How to be the perfect party guest

Don't let this be you!

Today I realized I’m always raving about how awesome our friends are. How they totally contribute to all of our cocktail and dinner parties and enable us to have delightful gatherings week after week. If I had an unlimited budget, could buy as much food as I wanted, and could hire help to shake cocktails and do the dishes, I wouldn’t need our friends to be so helpful. But since most of us don’t have the luxury of hired help or a huge budget that allows us to buy whatever we’d like, most us need a little assist from our friends if we’re going to host parties regularly. So if you’d like to be the best guest at any party you’re invited to—and make sure you’re invited to the host’s parties again—here are a few simple steps you might take. Certainly, you don’t need to do all of these things, but if you do just a few of them, you can be sure you will be on the top of the guest list the next time the hostess is drawing up her guest list.

1) RSVP promptly! We have a lot of loosey-goosey affairs at which RSVPs are not strictly necessary, and admittedly RSVP’ing is not the strong suit of some of my friends, but if you’re invited to a party, let the host know as soon as possible whether you can attend. If it’s a small event, like a dinner party for eight, it’s absolutely critical to know who’s coming. Even if it’s a larger, more casual event, the host(ess) would probably love to know whether you’re coming. Even if your attendance won’t make a huge difference in my shopping or party preparations, I love to know that the invitation was seriously considered and not just ignored.

2) Ask what you can bring. When you RSVP to most parties, you should consider asking whether you could bring anything. If it’s a black-tie event or catered, the answer is probably “no,” but often we hosts and hostesses would be grateful for a little something extra added to the menu. If it’s a casual potluck barbecue, I might realize that we’re short on vegetable dishes or need some more meat to throw onto the grill. If it’s a big cocktail party, there might be a bottle of something special I’m wanting. One regular (and very much appreciated) attendee of our parties works very close to San Francisco’s swankiest liquor store, which I don’t have the time to visit very often (and get into far too much trouble when I do visit). He always asks what he can pick up from Cask for the party, for which I am always supremely grateful.

3) Make a last-minute call. This is absolutely optional, but if you want to be on the “A” list the next time the host invites people over, give this one a try. We have one frequent guest at our parties who usually calls or sends a text message when he’s leaving his house for the party to see if there’s anything we need. Usually the answer is “no,” but sometimes it’s not. Maybe the weather has suddenly turned very warm and I realize we could use another 10 pounds of ice. Maybe I burned the crostini for the hors d’oeuvres and I could use another baguette. Whether or not I actually need anything, I always appreciate his last-minute offer for help.

4) If dinner is being served, arrive on time! If it’s a casual cocktail soiree or all-day open house, as many of our events are, you have a lot of leeway on your arrival time, especially if you’ve alerted your hosts you might be late. But there’s nothing more dispiriting to spend a week planning an elaborate dinner menu only to have your first course of pasta turn into a gloppy mess because one of your guests is not-so-fashionably late.

5) Mix and mingle. I know that when I go to a party, I’m sometimes guilty of grabbing my few favorite people there and monopolizing them for the entire evening. But the Cocktail Host, who is much more extroverted than I am, does a much better job of working the crowd. He goes out of his way to meet new people and have interesting conversations with them when we’re at a party. As a hostess, I want to make sure all of my guests have a good time, and I do my best to introduce guests who might enjoy each others’ company. But, at the same time, if it’s a large party, I’m usually pretty busy slinging cocktails and refreshing the food, and I can’t keep a super-close eye on everyone. That’s why I always appreciate my outgoing friends who make it a point to introduce themselves to anyone they haven’t met before or anyone who doesn’t seem to know a lot of people at the party.

