Feature Story: Anatomy of a Party 

How to make memories and bring people

Loderick, who grew up here, says Richmond is a town rooted in the graciousness needed to entertain. At the same time, those traditions often hold people back from reaching beyond their core group of friends, and that's a shame.

"I've heard people say, 'I don't need any more friends,'" to which she gasps, "My heavens! Life is experiences. If you stop interacting with people, you stop growing." Loderick sees parties as an opportunity for the hosts to build friendships and grow their inner circle, but she acknowledges that those things take time.

"People tend to compartmentalize their lives," she says. They divide their groups of friends — college friends, work friends, friends through children, etc. — and spend time with them separately. "Life is sweeter if you overlap the layers of friends," she says. "You become more integrated into the community and more relaxed in life."

Pulling off an integrated party can be tricky, but Loderick has picked up some tips through the years. She also knows the key things hosts often overlook. Whether your gathering is a small dinner party or a big bash, here are some tricks you can use to make sure it runs smoothly.



Do Your Homework

"Ninety-nine percent of the hassle in entertaining is in that last-minute crunch," Loderick says. Avoid feeling frazzled by planning ahead. Know your audience and be prepared. For example, find out whether any of your guests have special dietary needs. "The less flustered you are, the more relaxed people will be and stay longer," she says.

Make sure you have enough food and drink options. A special themed drink can be fun, but just because you like it doesn't mean everybody will. Always have a full bar to fall back on. Libations are very important and not the place to save money.

Do a dry run with sound, lighting and temperature checks. Set up tents and other things ahead of time. "Everybody has to have a plan B," she says, in case it rains or the grill doesn't work, so "it comes off looking effortless when in fact you were just prepared."



Keep Comfort in Mind

You may want to show off your new deck, but in 100 degree heat, not many people can get excited about being outside. If you're inside, don't forget to turn up the air conditioning before the extra body heat arrives.

Small considerations can make a big impression: Put out a basket of insect repellent for outdoor parties, add pillows to lawn chairs, offer valet parking, put throw blankets outside in the fall, keep special soaps in the restroom.

Music is a huge component of parties and something that can put people at ease. Lighting is also an atmosphere-builder that's often overlooked.



Facilitate Interaction

Circulating through a party is a skill that takes some practice. There are some things you can do to encourage your guests to mix and mingle.

"Multiple seating areas are preferable so people can move around more," Loderick says. "The more small, intimate vignettes you can create, the better." No one likes to feel trapped in a corner, or in a conversation, so set up multiple food stations and bars. That way people have an excuse to roam.

If you're putting together friends who don't know one another, create an icebreaker, like a theme or demonstration. "If you have a completely mixed bag, then you have a responsibility to have some common denominator," Loderick says. She suggests hiring a chef to do a demonstration or studying up and giving a brief wine presentation.

Keeping guests entertained also helps the host float around the party. "A party is not the time to catch up with someone you haven't seen in ages," she says. "In that case, you need a much smaller event." Make sure the party is not so unwieldy that you can't circulate among your guests, or have a couple of small parties that build up to a larger one. For larger parties, call in some helpers: Have your child play the piano, or invite a friend who just returned from an interesting trip.

Guests gathering in the kitchen while the host is preparing food is a common pitfall. "Usually folks are not that adept at cooking and chatting at the same time," says Loderick, who suggests two solutions. Keep kitchen doors closed and pass around as much food as possible. But more important, keep the cooking simple. It doesn't have to be grand; your guests will prefer your company to a gourmet meal.



Create the Wow Factor

Make sure there's something that knocks guests' socks off, whether it's the location, the herbs on the chicken, a dazzling theme or great music. Loderick believes there should be a level of personalization to every event "so people feel like it's a genuine effort — even if it's an obligation, business or volunteer."

Add some visual fun to the evening: Integrate your porcelain collection into the tablescape or work family photos into the place cards. Loderick's also an advocate of party favors. "It's lovely to have something for people to take away" from the party, she says.



