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In the spirit of WWD’s Cheap Week, we asked event experts for tips on reining in spending, from a casual dinner to a fancy gala, without sacrificing elegance.


This story first appeared in the August 19, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

See more coverage of WWD’s Cheap Week here >>


Summer Alfresco Entertaining

• No need to pass hors d’oeuvres. Put bowls of farm-stand sugar snap peas and heirloom cherry tomatoes with a small bowl of salt on a picnic table.

• Skip a full bar or a bartender. Instead, in a galvanized tub with ice, put bottled beer, waters, fruit sodas and pitchers of Cocktail Mystère, like my cranberry-ginger one.

Cocktail Mystère
4 cups vodka
2 cups ginger beer
1 1/2 cups cranberry juice from concentrate
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon ground ginger
Mix all ingredients and pour over ice into pitcher.

• Decorate the table with small pots of a variety of herbs from your local garden store. Mismatched china, linens, glassware, flatware and chairs are fun and save you from having to rent anything.

• Create a menu that can be placed on family-style platters on the table. Hire only one person to replenish food and bus dishes. Suggested menu: sliced peaches and figs with prosciutto and shaved Parmesan-Reggiano; paella of lobster, chicken and chorizo (the market price of lobster is low this season, so why not serve it to get more bang for your buck?), and baby arugula with aged balsamic vinaigrette.

• Finish with finger-food desserts such as brownies and homemade cookies. It gets people up from the table earlier to mingle.

An Impromptu Garden Party

I just threw a last-minute dinner in Istanbul in the garden of a friend’s home.

• Over her large wooden table I ran a piece of “ready-to-go” painter’s canvas or cotton duck, and the salvage on both sides has a cool undone, natural look to it.

• There were a bunch of cool, tall bud vases in the house, and I placed seven of those along the table and cut light branches and placed them in, creating a light green canopy above the eye line. Twenty small votives at the base lit the water.

• I made pitchers of sangria (à la Capri) with inexpensive local dry white table wine. In the morning, I put cherries in the wine and cooled it in the fridge, and before guests arrived, cut white peaches and sprigs of mint.

• I bought some roasted chickens and placed them in a large tureen with pieces of pineapple, tangerine, shallots and celery, then made a sauce of sour cream, honey, garlic and lemon, with toasted almonds thrown on top.

• I served a salad alongside local cheeses and pots of spicy jam, and for dessert, vanilla ice cream and local wild berries.

Budget Black Tie

From my perspective, the elements of a good black tie are food, service and decor.

• Food: Good food costs money regardless of the cuisine — since labor can be as costly as the food product itself — so do just a little less and do not cut back on quality. For example, do three hors d’oeuvres rather than five for cocktails and add some little bar snacks around — great nuts, homemade potato chips, cheese straws. For dinner, have some fun with the main course. Serve it family style on lazy Susans (Party Rental Ltd. rents great ones). The guests become part of the food experience — and you save a little money. Rather than a full, blown-out dessert, just do assorted treats on the table. You can do an interactive ice-cream sundae bar or just a variety of cookies or marshmallows.

• Service: Making the table more communal — even placing the bottles of wine on there so they become part of the theme — can help cut back slightly on the staffing. But that is one area where I would tread gingerly. Service, to me, is key to a successful event.

• Decor: My trick is to get a vase that you can see through — white, black, frosted — and then go to the flower market on 28th Street for stems that look great just in a bunch. For example, hydrangeas in the summer. Put four heads in a vase, and wow, perfect. Another trick I like is to get Japanese bento boxes or a series of glass vases of different shapes and heights (but small) and fill them with sauces and vegetables, and then place them on a table all together as a composition. Maybe mix in a few flowers — an orchid or two — and you have a fantastic food and visual display.

Cocktails Chez Toi

• First, it is always less expensive to decorate with flowers in season. And it is usually less expensive to do bouquets of all one type of flower. For example, in the spring, it’s pretty to use tulips. For summertime, hydrangeas or peonies are lovely. You could use interesting ferns, or even oversize elephant-ear stalks rather than flowers. The point is to keep it simple and keep your florist’s inventory streamlined. The less variety he has to buy and arrange, the less it will cost you.

• Or, forgo flowers and substitute something colorful and fun in its place. I did a party where we filled the room with huge, round, oversize, brightly colored Japanese lanterns. The glow from the lanterns was so flattering to everyone and set a wonderful tone. On the tables, I filled several different-size glass bowls with colored glass balls, mimicking the lanterns. It cost very little and was really quite festive, as well as reusable — which again, brought the price down.

• Have a special drink of the night. There are so many flavored liquors now that coming up with one “party” drink and giving it a festive name keeps guests well quenched without too much use of the bar. (Perhaps you make up some kind of fun new colorful shooter —remember those Jell-O shooters from college days? So, evolve!)

• Keeping the invitations standard size saves postage costs. And keeping them simple, without too many colors and/or inserts, reduces the costs, too.

• For the food, work with your caterer to ensure a simple yet delicious menu. It doesn’t have to be lavish or expensive. But it does have to be served on time, be perfectly cooked and taste good. I would love to tell you that I save money by doing my own food prep and cooking, but no one who really knows me would believe that. Being in the kitchen is my Achilles’ heel. So I let Glorious Food take over. They know what I want and how I want it.

• My all-time favorite tip is from the time I gave a party that had a rather long receiving line. I had the waiters continually serve Bombay Sapphire shooters to the guests in line to keep everyone amused. By the time each guest made it to the front of the line, they were in very great spirits, and continued on with the shooters till dinner. I ended up with a less expensive bar bill, and no one wanted to leave the party. And when your guests don’t want to leave, but finally do, you can kick off your Manolos and go to bed content.

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