6) Help out (just a bit) during the party. Often people who arrive early ask whether they can help. The answer, in my case, is usually no, because I obsessively prepare for each party. But even if I’ve done everything I can to prepare for a party, there often reaches a point halfway through the evening when I’ve used every cocktail glass in the freezer and the dirty napkins are stacking up on the coffee table. The last thing I want is for a guest at one of my parties to feel like they have to do a lot of work, but if you see a need  you can fill in a quick ten minutes of help—maybe rinsing cocktail glasses, clearing dirty dishes and napkins from the living room, or stoking the fireplace in the parlor—I love it when people just take care of that without asking.

7) Don’t overstay your welcome. Our parties tend to run fairly late, which is fine with us, especially since when I’m getting plum tuckered out, the Cocktail Host is getting his second wind, and he is usually happy staying up until the wee hours gabbing with the few remaining guests. That said, there is a point at which your hosts are probably fading fast. If the advertised hour of the party has passed, think twice about settling in for another drink, and it’s 4 a.m. and your hostess has fallen asleep on the couch, it’s definitely time for you to be heading home (unless you’ve had one cocktail too many, in which case we’re more than happy to pull out some pillows and quilts and set you up on the sleeper sofa).

8) Share photos. Perhaps this is just because I like to blog about entertaining, but I suspect most hosts and hostesses would be thrilled to have a few photos of their party after the fact, whether to share or just have for their own amusement. I always mean to take photos of my parties but I get busy shaking cocktails and making appetizers. If you have a camera and some minimal photography skills, I bet the host(ess) would love to see any pictures that you’ve taken.

9) Send a note of thanks. Again, this isn’t something I expect from my guests, but it makes my day when I get a note—either by email, or, even better, snail mail—telling me that they enjoyed the party. If you had a particularly good time, if you met someone who interested you, if you tasted something you had never had before, your hostess would probably love to hear about it.

So when you’re hosting a party, what do your guests do that make your life a little easier?

What it’s all about

This is what it's all about ... having fun with friends and family (in this case, at our annual Solstmas party at Liberty Lounge)

This blog is mostly for my own amusement, a chance to geek out about extravagant foods and fancy cocktails, and especially to jot down recipes or ideas that I’m excited about so that I have a record of them for the future.

But, if I have any hope for those who read my blog, it’s that they’re inspired to entertain themselves. I’m a firm believer than spending time with the people in your life is better than watching TV, that sharing a meal or a cocktail you made yourself with friends and family is one of the best ways to show them that you love them. And I think that the time you spend entertaining is repaid with a huge dividend when you see how much fun everyone is having.

I’m not sure that this message always come through in my many posts about my favorite desserts or swanky speakeasies in New York City, which is why I was so gratified to get this email recently from Stephanie, a family friend who follows my blog and can always be counted on to try the most adventurous options on the cocktail menu when I’m making cocktails at my parents’ house in Houston. Here’s her letter and pictures, shared with her permission …

Attached are pictures of Hostess Diary–inspired get-togethers. My New Years resolution was to have one or more guests once a month for dinner or drinks. Easter ham dinner with your folks …

Stephanie's Easter dinner

My other guest had a gallbladder attack and related surgery. I delivered dinner to her house instead of her joining us.

Girls’ campout with a Greek theme …

Girls' Greek picnic

… NYE Bunco with friends and neighbors …

Bunco party on New Year's Eve

I had your folks over in Jan for prime rib dinner …

Stephanie's table setting

… and my Feb dinner was stuffed flounder with neighbors.

This is precisely what I want readers to take away from my blog. I’d love to be able to order expensive truffles from D’Artagnan and have the talent and money to arrange beautiful tablescapes à la Martha Stewart. I emphatically don’t. But I have great friends who are willing to pitch in at every party by bringing a fun bottle of booze or by washing cocktail glasses midway through the evening. I have a larger-than-usual apartment with two fireplaces and a great view of downtown San Francisco. And I have a boundless enthusiasm for making food and cocktails, which allows me to host some memorable parties.

