Grapefruit and coconut canapes.
Spoon-sized ... Pink grapefruit, prawn and coconut salad. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Kate Gibbs

1. Go nuts on the guest list

"More people is more fun. Estimate one square metre per person for a cocktail party, or half a square metre per person for a party party," says John Wilson at Sydney boutique caterers Cook and Waiter. "You get a real buzz from being up close and personal, and it stops people being caught talking to the same group all night."

2. Drink on arrival

Champagne coupes. Click for more photos

Style tips to dress up your party

Champagne coupes. Photo: Nikole Ramsay

  • Light Fantastic: Battery-operated, remote-controlled, wax candles. They look and smell like the real thing, without the fire hazard. Starting at $14.95 realsafecandles.com.au.
  • DIY Style: Customised menu-trays. Make them yourself with 7mm plywood ($8.98 for a 60cm sheet from Bunnings, bunnings.com.au) and chalkboard paint ($25 for 500ml from Murobond,  murobond.com). If your penmanship is poor, try outsourcing to  writtenbyhand.com.au.
  • Nice Serve: Bite-size morsels will look gorgeous in pine boats painted to match your party's palette. $6 for a pack of 10. sweetstyle.com.au. Painted in Murobond colours, murobond.com.
  • Blossom Magic: Fresh flowers are a stylist's best friend. Choose seasonal blooms to keep the cost down and arrange them loosely in assorted vases. Flowers by Lisa Milasis, phone 0416166087.
  • Fancy Paper: Fill the room with colour and fun. "Fancies", $45,  poppiesforgrace.com.
  • Set the scene: Build anticipation with a beautifully illustrated invitation.

"Get people to a merry plateau as soon as possible," suggests Christopher Thomas at Trolley'd, a hire-able mobile bar service that uses old Ansett trolleys. Whether it's a glass of champagne or sparkling, or something virgin, getting glass in hand immediately is a priority. Rodney Setter, sommelier at Sydney restaurant Sepia, suggests: "Go for a spritz. Pour a dash of Aperol in any type of glass and top up with Prosecco."

3. Soda time

"There's a real resurgence of homemade sodas. Pink lemonade syrup, made from blending raspberries, whole lemons (including skin!) and caster sugar, then strained, can be topped up with soda in an ice-filled glass as a refreshing, non-boozy welcome. Add a dash of sparkling wine for a non-virgin version," suggests Miccal Cummins, director of Sydney caterers Gastronomy.

Chicken liver parfait and marmalade cones.
A quacking good dish... Chicken liver parfait cones.

4. Instant food hit

In the hours before they arrive, guests have been dealing with babysitters, hair dryers, ironing and frustrating GPS instructions. When they arrive, give them something to eat straight away. It needs to be something pop-in-the-mouth, says Wilson at Cook and Waiter. See our recipes for delicious one-bite trout canapés.

Salmon betal leaf canapes
Salmon betel leaf canapes

5. Pleased as punch

There is nothing sadder than a host so busy muddling and shaking drinks that she misses her own party. Shaking cocktails on the night is over the top. Punch, however, works. Thomas at Trolley'd explains: "The thing about a punch is that you get everything done before they turn up. It's chilled and you can relax and have a drink. It's all about mise en place with parties, so you're not chasing your tail instead of enjoying the party." See recipe.

6. Go vintage

Make a trip to local vintage markets and shops like St Vincent de Paul in the search for old glasses of different styles. There's nothing wrong with having an eclectic table filled with well-washed and polished non-matching glasses. Mixed patterns will help guests remember which one is theirs.

7. Don't be a martyr

Delegate. Whether it's getting your other half to do their famous potato salad to go with your glazed ham, or hiring paid-for experts to do the heavy (service) lifting, parties are merrier for everyone if you're prepared to divvy up the work. And if your best mate offers to bring something, accept. But be specific and tell him exactly what you want, so his wretched cheese-squares-on-crackers don't ruin your vibe.

8. Channel your inner craftiness

"Make the ordinary extraordinary," says Kate Stewart at Melbourne-based Bright Young Things Culinary Event Makers. "Days or weeks before decide on a colour or theme. Paint a trestle that will act as your drinks table. Personalise items by using stamps, handwritten menus, wrapping ribbons around jars or try paint dipping wooden and ceramic items such as spoons and pot plants. Spray paint fruits in gold or neon, dip jars in colourful paint and fill them with flowers."

9. Pay the rent

It may seem indulgent, but hiring items such as glasses, cutlery, linen and even a six-litre drink dispenser for punch is less expensive than you might think. Imagine, no washing up! Or go all out with a pressed metal bar or food station for the garden from which to serve drinks. For an elaborate affair, get a wire pergola in and decorate it with fresh flowers and balloons with silver tassel garlands.

Hire from decorofdistinction.com.au in Sydney

10. Light up

Give friends the party equivalent of air-brushing; dim the lights. Break out non-scented candles and use fairy lights outside. Richard Breatnach, the managing director of Sydney-based Workshop Events, says scented candles can work if it adds to the theme. Coconut candles work for a Hawaiian party, for example. But otherwise they shouldn't be seen outside the bathroom. "Use lighting to highlight a feature in the house, it looks sensational. Use what's already there. If you're in the garden, highlight the trees or the plants. You have a natural backdrop there."

