Here's how to wine and dine your guests in a fabulous new way. A cocktail-party reception is for the bride who wants to celebrate in an unconventional way, yet keep some of the customs that define a wedding. She gets to have the best of both worlds—the social scene of a drinks-and-hors d'oeuvres gathering and the romantic rituals of a traditional wedding. Cheers!
On the Menu
The setup works this way: hors d'oeuvres (lots of them), wedding cake, and mini desserts. Offer 10 to 15 appetizers, figuring six pieces per person per hour. Mix it up with hot and chilled vegetarian, seafood, poultry, and meat selections. Tray-pass the majority of your nibbles, and have several "action stations," at which chefs cook dishes meant to be eaten immediately—anything from sushi to baby crepes. For guests, it's like ringside seats in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant.
Vary how you present the food, from spoons and skewers to demitasse cups and small plates. Unusual serving vessels, like tiny takeout boxes for Asian fare and aperitif glasses for cold soups, will make the food pop even more. Nothing should require the use of a knife.
Timing It Right
Like a seated reception, a cocktail-party fete usually runs four or five hours, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight. Pass hors d'oeuvres for about 60 to 90 minutes before beginning reception rituals like the first dance. Then fire up the action stations. About three hours into the party, cut the wedding cake, then segue to more rituals, like the father-daughter dance and toasts. Serve three or four sweets, tray-passed or from stations, about 45 minutes after the cake is cut.
It's a cocktail party, so have a full bar, but pass Champagne, red and white wine, and sparkling water to ease lines. A specialty cocktail station is a must. Martini and mojito bars are still red-hot (pick one or the other; you want happy guests, not inebriated ones). Custom cocktails can be tray-passed—they might match the decor or theme, or simply be presented with style. For example, serve limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur) and blood-orange martinis on trays strewn with rose petals. Care to up the ante? Open a high-end single malt Scotch or liqueur bar (brandy, cognac) to follow the cake-cutting.
I'll Drink to That!
An instant way to personalize the reception and start conversations: the signature drink. Name it after something special to both of you, like the cocktail you sipped when you met (the Love at First Sight Singapore Sling), or combine your names to create a drink (Ellen McGuire and Todd Bailey could offer "the McBailey"). Other ideas: the place where you met or got engaged (the Danbury High Daiquiri); your beloved animal companion (the Linus Margarita); your favorite hobby (the Tennis Ball); your honeymoon destination (the Maui Sunset); the music you love (the Bluegrass Bellini).
Take a Seat
With the food 180 degrees from ordinary, the seating should be, too. Provide traditional table-and-chair seating for the older crowd, but mix it with high bistro tables that guests can stand around. Add conversation pits with cushiony couches and chairs. Provide seating for at least half-to-two-thirds of the guests.
The Tasting Menu
The most extravagant cocktail receptions serve up an entire tasting menu. A full dinner—hors d'oeuvres to dessert—is tray-passed course by course in small portions, each matched with a wine. The dinner unfolds like a seated meal, usually in four to six courses. Begin with three or four hors d'oeuvres like sea scallops with tomato-ginger compote, or baby lamb chops, followed by demitasse cups of soup and/or salad. Next, pass pasta and/or fish, meat, a starch (something elegant, like truffled taro-root puree), and then wedding cake, desserts, or petits fours and chocolates. Courses are spaced 20 to 30 minutes apart. Pour Champagne with hors d'oeuvres; Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay with soup, salad, and fish; Pinot Noir or Cabernet with pasta and meat; Muscat, port, or Sauternes with dessert.
Pros and Cons
Need to convince Mom and Dad that a cocktail party is the way to go? Consider these pros and cons before making your final pitch:
Pros: It's a new approach for weddings and says you're a trendsetter; it can still feature beloved traditions; it has a fabulous party feel; guests can mingle more easily; you'll avoid seating-plan nightmares; the food can be both creative and fun.
Cons: Its unconventionality and limited seating may unsettle some guests; it may be harder to get guests' attention for reception rituals; the caterer and staff must be well-versed in this style for it to work.
Gotta Have This
Martini sliders: Bartenders hollow out two or three chutes in ice carvings. Vodka and vermouth are poured down the chutes; when the liquids reach the glasses waiting at the bottom, you have a perfectly chilled martini.
Tray-passed cookies and jiggers of milk. The server dresses like a cigarette girl from the '40s, offering warm chocolate-chip, oatmeal, and peanut-butter cookies to dunk.
Retro sweets station: Give them a gourmet makeover. Think tiny Twinkies with crème fraîche or bittersweet chocolate pudding.
Chocolate fountains: Tricked out with homemade flavored marshmallows, exotic fruits, and tiny ice-cream cones, chocolate fountains are news all over again.
Let Them Eat Cake
Just as you would at a seated reception, position the wedding cake where most guests will see it. A spot near the dance floor always works, but make sure the cake won't get bumped when Uncle Harry starts a conga line. Have the table placed front and center for the cake-cutting ceremony. Tray-pass the slices (along with glasses of bubbly), and set out some extra pieces for guests to collect after they dance.
Go global with these flavorful ethnic hors d'oeuvres:
- Vietnamese Summer Rolls (shrimp and herbs in rice paper, sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce)
- Lamb Empanadas with Mint Mojo (ground lamb, spicy garlic-citrus dipping sauce)
- Seared Tuna on Sugarcane Skewers with Jalapeno Sauce
- Ceviche Martini (lime-marinated scallops with tequila splash in a martini glass)
- Jamaican Jerk Chicken Skewers with Tamarind Chutney
- Foie Gras "French Toast" (toasted bread topped with foie gras, duck breast, cherry compote)
- Soy-Ginger Eggplant in Lettuce Wraps with Plum Sauce
- Baby Beef Burgers with Truffle-Oil-Drizzled French Fries
- Parmesan Chips with Fava-Bean Puree and Black Olive Tapenade