So what do you have that you can share with your friends? Maybe you have a big back yard with a barbecue and you know how to make killer ribs. Maybe you’re good at organizing your friends in playing party games. Even if you have a tiny home, a dinner party for four probably isn’t an impossibility, even if you have to sit on pillows around the coffee table. Even if your entertaining budget is miniscule, you might be able to buy some triple-creme brie and a hunk of aged goat gouda to make a beautiful cheese platter, which guests can nibble on while they do a blind taste test of bottles of wine that they have brought themselves.

My point is that the rewards of entertaining are many, and that there are a nearly infinite number of ways to gather your friends or family for a magical evening. Many years ago, in a tiny little studio apartment, I hosted parties where guests were asked to wear their jammies or something comfortable and bring a short story or children’s story to read to the other guests. Not all, but some of those evenings were utterly magical. When I lived in a 450-square-foot cottage where I couldn’t fit more than four people in the living room, I would wait until we had the rare heat wave in San Francisco and organize a last-minute mojito party in my yard. There were only a handful of nights each year when it was warm enough to comfortably hang out in the yard, but that just made the parties that much more special.

Whether your talent is cooking, cocktail making, decorating your home, or just knowing a posse of  interesting people who should get to know one another, you have the makings of a great party. And whether your home and budget lend itself toward a cocktail party for forty or a dinner party for four,   entertaining is probably within your reach.

If you have any entertaining success stories (or disasters … it happens!), let me know and I might share them on this blog.

The Calabria cocktail

The Calabria

Lately the Cocktail Host and I have been doing a lot of our cocktail drinking at home, indulging my penchant for playing around with cocktail ingredients. But of course I also enjoy changing out of the yoga pants into a cocktail dress and hang out with the grownups at a restaurant or bar.

Recently, two of my favorite bartenders in the world, Mr. Manhattan and Scott Beattie, landed at Hog & Rocks, a restaurant and bar a mere five or so blocks from my house. This is either a very exciting development or a dangerous one, depending on whether you are me or my liver.

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, the Cocktail Host and I decided to pretend that we aren’t the old married couple that we are and we gussied up to pop over to Hog & Rocks for a few drinks and some nibbles at the bar. Mr. Manhattan was getting off of his shift and Scott was starting his, so we got to chat with them both while Scott made me one of Mr. Manhattan’s cocktails, the ravishing Calabria.

The Calabria

Now just imagine how gorgeous this drink was before drank a quarter of it and wiped my smudgy fingerprints all over the glass. I just couldn’t help myself.

I woke up this morning thinking that I should ask Mr. Manhattan if I could share his recipe for the drink, but then a few hours later someone forwarded me this online tutorial of Mr. Manhattan himself showing you how to make it. So there you have it. Go forth and make a Calabria.

A love letter to the Alemany Farmers Market

A small selection of Saturday's haul

Today is February 13, within spitting distance of Valentine’s Day, and everyone is thinking of ways to tell their sweetie how much they love them. But, as much as I adore the Cocktail Host, today I have another love on my mind: the Alemany Farmers Market, which I visit every Saturday I can.

I think of it as the Goldilocks of San Francisco farmers’ markets. Sometimes, if I have plans on Saturday morning, I go to the Heart of the City market on Sunday instead. There’s nothing wrong with this market, but I have a hard time getting excited about their selection. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is the most impressive in the city,  with lots of artisanal prepared foods mixed in with the most gorgeous fruits and vegetables you’ll ever see. Still, the crush of tourists there and  the heart-stoppingly high prices mean shopping there is only an occasional indulgence. I once paid $6 for a peach there. Six freaking dollars. It was a beautiful, sexy peach—one of the best I’ve ever eaten—but did I mention it cost $6?

So Alemany is my farmers’ market sweetheart. They’ve got lots of organic produce in addition to the conventionally grown stuff and stock just about everything I need … and many things I need but just didn’t know it yet.

Cardoons, anyone?


Or maybe you could use some five-foot long stalks of sugarcane?


And who wouldn’t want to eat their veggies when they see a pile of eye-popping rainbow chard?