11. Go wild

Branches can add sculpture to a table. Go into the garden with pruning scissors and bring anything budding or flowering in. Trim away shaggy leaves, stick the branches in a vase or lay across the centre of a table.

12. Tune in, step away

"There's nothing worse than hosts or guests coming in and changing the song 10 seconds into a track. Have the music dealt with before guests arrive. Consider the audience and the tone of the party. Use Spotify and create a few playlists, then hit play when you're ready," says Richard Breatnach, Workshop Events. The Preatures' recent EP (Is this how you feel?), Bombay Bicycle Club, The Jungle Giants, San Cisco and a few Doobie Brothers tracks (such as Listen to the Music) will kick the party off.

13. Summer bites

We love a burst of fresh flavour with our canapes, single mouthfuls served in little wooden or Chinese spoons. Do the pink grapefruit, prawn and coconut mixture ahead and add to the little spoons each time a new tray needs filling.

14. Meet DIY canapes

Unchain yourself from the service tray. Set up a DIY canape station instead. Cummins at Gastronomy explains: "Set up a table featuring two-bite-sized buns, 10 condiments such as homemade bearnaise and pesto, onion marmalade, mustards, a finely chopped fennel and citrus salsa, and let guests make their own canapes. Roast a fillet of beef and serve it cold and sliced, and have seared rare tuna, thinly sliced, or do a glazed baked ham. DIY canapes say generosity and fun."

15. Spit and polish

That gilded mirror you have hanging on the guest bedroom wall can work as a canape platter. Literally serve little finger sandwiches on the glass (give it a good spray and polish). The frame makes an excellent talking piece and the mirror base makes the food look abundant.

16. Do play with your food

Give tradition a twist and make sure party favourites are served as manageable canapes that don't leave guests with a stick to hold (or hide in their pockets). Stewart at Bright Young Things suggests: "Duck parfait cones with Seville marmalade, pistachio powder and praline are always a party hit. It's right on trend. They look like sweet ice-cream cones, but with a twist."

17. KISS

Asking guests to remember which wine they had in their glass is a nightmare! Serve one red and one white, it saves on glasses and bother. Rodney Setter, sommelier at Sepia, suggests a light white, something easy to drink like a medium dry, Mosel Kabinett riesling. It's fruity and food friendly. In terms of red, go for something light that you can chill. You don't want to be drinking 15 per cent shiraz in the middle of summer. Setter suggests a Beaujolais or a light pinot noir.

18. Get a man (or woman) in

It seems like an extravagant answer to lazy hosting, but hiring a waiter or two for a party can lift it a few notches. It saves the host from running around all night. Wilson at Cook and Waiter suggests one waiter for every 15 people for a stand-up party. "They clean up as the night goes on, and afterwards. You want to be part of the party, not dealing with abandoned glasses."

19. Chill about dessert

Dessert getting you hot around the collar? Bring in a chilled dessert truck, or bicycle. Pure Gelato hires out a range of gelato carts, filled with scoops, cones, cups and different flavours. A vintage-style traditional gelato cart comes with 300 mini gelato cones in five flavours and a staff member to serve. Or prop a traditional gelato bike in the garden under an umbrella, the back is filled with 72 cups of 6 flavours. puregelato.com.au/hire/cart-hire.html

"But," warns Wilson at Cook and Waiter, "don't introduce a sweet item too early. It closes the party down. It says it's time to go home." An easy do-it-yourself dessert that's meant to get messy as people help themselves is pavlova, says Stewart at Bright Young Things. ''Make it a day ahead undressed. Then add whipped cream and berries or passionfruit curd or sprinkle with crumbled Peppermint Crisps, cherries and grated dark chocolate. Or deconstruct meringues into individual glasses and spoon in lemon curd, whipped cream, fresh raspberries and then add grated white chocolate.''

20. A style cheat sheet

Thankfully for the time-poor, there are people who specialise in bringing wow-factor direct to your door.

  • When style-bible US Vogue decrees "taste and expediency need not be mutually exclusive", you know it's acceptable to invite friends online – just as long as it's with bespoke e-stationary. Custom online invitations, from $6, paperlesspost.com
  • The trend-setting interior stylists at Greenhouse Interiors have launched an online event-styling service. Email them your brief and budget and they come up with a concept and complete list of suppliers. They can source the products for you (they recently repainted an old door for a client who needed a rustic table setting) or you can work from the list of suppliers yourself. greenhouseinteriors.com.au
  • No time to go to the markets? These florists don't have shopfronts. Instead, they specialise in home visits. They will assess your floral (and vase) needs, go to the markets for you and then install them in-situ. Lisa Milasas, Lisa Rose Flowers, 0416166087, Jordana Simpson, Wilder Flowers, wilder.net.au
  • If you really don't have time for anything more than a phone call, then make sure you call the right people. Cool Edie's stylists honed their skills in magazine land – styling shoots for some of Australia's best food and interiors magazines. They have now branched out into event styling, with a focus on small intimate parties for 10 to 100 guests. cooledies.com

Throw many parties? We'd love to hear your tips. Login the to the comments and share your secret to a perfect party.

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