If your idea of the perfect outdoor party is a Great Gatsby-esque affair under mammoth tents, you must be Martha Stewart. These days, only the most overstriving or ostentatious of hosts believe that elegant al fresco gatherings have to be elaborate. "I like a casual, user-friendly environment," says outdoor-lifestyle guru Andrew Bockner, co-owner of Andrew Richard Designs and host of a much-anticipated fête in Toronto every summer. For him, a very simple menu, one pre-made cocktail supplemented by a self-serve bar and even tasteful dollar-store serving ware suffices. The key to a successful event, he stresses, is making all guests feel appreciated, whether that means noting food restrictions or having someone's favourite wine on hand. Know your guests, know who's coming," he concludes. Below are more of Bockner's tips.
1. Keep it simple
An array of scrumptious yet uncomplicated recipes (finger-friendly tarts, a pizza bar, peaches on the grill) can be just as impressive as caviar and souffles.
2. Call it in
If you don't cook, save on catering expenses by ordering dishes in from your favourite restaurant. Instead of mixing individual drinks, serve one signature cocktail and set up a self-serve bar.
3. Service with a style
Low on serving ware? Don't be shy about using tasteful dollar-store acrylic pieces. For a fun dessert, serve fruit cups in hollowed-out orange halves.
4. Why wait?
Even if it's just one, hire a server for the affair: Your guests - not clearing glasses - should be your priority.
Setting the scene
"I've seen people run over to their neighbours to get all of their chairs, which they end up lining up around the periphery [of a garden]like it's a high-school dance," Bockner, whose own outdoor space is pictured on these pages, says with disapproval. "Empty space," he counsels, "is fine. Standing up is fine. It's okay if you don't have seating for everyone. People will mingle." What should be encouraged, Bockner says, is circulation. " I love various little pockets: a drinks area, a dining area, a couple of seating areas." The outdoor space, he says with conviction, "should be an extension of your home."
1. Go for the spare
Don't clutter a space up with excess chairs, but have at least one comfortable seating nook, heat lamps if it's cold and a breeze source to beat humidity.
2. Keep it moving
To encourage circulation throughout a garden, set up a bar area in the rear of the space. Keep food stations and buffets near the house for easy access.
3. Cozy up
To soften hard edges in outdoor spaces, pad furniture with pillows and scatter seat cushions on the ground. Have throws on hand to ward off nighttime chill.
4. Take a rain check
Parties can go on even in the rain through the strategic use of umbrellas, overhangs and awnings.
Fun and games
Whether it's cooking contests, dominoes under the elms or a spirited round of lawn tennis, "I love engaging guests with games," Bockner says. "It draws people in and creates memories. Giving guests an experience is what it's all about." To that end, he's not averse to theme parties and has executed many for clients. But he cautions that they should be done smartly to avoid cheese factor. "If you're throwing a 'Latin American' party, for example, don't mix food from Mexico with drinks from Brazil." Instead, choose a single focus - Argentina, say - and feature wine, food and other trappings from that one place. "You'll want to choose one or two authentic elements," Bockner says, adding that, yes, Buenos Aires is a hot inspiration source right now.
1. Put your game face on
Don't have space for badminton or bocce? Have playing cards, dominoes or trivia cards on hand.
2. Play to the audience
If you do have room for active games, set up spectator seating nearby.
3. Keep it cool
Have plenty of water or lemonade at the ready to ensure games players remain hydrated.
4. Stay authentic
Mojitos don't gel with "fiesta" nights, while sushi has no place at your Chinese banquet. If you're going to do a theme party, do it right.