Rainbow chard

And the cocktail geek in me does a little dance every time I walk up to Rosa de Santis’s citrus stand, which sells citrus of every stripe. Of course there are blood oranges in season, about which I have written often, here, and here, and here. But that’s just the start of it.

There are kumquats and limequats and mandarinquats, oh my!

Kumquats and limequats and mandarinquats, oh my!

Buddha's hand

In addition to rangpur limes, calamondini, and more, she also almost always has Buddha’s hand, which I’d love to use in some homemade bitters, or just infuse into some simple syrup.

And last month I discovered her blood limes. Who even knew there was such a thing? I was going to post some photos of them a few weeks ago—they make beautiful ruby-colored cocktail—but unfortunately my friends and I drank them all up before I managed to work out the perfect cocktail recipe for them. I bought another batch on Saturday, so I’ll let you know if I come up with anything interesting to do with them.

In the meantime, I spent the weekend making soups and salads and roasting broccoli and figuring out what to do with my Jerusalem artichokes.

Some of Saturday's groceries

I’m sorry. Did you see those purple and yellow carrots, which I’m planning on making into a salad with tahini dressing?

Purple carrots!

Alemany Farmers Market, will you be my valentine?

Mason jars

Spices in Mason jars

I’m back home in San Francisco now, and when I reached for my jar of za’atar to sprinkle on my hummus this morning, I thought of one more item to add to my list of benefits of Houston over San Francisco, which I posted about a few days ago, and that’s the better availability of my favorite Mason jars.

Star anise in a Mason jar

A few months ago I decided I needed a new solution for storing my spices, which were in metal tins that were starting to get rusted and bent, making them hard to use. I knew I wanted to use Mason jars, which I figured would stand up better to constant use and washing and would be easily replaceable when I needed more. The problem was, I wanted these super-cute squat half-pint pint jars that I found online

Spices in squat pint Mason jars

but they were nowhere to be found in San Francisco. I scoured every housewares, hardware, and cookware store I could think of and had no luck.I discovered that I could order them online from the few sellers who weren’t out of stock, but that the shipping would cost more than the jars themselves, so I wistfully gave up on my favorite jars and decided to go with these smaller, 4-ounce half-pint jars for most of my spices …

Spices stored in half-pint Mason jars

But then, lo and behold, my mom came across the magical squat half-pint pint jars, called “Ball Collection Elite Platinum Wide,” at her local Walmart. She bought me 8 of them  and sent them along. I am so in love with these jars. The wide mouth makes the jars easy to use, and they’re just the perfect size for most spices. And they’re so dang cute!

Saffron in a wide-mouth Mason jar

Unfortunately, when I was in Houston last weekend, and I was excited to stock up on more jars, I was informed that they were a “seasonal item” and wouldn’t be stocked again until next summer.

Until then I’ll have to stick with a combo of the two types of jars …

Spice jars

Though the obsessive-compulsive in me that needs all the jars to match can’t wait until I get a full set of the pint jars. But does that mean that I have to visit Houston in the summer? Oh dear …

Guilty pleasures

Tookie's Bean Burger

Tookie’s bean burger

For the last four days I’ve been enjoying some downtime in Houston while I recover from putting in two solid weeks of 12-hour workdays. I’m afraid all of my family in Texas consider me something of a snob, since whenever I’m there I fuss about not having access to my usual hippie grocery co-op or a large selection of highball and old-fashioned glasses in the cabinet. Still, I have to admit that Houston has its own charms—especially now that it’s February, and I don’t have to deal with the swampy, 100-plus-degree weather of summer.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the guilty pleasures I’ve been enjoying for the last four days.

1. Football … on a 60-inch TV no less

Superbowl on the big screen TV

I grew up watching football, but I haven’t been able to follow it properly for years since we don’t own a TV. So I was more than a little excited when I discovered that I would be at my parents’ house, which is equipped with a spanking-new 60-inch high-definition TV, for the Superbowl. Of course I made cocktails for everyone who gathered at the house for the game.