Incorporate Your Kids

Don't be afraid to have your children participate in an event. Let them help you, and they can learn valuable lessons in the process. Loderick's 8-year-old, Emma, often helps by folding napkins or setting the table. "If you're relaxed, it's an opportunity [for children] to learn all sorts of skills they wouldn't normally learn," she says — like how to handle glassware, what to do with a utensil after they're done eating, how to greet guests at the door and how to conduct themselves in general.

While children can be a wonderful help and fun guests, Loderick advises that hosts keep in mind their special needs, just as they would for a guest. Make sure there is food they can eat without help. For example, you don't want to serve a chicken breast that an adult will have to cut for them. Also keep in mind the child-to-adult ratio and have extra helpers on hand, like teenagers or a baby sitter, to keep kids occupied. You don't want children to take over the party.



Go With the Flow

There is ego in entertaining. People want to put their best foot forward, but remember not to fret if things go wrong. "So your heel breaks, hose runs, tenderloin burns — the more you take things in stride, the happier guests will be," Loderick says.

Not everything can be a slam dunk. Be sure to "have a realistic perception of perfection." If things go wrong, "it's not a reflection of you — it's OK," she says. Besides, imperfections like mismatched silver, china and candles can add to the charm. Why strive for perfection anyway? Forget the ham biscuits and try something new. You'll never know if your friends would like margaritas unless you try.



PARTY WITH TASTE

Fresh ideas for food and drink

Andrew Hardie regularly practices the art of entertaining. He has a thriving restaurant, Chez Foushee, and a 20-year-old catering business. When he entertains, the Trinidad-born, Scotland-trained chef likes to turn to different areas of the world for inspiration.

"When I think summer, I generally think Mediterranean," he says. "That's the type of food I gravitate toward."

Hardie takes advantage of his lighter summer schedule by entertaining at his home in Byrd Park. Since many of his evenings and weekends are spent catering, when Hardie gets a night off to plan a party of his own, he opts for meals that can be prepared ahead of time and foods that work well at room temperature.

Hardie shared a few menu ideas for an outdoor summer party at home.



Beverages

Drinks depend on the menu and theme of the party, but it usually works best to have one specialty drink along with beers on ice.

Cucumber water: Instead of bottled water, how about offering a pitcher of cucumber water? Fill up a regular pitcher with water and ice, peel a cucumber — leaving some green on it for color — and slice half into the pitcher. "It's basically a variation on lemon water," Hardie says. "Cucumber just has a refreshing summer taste to it, very fresh."

Sangria: Hardie's recipe is easy: red wine, brandy and orange juice. "I keep it very simple. There are a million versions, but I think the simpler, the more refreshing it is," he says. But beware: "It goes down easy."

Rosé wine: A common misconception is that all pink wines are sweet. "The good ones from the south of France and some from Spain are dry — fruity, but by no means sweet," he says. Plus, they're the perfect color for a summer party.

Rum punch: Hardie says the only connection he still has to his six years in Trinidad is his father's rum punch recipe, which people love. It's made with rum, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Like the sangria, he warns, this punch packs a punch.



Food

Hardie likes to entertain with Mediterranean food because preparation tends to be relatively straightforward and doesn't require complex sauces that must be made at the last minute. It also "naturally lends itself to sitting on a table for a couple of hours and you don't have to worry about it," he says, because many of the dishes use olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrettes rather than mayonnaise-based sauces.

Pork tenderloin Marbella: Hardie prefers pork for a dish traditionally made with chicken. Marinate the tenderloin in white wine, garlic, prunes, green olives and Mediterranean herbs overnight. Then sprinkle it with brown sugar and roast in the oven. "Because of the green olives, you've got the whole sweet/tart thing going on," Hardie says. "It really makes it stand out. It's not sweet, but it's a nice note." After the tenderloin is done, let it cool, slice it onto a big platter, then pour fresh marinade over it. It's best served warm or at room temperature, he says — "whatever works best when you're running around trying to get ready."

