The Gazette’s complete guide to planning a holiday bashAs the Bay Area slowly comes back to life this December, we look forward — with bated breath — to the return of seasonal soirees. From An Elegant Evening in the Court of Honor to the opening night of The Nutcracker to the Guardsmen Tree Lot extravaganza, social calendars are once again filling up. While donning a sequined gown or satin tuxedo for a night on the town can be fun, there’s also something to be said for hosting your own gathering.
If you’ve always wanted to throw a tree-trimming or menorah lighting, this year you really can plan a proper party! Open the doors to your home and invite friends and family over for an excellent — and safe — evening in. Because we’re still in a pandemic, events may be smaller but just as fabulous. Once you’ve hit send on the invite, the real fun begins. To encourage readers to pull out all the stops, we’ve consulted local experts. Here is our ultimate guide to hosting the holiday party of your — and your guests’ — dreams.
Focus on Fun
As CEO of Fulcrum Group, Liz Curtis oversees four distinct event planning companies: Table + Teaspoon (tabletop decor rentals), One True Love Vintage (furniture and decor), Abbey Party Rents (classic party needs) and Gavilan Vale at Eden Rift (winery venue). So it goes without saying that she knows a thing or two about throwing a fantastic fete. Curtis enjoys planning everything elegantly to a T, a la Martha Stewart.
Still, she says the most important job of a host or hostess is ensuring guests have fun and remembering that you can’t control everything at your event. “My philosophy is: Once your guests arrive, you go with the flow,” she says. “If you try to control the environment while it’s happening, you’re likely going to fail and be stressed out. And that is not a good party. If it’s not fun, then it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it.”
Hosting a sit-down dinner? Create a thoughtful seating chart and cultivate conversation with icebreaker games. Curtis loves Two Truths and a Lie because it always gets people talking. When planning a more cocktail-style event, she recommends offering up appetizers in single servings. Think parmesan truffle popcorn in Chinese takeout cartons or individual charcuterie and cheese platters with fruit and jam. Creativity is encouraged!
Let a Professional Handle the Cooking
You don’t have to be a whiz in the kitchen to host a spectacular multicourse Christmas Eve meal. Hire a professional, like chef Charlie Parker of Charlie Parker Provisions, to cook your Feast of the Seven Fishes. Parker has quite the pedigree — he was a chef at Manresa in Los Gatos, The Village Pub in Woodside and Daniel Patterson’s restaurants before establishing his Menlo Park dinner delivery service early in the pandemic.
Every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, Parker offers a set meal that features seasonal and sustainable local ingredients. Crafting unique menus for private occasions is right in his wheelhouse, though. “That’s what I like to do the best,” Parker says. “Being able to go to a person’s home and cook for them, entertain and talk to them is what I love. Instead of putting everything in boxes, it’s nice to plate an actual meal.”
A recent lineup included salmon crudo alongside a gem and treviso salad with Pink Lady apples, pomegranate and ricotta salata; striped bass with saffron risotto and braised Swiss chard; rack of lamb with potato puree and bagna cauda; and gluten-free cheesecake with coffee ice cream.
If you’re planning on doing the cooking, Parker suggests splurging on indulgent ingredients like filet mignon, caviar and fresh seafood. He also likes to include pasta and soup on a holiday menu because both items are less usual around the holidays, yet are delicious. And in the soup’s case, it can be made in advance, which is a plus when hosting dinner at home.
Create Magical Alchemy With Decor
Portola Valley interior designer Lisa Staprans specializes in spaces that nourish the soul. Her designs are filled with beautiful sights — mixed metals, items that sparkle, textural fabrics that feel nice to touch — as well as sounds and scents that are meant to trigger a positive memory or emotion.
She applies the same sentiment to holiday decor. “I want people to experience something they may not have experienced before,” Staprans says. “The colors, the layers of fabric on a table, the flowers, the food — I want it to feel like they make you feel calmer, happier and happy to be here in that place.” Staprans recommends a layered look that incorporates earthy elements and items with personal historical significance, along with classic touches like twinkling white lights and shiny baubles. For your event’s soundtrack, she recommends instrumental versions of the traditional hits or, better yet, hire an opera singer or pianist to perform. Staprans is also a fan of live trees — “the bigger, the better” — and once decorated her home with eight trees, each with a distinct theme inspired by global travels.
As with decorating in general (not just this time of the year), she advocates including items that bring you joy. “Create a holiday that brings out your best self, and don’t overbook yourself,” she says. “Give yourself time to be home with your family and enjoy these beautiful things you’ve done in your home. Keep it so what surrounds you makes you happy.”
— Or the Cocktails
Fifteen years ago, when Greg Lindgren and Jon Gasparini debuted Rye, their craft cocktail bar in the Tenderloin, they thought locals might be interested in a new type of cocktail catering: one that focused on the types of drinks that Rye specialized in — craft libations made with local, seasonal and fresh ingredients.
“We had a plan to make a bar service that’s connected to a bar,” Lindgren reminisces. “Four months after we opened, the Stanford d.school called and said, ‘Hey, we like your drinks. Can you come to Stanford?’ We went with a bunch of basil, kumquats and fruit — and that’s how Rye on the Road started.” Since then, Rye on the Road has shaken drinks at events throughout California, catering to anywhere from 20 to 12,000 people.
During the holiday season, various packages are available for personal, private and corporate events. Services include superb cocktails, plus beer and wine, as well as all the accoutrements. Rye will bring a physical bar, specialty glassware and even fancy ice cubes if need be.
For those playing bartender themselves, good news: According to Lindgren, simple drinks are trending this holiday season, and you can’t go wrong with an espresso martini, French 75, tequila-based cocktail or eggnog made with coconut milk. And there are great new products out there that make mixing easier. “I highly recommend Fresh Victor,” he says. “It’s a shelf-stable, fresh juice product that’s fantastic.” Or head to Rye and purchase its bottled cocktails.
Think Outside the Flower Box
Sandra Bautista’s 6-month-old Cole Valley destination, Dasluz, isn’t your typical floral shop. The Tijuana native is more floral artist than florist, and she considers the space her studio. There are no buckets with red roses by the dozen, no perfectly round arrangements, no assortment of vases. Instead, petals, leaves and branches are strewn about the floor. Drying carnations and wheat hang from the ceiling in what she describes as “controlled chaos.” Greenery is also everywhere — she sells plants — and seasonal blooms like orange marigolds and peach ranunculus mingle with olive leaves. Her style is fresh and young, funky and wild.
Dasluz is hosting a holiday wreath-making workshop this month, and Bautista is available to help with floral arranging. When creating bouquets at home, she recommends looking to nature for inspiration — things grow in imperfect ways, so your arrangements shouldn’t be perfect. Shop for a statement flower, like peonies or roses. Introduce a secondary blossom, perhaps waxflowers or hydrangeas, as well as a filler such as eucalyptus or berries. Trim the flowers well and remove unnecessary leaves, then start to arrange everything in a vessel.
“Organize all your greenery first, and then do your main flowers, and then add the filler at the end,” Bautista advises. Mix fresh flowers with branches and dried elements like lavender, wheat or grass. Inject fragrance with herbs. “Purple basil looks great with white flowers and it smells wonderful,” she notes.
Change the water every other day and, most importantly, think outside the box. Last year, Bautista placed flowers in individual flasklike bottles and used them to decorate her tree. “Every time I’m making an arrangement, I think: branches, texture, vibrant colors and something that’s going to wow,” says Bautista. “You’re going to see it and be like, ‘I’ve never seen that before. This is beautiful.’”