Want to host a shindig for 30? How about 300? We asked four party planners for tips on entertaining at home in high style.
Once an event planner for large-scale corporate events and trade shows, Maria Cooke Baer began helping friends plan their own weddings in 2000. That hobby eventually became her vocation. In 2009, she made it official and joined forces with partner Kelly Seizert to open a studio in Old Town Alexandria. Today, they consult with couples to plan weddings for anywhere from three to 450 guests.
Street Cred: Ritzy Bee has planned weddings and social events for clients ranging from Nats baseball players to the president of the United States (Baer led the design team for the decoration of the White House’s Grand Foyer during the 2012 Christmas season). She and Seizert recently co-authored a wedding planner and keepsake book for Southern Living, in which several of their weddings are featured.
Her House: Baer lives in Arlington’s Donaldson Run neighborhood with her husband, Josh, and his 6-year-old daughter. Their house, designed and built by Len Matthews of M4 Builders, features an open interior that’s flooded with natural light from three exposures. The first floor is awash in textured neutrals with strategic pops of color.
Entertaining Philosophy: Less is more. “If you keep it simple and do everything well, your guests won’t know what’s missing,” she advises. “If you’re having an amazing meal and you’ve given them a beautiful room to look at, they’re not going to notice that you didn’t give them a party favor.”
On Details: Personalized design elements will make an event special. When hosting a bridal or baby shower at her home, Baer may choose a color scheme that mirrors the bride’s wedding palette, or an expectant mom’s nursery; or she’ll bring in texture, like a seersucker ribbon on the invitation that’s echoed with a seersucker runner on the buffet table. Just beware of overdosing, she warns. “You don’t want it to look too matchy-matchy.” While she loves a well-placed initial, she crinkles her nose at soup-to-nuts monogramming.
Party Prep: Before guests arrive, Baer pulls back chairs to create seating arrangements in groups. “You don’t want people to feel awkward standing around and looking at each other,” she says. Better to create places where they will naturally gravitate. Playlists are locked-and-loaded on her Sonos sound system so that she can pick a theme or a mood and instantly pipe music through her speaker system.
Entertaining Essentials: Baer keeps a closet filled with neutral-colored platters, plain white dinnerware, tiered servers, a framed chalkboard, containers and vases of all sizes, galvanized buckets, a folding beer garden table for extra outdoor seating and pre-made tent cards that can be reused. A stash of Weck jars can be filled with treats and stationed around the house, or used as favors. Sydney Hale candles (Grapefruit + Orange is a favorite, year-round scent) are used both at home and as hostess gifts. She also has a seemingly endless supply of all-purpose cloth napkins with gently frayed edges. On these, she lets me in on a secret: she made them by simply cutting up a $10 drop cloth purchased at Home Depot—no sewing necessary (“but you have to really launder them!”).
Let Them Eat Pancakes: Baer’s a big fan of brunch parties, especially for showers and family events. In order to be available to her guests, she prepares whatever food she can in advance, and then hires a caterer to fill in the rest—even if she’s expecting only 10 people. Menus typically offer “a twist on the basics—like mini gingerbread pancakes,” she says. “It’s not boring, but it’s familiar and delicious.” She often handwrites the menu on a chalkboard display and identifies each dish with a tent card. “I’ve seen so much stuff get turned away because people don’t know what it is.”
A Drink in Every Hand: Every guest is offered a drink upon arrival, after which a self-service bar at the end of Baer’s kitchen island is easily accessible for refills. A signature cocktail can be served with or without alcohol. One brunch favorite is a Prosecco mimosa bar (Baer’s pick: Presto Prosecco Brut, $12 at Whole Foods) with colorful juices in pitchers, fresh-picked herb garnishes from the garden and an elegant bottle of St-Germain elderflower liqueur. For indoor/outdoor and evening parties, she’ll set out a galvanized bucket with beer and wine. “Edna Valley Chardonnay is my go-to party white…” she says, casting a glance at the pale linen-colored upholstery in her living room. “We tend not to serve red wine unless we’re eating at the table or outside.”
