Home Entertaining Tips from Santa Barbara’s Premier Party Planner

Dishing with Merryl Brown, Event Designer Extraordinaire

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While wow-worthy fundraising events may be in our rearview mirror for a while, anyone who’s ever attended the Pacific Pride Foundation’s Royal Ball, the Community Environmental Council’s Green Gala, or the Bellosguardo Foundation’s inaugural Great Gatsby–themed soirée knows what a thoughtful, creative touch that Merryl Brown and her team bring to every event. While we’re all so eager to have our friends and family once again able to join us in our humble abodes, here is some entertaining advice from the expert.

How do you plan a small house party? I sit and I think about who is coming and who I want to be there and who will interact well with whom. Then I think about the flow of the party and what it’s going to feel like.

It starts with the invitation: What’s it going to tell you? How are you supposed to dress? Is it going to be a dinner? Are you going to get cocktails and hors d’oeuvres? You want to convey the theme and really give a sense of the party ​— ​without giving too much away.

Make sure everything is spotless in your home, that the bathrooms have a candle lit and that everything is clean and tidy. Make lots of space on your counter if you’re having a caterer. I’m a big believer in that it’s really hard for people to cook, make food, and be able to entertain their guests simultaneously.

If you want to cook, then have some extra help in the house. You can always enlist people who can take some of the burden off of you, so you aren’t stressed. That’s probably the single most important thing: The host or hostess really leads the mood. If a person is really stressed out when they’re entertaining, I think it really kills the mood of the party.

And when the party starts? It’s important to have a bar that people can get to right away and get their drinks. I think it’s really fun to have a couple of fun, interesting drinks and create a drink menu that you can put on your bar. Get interesting glassware and have interesting things that you can put in the drinks: edible flowers and interesting ice cubes where you invent something inside of them, glowing straws, or metal straws.

There’s all different kinds of things that you can use to make your drinks look and feel great ​— ​and it becomes a point of conversation. You want to make sure to give that to people, particularly people that don’t know each other. You can also have a person with a tray passing drinks if you have a bigger party, to take pressure off the bar.

My favorite way to entertain is to tray-pass hors d’oeuvres and keep everything really neat and tidy (so people aren’t sharing germs). If you go online, there’s a million different recipes.

If you are limited in your budget, you can have custom cocktail napkins done very reasonably. Have some little quote or some funny little saying, or some sort of image. I did a memorial one time, and there were lyrics from a song that the person loved on the napkin, and it was meaningful.

What if I don’t have a bar? You can create a bar. You can take a six-foot table and put a linen on it; you can get some PVC and you can cut four pieces exactly the same size, and you raise that table up a little bit so that the front bar’s a little higher; you put another six-foot table behind it. And then you display your bottles; you display your artifacts; you make some cool things. Everybody should have a hot-glue gun ​— ​what you can do with a hot-glue gun is a beautiful thing. You can find fun stuff [Michaels, Art From Scrap, and Art Essentials are her go-to places] and make cool things that are in the theme of the party.

You have to get creative and have fun with it, and don’t be so nervous that it’s not going to be good enough. When you make an effort and you have fun with it and are not all nervous and stressed about it, people are psyched. They just want to have a nice time and they want to have a new experience and they want to be a part of something meaningful.

I think people really want to connect. The more that you give people things to connect about, to talk about, the more fun people are going to have.

What about the tablescapes? I try to layer things. For example, if you’re setting the table, it’s not just about the china and the linens and the glassware and the flatware and the floral. Those things are part of it, but there has to be something more, those little lovely surprises that make things pop. Have the beautiful calligraphed menu tucked into the napkin and this beautiful flower, and then they lift the napkin up and there’s a lovely little fortune or some little surprise, some little special poem or whatever it is.

What’s your most critical piece of advice? The single most important thing when you do an event is just to do it with love, infuse it with love.

I can’t wait to go to your coronavirus containment party. I want to throw that party. You’re going to have to come with your own hand-painted mask and your own gloves that you created yourself. We’ll all carry a six-foot scepter pointed out, so that everybody is six feet away from you, and then it’s a dance party in a great big space where everybody is far apart. And there’s no buffet at all; everybody gets their own individual food when they walk in the door.

See you there!

See merrylbrownevents.com.

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