Summer—the season for opening your home, or at least your backyard, to friends and family. Long days, cool drinks and you frantically running around, shaking and stirring everyone’s cocktail before the ice sweats away in the midday sun. There has to be an easier way.
Mastering the art of low-key hospitality takes time and practice. To get you ahead of the curve, we tapped some of the top bar managers in North America to share their secrets on effortless summer entertaining. This way to the winner’s circle.
“I like to casually approach the feeling of elegance,” says Suzanne Miller, the general manager at Novela in San Francisco. “I like my guests to feel as if they’re treated to a thoughtful, specialized experience but also feel completely relaxed and at ease. I use cloth napkins and good whiskey in nice glassware and adopt a carefree approach to whether or not they make it through the evening without a permanent stain or a crack.
“I entertain large crowds at work, so I prefer smaller gatherings at home. When I was a young bartender, a good friend of mine, also a bartender/sommelier, was an absolutely wonderful home host, and I believe I picked up a lot of my traits from her.
“I can recall wiping our mouths with cloth napkins after eating gorgeous meals that she had prepared and paired with the perfect wine. Then our feet were up on her coffee table, and we watched the cheesiest horror flicks. There was elegance and finesse to the experience, the things we were consuming and the dishes we used, but there was a casual overtone. So my tip is: Use the cloth napkins!”
“Years back, my mom found a stunning vintage wood-and-steel, three-compartment bar sink that makes a beautiful console table or sideboard,” says Christopher Marty, the manager at Best Intentions in Chicago. “For parties, we’d fill the sink compartments with crushed ice and chill down a selection of beers and wines, with bottle openers and glassware displayed prominently.
“The same idea could easily be accomplished with vintage beer boxes, old planters, etc. It’s hugely helpful to have a visually attractive, publicly accessible self-service selection of beverages. Guests feel less like they need to ask permission to grab another drink.
“Nowadays, we often find that the act of making the cocktail is as much a point of interest for guests as the drinking itself. We tend to set up a station on our dry bar that focuses on one featured drink for the night, and we provide ice and tools to prepare a simple cocktail or series of cocktails.
“We were recently very successful with a lighthearted Dirty Martini bar, stocked to the gills with five types of stuffed olives, a selection of fresh vermouths and some beautiful clarified olive brine. We also provide a basic run of base spirits from brands we love (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, bourbon and rye), as well as small cans and bottles of basic mixers (Coke, Diet Coke, 7Up and tonic) and fresh-cut fruit for garnish.”
“Put music in your bathroom(s),” says Marty. “Technology has made multi-room audio much more accessible than the days where you had to run wires throughout your entire house. In our apartment, we use Apple’s AirPlay to have music playing throughout the house whenever we have guests. It’s a magical experience to walk into the bathroom and not feel like you’re completely removed from the party. The total cost was under $200, and the sound is so good that people regularly tell us they could hang out in our bathroom all night.”
“For easy spring and summer entertaining at home, I like to keep a few bottles of vermouth on hand,” says Doug Atwell, the bar manager at Blue Pit BBQ & Whiskey Bar in Hampden, Baltimore. “Vermouth on the rocks, garnished with either a twist of citrus peel, an orange slice or a couple of olives—it’s an easy, laid-back and low-proof glass to serve.
“I really enjoy vermouth's versatility as an apéritif or sunny afternoon beverage, as well as something lightly herbal at the end of an evening. An added bonus is that any leftover opened vermouth can be stored in the fridge for up to a month or until the next occasion calls for a glass.”
“When entertaining at home, I like to keep it as simple as possible,” says Amber Bruce, the bar manager at The Keefer Bar in Vancouver, B.C. “The more you can do ahead of time means more time for you to enjoy the company of your friends and less time fussing around in the kitchen.
“At the moment, I'm really into recreating classic punches like the Fish House Punch. They are so simple but so beautifully complex at the same time. I also like to plan a theme that’s not overly complicated. You’re hosting a party to spend time with friends and family, not to be worrying about if the blow-up pyramid has a hole in it or the camel has enough to eat.
“Also, be prepared for anything! Always make sure you have some backups, like a case of local beer, lots of club soda and a couple of extra bottles of wine in case it turns into a real barn burner.”
Think you know the booze?
Let’s start with some basics.