If a formal multicourse dinner in a stately ballroom is out of your budget, or just doesn't feel very you, scale back the pomp of a traditional reception and ramp up the good times with an elegant cocktail party instead. By turning the "mingling hour" into the main event (hors d'oeuvres are usually guests' favorite part of the evening anyway) and including only the meaningful-to-you traditions, you can host a celebration that still feels like a wedding—minus the hefty price tag.
Venue and Decor
Host a cocktail party anywhere—an art gallery, your favorite neighborhood bistro, or a historic house. Restaurants and hotels are particularly amenable because their in-house staff knows the drill, and you can eliminate the extra expense of an outside catering company—not to mention rentals! Flowers are an important touch, so consider hiring a florist or having a friend create arrangements. And even though you're throwing a roving reception, it's a good idea to provide seating. Cater to older folks with traditional table-and-chair groupings, and create pockets of intrigue for the youngsters with high-tops and tufted banquettes. Last, keep the lighting dim—it flatters everyone and keeps the mood festive.
It's your wedding—feel free to go full-on traditional, or mix it up in something short and flirty. Specify what guests should wear on your invitation ("cocktail attire" is foolproof), and if you're having a bridal party, consider putting your own festive spin on the bridesmaids' dresses. Instead of going for identical looks, scan the fashion glossies for a color you love, broadcast your choice, and let your bridesmaids choose their own individual styles in the selected shade. This will look terrific in photos while allowing their personalities to shine. (And they'll love you forever for letting them pick dresses they actually like!)
Food and Drink
Make it clear on the invitation that a full meal will not be served. "Please join us for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres following the ceremony" does the job—and is a necessary nudge to heavy drinkers who would, on otherwise empty stomachs, hang from chandeliers. Plan to have 8 to 12 different amuse-bouches in rotation (count on each guest eating six per hour), and be mindful of diverse tastes and dietary restrictions when selecting appetizers. Bolster passed bites with a few stations—from a display of great cheeses to a raw bar of oysters, shrimp, and clams. As for the spirits, you can opt to provide either a full bar or have champagne, wine, and a signature cocktail.
If you want a dance party, and piping in your own music from an iPod is out of the question (though there's nothing wrong with that), then book a DJ, as an eight to 12 piece band would likely overwhelm the venue. Carve out a front-and-center spot for the dance floor, and open it up an hour into the festivities. If your party is more about conversation and write-home-about-it food, that's quite all right, but don't forgo music altogether. Hire a small ensemble to play live tunes in the background; whether it's a jazz trio with a frontman jamming on phonographs or costumed gals crooning French chansons from the '30s, music is key!
Cake and Dessert
Choose the traditions that feel right for you. After all those passed hors d'oeuvres, a traditional tiered cake might be the perfect counterpoint. If so, be sure to give the cake the limelight, just as you would at a seated reception. After the well-documented cutting (slice, feed, smooch, snap!), have servers carry out pieces of cake and flutes of bubbly. Consider passing additional desserts—mini crème brûlées, pannacotta parfaits, or brandied sugar candy. For the last call, serve boozy milkshake shots to energize the crowd for the after-party—whether it's planned or just an impromptu migration to the nearest bar.
Since this kind of party runs at a faster clip than the average reception (three hours, say, compared with five), you'll want to schedule a few key wedding moments throughout the night. The best strategy: Pass hors d'oeuvres for an hour before segueing into the first dance. Then open the food stations to keep guests on their gustatory toes. About two-and-a-half hours into the party, cut the cake. Last, wind down the evening with a few time-honored rituals, like the bouquet toss and toasts from your nearest and dearest. Be mindful that toast-givers may be loose-lipped this late in the evening, so prepare to flinch a little—and laugh a lot.