“I was raised the son of a diplomat—moreover, the son of a diplomat’s wife,” says Nick Perez, who founded his Merrifield-based floral and event design business in 1996 while he was trying to figure out what to do with his communications degree from the University of Michigan. “I was helping out my mom, who always had flowers on hand.” That’s when he discovered that people were interested in hiring him for his intuitive ability to transform a room with flora, lighting and fabric.
Street Cred: Multiflor’s regular clients include CNN on-air celebs, five-star hotels, the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the National Gallery of Art. In addition to providing floral design for more than 50 weddings each year, Perez also designs high-profile events for organizations such as Children’s National Medical Center and the Intel Society for Science & the Public.
His House: Life revolves around the kitchen in the modern home that Perez and his wife, Ladan Eshkevari, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Nursing & Health Studies, designed and built in McLean’s Beverly Manor neighborhood. “It’s unorthodox to walk into a house and be in the kitchen,” he admits, but it’s a layout that makes guests feel comfortable. At the same time, it’s an elegant space, done up in whites and grays with accents of citrus and orange. Floor-to-ceiling windows on both the front and rear facades bring the outdoors in.
Entertaining Philosophy: Perez believes in opulent indulgence. “I want to make sure that every guest’s whim is met,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to feel that something is missing.” Thoughtful touches such as piles of fresh towels by the pool, flowers in the bathrooms and an expansively stocked bar all translate into casual luxury. “We want to make it seem effortless,” he adds. “We don’t want guests to feel uncomfortable, like we’re going out of our way for them.”
High Drama, Big Impact: First impressions can set the tone for a sophisticated soirée. For evening gatherings, Perez lines the walkway to his front door with tall, clear-glass cylindrical vases, in which stunning blooms or seasonal foliage are entirely submerged in water (in the winter, he uses bare branches that have been spray-painted silver). He then illuminates the vases from underneath with LED disc lights to create a grand entrance. Once inside, guests find equally artful lighting schemes illuminating each step of the floating central staircase, and flickering from scented candles. “Lighting adds drama and affects the overall mood,” Perez says. Recessed or soffit lighting not in your budget? Try swapping out regular light switches for dimmers that allow you to control brightness—a solution that’s less expensive than rewiring your electrical system.
On Flowers: Perez designs arrangements with the colors and details of each space in mind, although greenery is a mainstay in every room. “Plants soften the room and give the impression that the space is alive and fresh. Succulents are striking and low-maintenance, and wheatgrass is cost-effective and lasts a long time,” he advises. For their longevity and ease of care, try potted herbs or orchids (he’s a fan of Orchids for You in Vienna). “Or create a display with a big bowl of fruit—pomegranates, oranges, star fruits—something that picks up on a color in the space.” For individual arrangements, Perez keeps a stockpile of vases and containers in sizes and shapes to fit everything from small sprigs to tall tulips, all in clear glass or white ceramic. “I want to keep the look refined, intentional—not like I ran out of vases and had to use a wineglass.”
On Faking It: What’s the rule on faux flowers? “I do have some silks that I keep on a regular basis,” he confesses, “and sometimes I’ll mix in some silks with real flowers. No one can tell from a distance.” But you get what you pay for, he cautions, noting that it’s worth spending a little extra to get the nicer silk flowers from places like Merrifield Garden Center.
A Well-Stocked Fridge: Perez always has a dozen different cheese and charcuterie options on hand for spontaneous gatherings. He also stocks bags of organic frozen seafood, such as monster-sized prawns that can be quickly thawed and skewered, or boiled to serve as shrimp cocktail. He usually runs to The Organic Butcher in McLean on the day of any event he’s hosting to grab something fresh for the grill. For meat pairings, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon is a household staple.
A Family Affair: “Ladan is the best host ever. She’s a fantastic cook,” Perez brags of his wife’s native Persian hospitality and cuisine. Their two sons, 8-year-old Fenton and 10-year-old Dylan, help out too, by arranging platters of crudité or making place cards with metallic paint pens and rocks or leaves they’ve plucked from the garden. “Etiquette is very important,” says the diplomat’s son, with a nod to his own upbringing. “We ask our kids to greet guests at the door, and then walk them to the door when they leave. More than anything else, we want our guests to want to come back. We want them to leave thinking, Wow, we loved being there.”
