concept restaurant in your home,” Maw says.

Gotlieb agrees: “Black tie is theme enough. The only theme at work on your dinner table should be good food. I think it can be anything as long as it’s nicely cooked.”

And keep it casual, Musters says.

“You are the host/hostess: You want to enjoy the party too. Get out of the kitchen, Blanche, and hire a couple of waiters to clean and bartend.”

Hiyate prepares as much as possible beforehand, a trick learned at cooking school. “If you cook everything to 80 or 90 per cent beforehand, then when the guests start arriving, you can pop things back in the oven and complete the cooking — so everything’s hot and fresh.”



Drinks are the fuel of the party, encouraging laughter and loosening lips.

Reeder always serves Segura Vuidas sparkling wine with cassis or fresh raspberry juice and frozen raspberries, ice cold Heineken, red and white wine (usually organic white and red from the French label La Ciboise) and San Pellegrino sparkling water. “We always rent twice as many glasses as we need,” she says. “The best party tip I know is to hire an attractive and friendly young person with serving experience to answer the door, take coats, top up glasses, empty ashtrays and pick up discarded plates and napkins so you can enjoy the party fully. It’ll be the best $50 you spend on your party.”

One of the benefits of good booze at the ready is that it can save a burnt dinner or any other culinary disaster. “If you do that right, you can serve Popsicles and people will still love you,” Hiyate says.

Musters also suggests a selection of seasonal juices — which are colourful, nutritious and great for non-tipplers. Gotlieb recommends having plenty of water — bubbly or otherwise — on hand to dilute alcohol levels between drinks.

While serving only wine at a party is a trend, Gotlieb is of the school of hard liquor. Vino is fine, as long as it’s vintage — but when serving at high volume, who can afford the good stuff? So instead of plonk, offer a mixed bar — for those partial to a scotch and soda, it’s the key to a great party. But be wary of excess.

“Nobody likes a drunk at a party,” Gotlieb says. “But people have to be tolerant. There have been famous drunks in my life and they have been forgiven. But lager louts? Uh-uh.”



Gunst advocates the “diverting cleanup” for those too busy to scour the house. Pile junk into closets or boxes in the furnace room and dress up the party space with seasonal flowers or greenery. Tealights spread about the room disguise a multitude of sins. Sequined napkins and tablecloths in diaphanous fabrics like organza create a fabulous shimmer and draw the eye.


“Entertaining is about giving,” U.S. author Kathy Gunst says in Relax, Company’s Coming! (Simon & Schuster, $38). In her book, subtitled 150 Recipes for Stress-Free Entertaining, Gunst points out that what makes a party memorable is not the matched napkins but the fun people had. The point being that if you don’t have time, don’t waste it obsessing over your house and menu — save it for your guests.

Comments are closed.