Tomato salad: Mix together sliced Hanover tomatoes, large asparagus tips and jumbo lump crab with champagne vinaigrette. "This is a way of getting seafood into the whole meal," he says. Arrange the salad on a platter, flake crab over the top of it, sprinkle the salad with vinaigrette, and you're done.

Parsley potatoes: "Always round out [a meal] with a starch," Hardie says. Try warm red-skin potatoes with a Dijon parsley dressing.

Fruit: "When I entertain, I don't do much emphasis on heavy desserts," Hardie says. "I tend to keep more along the lines of fresh fruit. You don't want heavy, sickly sweet things in heat." Try strawberries in champagne jelly, served in a champagne flute. — C.N.



YOUR INVITED

Get the party started before guests arrive.

While not every party calls for an invitation, each offers a rare opportunity: a way to create a buzz about your event before the big day. Invitations are the first contact you have with your guests, and they're a way to establish a theme, formality and hopefully some excitement.

Local graphic designer Michael Brown of Michael Brown Design has a flair for pushing the envelope, literally. His handmade invitations rarely lie flat and often come in custom envelopes and packaging. In some cases they're so special he signs and numbers them like a work of art.

"A lot of things I think of, it's like, 'That would be cool! Oh, how do you mail that?'" he says, laughing.

Brown got his start when he created an invitation for a baby shower using old-fashioned letter beads that were used by hospitals for babies' identification bracelets. He spelled out BABY, gluing the beads to the cards. That simple trick caught people's attention and created a demand for his carefully crafted creations. Since then, Brown has been stretching the idea of incorporating found objects into his cards.

For a child's circus-themed birthday party, he bought tin elephant wind-up toys at World of Mirth, affixed them with labels including party information, then packaged the toys in rectangular boxes filled with peanuts. He labeled them with a vintage Barnum & Bailey poster sticker.

For an annual Christmas party, Brown made a new ornament invitation each year. Once he made an invitation out of a snow globe, incorporating a drawing of the house and details about the party in the globe. Another year the invitations resembled a present: They were wrapped in a shallow box and tied with a red organza ribbon.

"People don't think anything of spending a fortune on flowers or food or decorations," he says, "but when it comes to the paper part, sometimes people get stingy." He gets discouraged by a lack of creativity in the invitation department.

One of Brown's invitations that created a lot anticipation was for a James Bond-themed 30th birthday party. The invitations arrived as CDs, and various James Bond movie posters were depicted on the case covers. The instructions read: "Insert disk into computer to receive your assignment." On the disk was a brief video with music that included party information and a fake explosion at the end, simulating the disk self-destructing.

When he's designing a three-dimensional invitation that requires tricky packaging, Brown says he always mails a copy to himself first to make sure that it doesn't break during mailing and that it arrives looking the way he wants. But not everything Brown does is so elaborate. He's also skilled at adding creative twists to simple ideas.

"I think people think it has to be expensive to be good," he says, "but there's a lot you can do for not much."

Many of his favorite invitations were created with paper and processing from a copy store. And something as simple as jagged-edge scissors can add an extra flair. Brown created several eye-catching cocktail invites inexpensively. For one, he hunted for vintage cocktail stirrers. He drew an outline of a cocktail glass with ice in it, then cut slits in the card and slid a stirrer through them. No two stirrers were alike, and each invitation had a unique favor in it. He used the same idea for cocktail-party invitations with a printed green olive in the upper corner. He cut slits in the card and slid a toothpick through them, making a memorable invite at little expense. For another occasion, he printed the invitation right on a cocktail napkin.

Brown's advice is to think about the theme of your party and the images and ideas that go along with it. For example, for an Oscar-themed party, everyone might think of the statue, but what about the envelopes? Brown put the printed invitations in gold-lined, petal-style envelopes that opened like those announcing the award winners.