You wouldn’t eat what I cook!” laughs Nancy Goodman, who founded Main Event Caterers with her husband, Joël Thévoz, in 1999. “We have very different skill sets. Joël has an amazing palate; he’s an artist,” she says of her catering partner, a self-taught chef who grew up in Switzerland before emigrating to Costa Rica, then Mexico, and finally landing in Virginia. If Thévoz’s expertise is in the kitchen, Goodman’s strengths are in creating an ambience that feels effortlessly warm yet thoughtfully composed. Their daughter, Ahmei, has perhaps inherited both of these talents. At 13, she knows half a dozen ways to fold a napkin, and that you always offer guests a drink after you greet them at the door and take their coats. She combs farmers’ markets with her dad for culinary inspiration—and she’s not afraid to dig into her mom’s favorite caviar.
Street Cred: With clients ranging from European royalty to the U.S. Supreme Court, Main Event has played a backstage role in more than a few highbrow Washington, D.C., affairs. The eco-minded caterer has earned accolades from both environmental organizations and wedding magazines (not to mention throngs of happy brides who gush about the food and impeccable service). And Thévoz’s raw zucchini “noodle” lasagna could make a carnivore contemplate going vegan.
Their House: In 2003, Goodman and Thévoz purchased property in Shirlington near their offices on Four Mile Run and built a home to suit their lifestyle. Designed with socializing in mind, it features seamlessly connected indoor and outdoor entertainment spaces, as well as an expansive wine cellar for after-dinner gatherings.
Seriously Green: Widely recognized for its sustainable business practices, Main Event goes beyond your standard recycling and in-house water bottling. The caterer also maintains a rooftop apiary, a water-reclamation system and an on-site “aquaponic” farm that raises both fish and produce for the kitchen. That same ethic carries over to the couple’s home—from the drinking-water home filtration system to the sink-side compost pail. “The hardest thing for me to give up was paper towels,” Goodman says. They’ve managed to replace most disposable paper products in their home with reusable cloth.
Party Essentials: An elevated shelf above the kitchen island stores white ceramic plates of all shapes and sizes. Beyond that, any specialty place settings are rented rather than bought and stored. When asked what they keep on hand for guests at all times, the couple answers in unison: wine. “I love a good rosé champagne,” Goodman says. Segura Viudas (a $20 cava) is their all-purpose sparkler for cocktails and mimosas. For ambiance, the entertainment space is accented with remote-controlled electric pillar candles on gothic-style pedestals.
What’s Cooking: Thévoz, who calls his style “casual American brasserie,” advocates seasonal menus that can be prepped in advance, then finished just before serving. “I might serve a soup and a salad that are ready to go before guests arrive, and the main course might be a carved meat or a sautéed protein with sides that were [made] in advance—unless it’s sautéed spinach, in which case I do that at the last minute,” he says. When entertaining new guests, Thévoz is careful to ask about dietary preferences ahead of time (he generally steers clear of gluten and carbs himself). In fair weather, most of the cooking is done al fresco. The backyard is outfitted with a full outdoor kitchen and a trellis-covered dining patio.
Mother Knows Best: How does one cook, clean and mingle at the same time? “My mom taught me that whenever you cook, you put all the ingredients out on the counter, then you put them away as you use them. That way if you get distracted, you don’t accidentally add something twice,” Goodman says. She’s also a big advocate of the clean-as-you-go theory: “Clear the plates, scrape and rinse them while you’re chatting with your guests—it will make things so much easier on you when the party is over.”
Last But Not Least: Thévoz will opt for dairy over sugar to end a meal any day. He often pops into Cheesetique in Shirlington or Whole Foods when he needs to pick something up that he can’t get from a vendor. “I make sure to have a plate that includes something creamy, something bleu, something semisoft, and something hard; and there should always be one goat cheese,” he says. When sweets are in order, the caterer’s homemade truffles are a bite of heaven. “Sometimes we’ll box them up as a little favor to give to our guests as they leave,” Goodman says. Clearly, they know how to keep friends coming back for more.
Freelance writer and frazzled hostess Adrienne Wichard-Edds appreciates it when guests show up 15 minutes late. She writes the What’s in Store column for this magazine.