2. A yard full of fresh mint … and beautiful peaches in the freezer.

Mint in the back yard

I can’t grow mint to save my life. Everyone says it grows like a weed, but I have managed to kill it in pretty much every way possible. But at my parents’ house, the yard  is always overgrown with the mint and basil, no matter the season. Add in the beautiful peaches my mom froze last summer, and I had the makings for one of my favorite cocktails, the Kentucky Colonel, which was a huge hit at the Superbowl party. More on this drink later, when peaches return to the farmer’s market in San Francisco.

Kentucky Colonel ingredients

3. Tookie’s!

I grew up going to the roadhouse Tookie’s for hamburgers, onion rings, and old-fashioned cherry Cokes. Though it closed a handful of years ago, burger aficionados—and especially my mom—were thrilled when it reopened recently

Eating lunch there made me happy that I had been subsisting on veggies dipped in homemade hummus and bowls of steel-cut oatmeal for the previous few days, because there was no way I was going to pass up  ordering my favorite burger from my teenage days, the Squealer. Putting your average bacon burger to shame, the Squealer is made from beef and bacon ground together into a decadently awesome patty.

Tookie's Squealer

My mom’s choice is always the Bean Burger (shown at the top of this post), a hefty beef burger stuffed with refried beans, salsa, cheese, and Fritos. It’s totally too much, and yet somehow just right.

4. Shooting heavy artillery at the gun range.

Mom with a Glock at the gun range

Until this week, I had shot a gun exactly  once, a relatively small .22. My parents, however, being proper Texans, have a concealed handgun license, and own a Glock 17. Being your usual San Francisco liberal, I have complicated feelings about my parents’ owning a gun, but when they suggested we go to the gun range, they didn’t have to ask twice.

The CocktailHostess at the gun range

The Solstmas Party … in a Powerpoint slide

Our friend Sharona the Shutterbug, unofficial photographer of all our Liberty Lounge parties …

Sharona, wearing the finery she *almost* won in the Solstmas gift exchange

recently sent me a flock of photos she took at our 14-hour-long Solstmas open house a few weeks ago. I plan to post many of them here in the next week or so, but in the meantime, I just wanted to give you a glimpse into the mind of the Cocktail Host.

Our friend Michael and the Cocktail Host, who seems to be having some sort of epiphany. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

While I was running around on Christmas morning decorating ice rings for the punch bowl and figuring out what glassware we should use for the keg of home-brewed pumpkin porter our friend Matthew was bringing …

Matthew and his home-brewed pumpkin porter. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

… Dave decided that we needed a diagram of where all the various drinks were, so he wouldn’t have to “keep explaining to everyone where the wine glasses are.” (Click on it to see it in its full glory.) After an hour of fiddling around with his computer (while I stewed about how he wasn’t doing something useful, damnit!), he came up with this 3D graphic, which we posted in a few different places in the house. I’m not sure anyone noticed them without being prompted (at which point we could have just told them where the wine glasses were), but once they saw it they were pretty impressed.

Dave's Powerpoint diagram for Solstmas

At the time he was working on it, I confess I would have rather he were reorganizing the living room or helping me clean the kitchen. But I also think it shows how he’s the yin to my yang, the Abbott to my Costello, the peanut butter to my jelly, the wax to my wane, the mad to my sane (but who is who in this case?).

Without me, our parties would be less obsessively planned, with less homemade food and fewer fancy cocktails. Without him, however, we wouldn’t have synced wireless streaming audio in every room, firewood schlepped and stacked, and “stadium lighting” brightly illuminating the ping-pong table in the backyard at midnight. And there would certainly be no Powerpoint slides, of that I am sure.

It might be easier to plan a party with someone who has priorities similar to my own, but the I suspect the parties would also be a lot less fun.

The Cocktail Hostess and Host. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb. Silly Mrs. Claus apron courtesy of my mom.