Keep it simple; don't try to do too much. "I either like a good image or I like text," he says. "It's hard to have a compelling image with a boatload of text." Brown says he often shrinks text so it will work with an image. Texture is important too: fuzzy, rough, alligator, lined envelopes — any sort of tactile quality you can add will enhance the effect. Brown bought a flocked black paper through a telescope manufacturer that he used to create invitations for a New Year's Eve party, with a masked-ball theme.

It's this kind of detail that could make your invites, like Brown's, keepsakes long after the party's over. — C.N.



A SUMMER SOIREE

A poolside pink party brings new friends together.

A stately brick Georgian on Three Chopt Road was aglow on a Saturday evening in late June. Cars packed the driveway and chatter filled the air. Greg Davis and Tony Caprara were throwing a party.

Davis and Caprara are experienced hosts. The two give about four parties a summer, including a white-themed Fourth of July soiree and a luau in August that pays tribute to Tony's home state of Hawaii.

For this event, Davis took the lead because it was in honor of Caprara's 40th birthday. The party also served as a kickoff for summer. Davis, a relaxed and skilled host, planned a pink-and-white theme and asked guests to dress appropriately. Two hundred balloons of the same colors were scattered around the garden and by the pool. Pink drinks were served — one of which was invented for the evening, a watermelon martini, dubbed a Pink Elephant.

About 40 guests gathered on the patio, rotated around the garden and talked by the pool throughout the night. A changing tent was ready and illuminated if anyone felt the need for a dip, but the swimming didn't begin until late in the evening.

"I love creating social settings and venues," says Davis, who often brings rugs, furniture and pillows out to the garden to try to "blend the inside and outside."

Franco's Ristorante provided the food, which included shrimp cocktail, tuna tartar and crab cakes. Caprara says he usually likes to cook for their parties, but wasn't allowed to this time because he was the guest of honor.

Davis chose not to serve dinner because the party started at 7:30 p.m. Instead, a waiter passed heavy hors d'oeuvres, and a bartender made sure everyone had a glass in hand. "I didn't want it to look like a full-scale dinner party," Davis says, "but I wanted people to be around to help pick up after us, so we had a wait staff and bartenders." Westhampton Bakery had whipped up a special cake in the shape of a frog prince, an inside joke between the couple.

The guests were an eclectic mix of people Davis and Caprara have gotten to know through the years, a few of whom they met through Simon & Gregory, the salon Davis owns and Caprara manages. The guest list also included several of Caprara's old friends from high school and college.

"One of my favorite things is creating the perfect guest list," Davis says. "I always like meeting new people, so I've invited some new people to hopefully add to our group."

The evening ended with swimming and fireworks. Caprara felt that the festivities were the perfect way to celebrate his birthday.

"It was good to be around all our friends," Caprara says, "to be at a point where we are now. I didn't feel bad about [getting older]. Besides, 44 is the new 40, I hear." — C.N.



THE PERFECT GUEST

How to get a second invitation.

You don't have to be an Emily Post devotee to be a gracious guest. Etiquette is common sense, or so says Donna Suro, whose business, Protocol Experts, teaches everyone from preschoolers to M.B.A.s how to mind their manners.

The biggest mistake people make at parties? Heading straight for the food or bar without saying hello to anyone, Suro says. "You're there to socialize," she says. "You certainly can make your way over [to the food], but you want to find the host or hostess when you arrive." Suro always warns people to never arrive early. About 10 minutes after the start time is the line between fashionable and rude.

Before you get there, have in your head a list of about 10 general, open-ended questions for other guests — like how they have lived in the area or if they have any family around. "If you ask questions about other people," Suro says, "they will think you are the best conversationalist anywhere."

Likewise, don't talk about yourself too much, and avoid controversial topics like money, politics and religion.

A gift for the hostess is always a good idea. You can't go wrong with a bottle of wine, but flowers need to be taken care of immediately and can be a distraction. Suro suggests colorful cocktail napkins or extra hand towels for the bathroom for an unconventional gift that's helpful, too. — Amy Biegelsen



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