20 tips for your best outdoor party

In the West, we can hike in January, picnic in March, and even celebrate Thanksgiving––at least partly––outdoors. Here are our ideas for year-round entertaining outside

Outdoor party snacks

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Outdoor entertaining: Early-evening cocktails

Even if it’s too brisk for an entire open-air dinner, you can still start the party alfresco.

1. Quick spritzer: Instead of the expected cranberry, surprise your guests with pear: Fill a glass halfway with pear nectar (we like Kern’s) and top it with your favorite prosecco.

2. Easy eats: Make your own toasted herbed almonds: Combine 2 cups raw almonds, 2 tbsp. sea salt, 1 tbsp. finely minced rosemary, and 2 tsp. olive oil. Roast on a sheet pan for 10 to 12 minutes at 350°.

Get it: Streak-Dyed bowls by Urban Outfitters ($8 each; urbanoutfitters.com).

bar cart for entertaining

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Mobile drink station

3. Hands-free hosting: Set up an aperitif and appetizer cart with pour-your-own cocktails and grabbable nibbles.

4. Creative cooler: Keep the bubbly on ice in a garden pot.

Get it: Bigarra planter by Ikea ($25; ikea-usa.com).



drink tag crafts

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Make you own drink tags

5. DIY drink IDs: With a pencil, trace the base of each cocktail glass onto heavy paper stock (a good use for old calendar pages or catalog covers). Next, use a dime to trace a circle within your circle, then cut around both and snip across one side of the “doughnut.” Write a guest’s name on each.

Get it: Good on Paper calendar by Lisa Wong Jackson ($20; goodonpaperdesign.com).

Music for entertaining

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Bring the music outside

6. Interactive ambience: Set up a record player and a selection of albums—ask guests to bring their favorites and encourage all to play DJ. An iPod boom box works too.

Get it: USB turntable by Crosley ($131; amazon.com).

outdoor dining

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Feast outdoors

If your climate is temperate enough, go ahead—move the dinner table outside.

7. Garden centerpiece: Keep it low and give the gourds a rest. Make a casual garland with clippings from your own yard—ours was inspired by one on the blog Oh Happy Day.

8. Versatile furniture: Mix indoor dining chairs with outdoor ones as the length of your guest list grows. We used a table with wheels to make it even easier to bring the party outside.

Get it: Nandor ($70), Nordmyra ($40), and Urban ($40) chairs by Ikea. Egg salt & pepper cellars by Roost ($44/pair; available at Sallie Mac, 707/937-5357). Cruets by Roost ($30/set of 2; available at Digs).

dining chair and throw

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Keep guests comfortable

9. Just in case: Draped throws on the backs of dining chairs offer warmth-as-needed for guests—and another punch of color.

Get it: 1934 metal chairs by Sundance ($245). Cashmere throws by Williams-Sonoma Home ($298 each). 

white backyard canopy

Photo by Thomas J. Story

A canopy provides shade

10. In the frame: With a canopy, any outdoor area can feel like an outdoor room. Here, a retractable sailcloth awning floats overhead like clouds.

Get it: Awning by Flag Emporium (made-to-order; from $300).


blue and yellow place setting

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Setting the table

11. Crisp palette: Who says Thanksgiving decor has to be dictated by the colors of turkey feathers? Try hues inspired by winter citrus and the blues of the Pacific.

12. Place settings: Mark each table setting with the guest’s initials. These vintage letters do double-duty as napkin weights and party favors.

13. Everything is illuminated: Tealights in jam jars keep each table setting visible as the sun goes down.

14. Home on the range: The genius of dining in your own backyard is that your kitchen is just a skip away. Serve food buffet-style indoors—it can stay warm on the stovetop.

Get it: Letters from Collage Gallery (from $6 each). Max Teal salad plates by Crate and Barrel ($5). Coast dinner plate by Crate and Barrel ($6). Sky doily placemat by Urban Outfitters ($3).

outdoor lounge

Photo by Thomas J. Story

End the night outdoors

Wrap things up with round-the-campfire coziness under the stars.

15. Bring in the light: Go beyond the ho-hum twinkle of traditional Christmas tree strands. We love these colorful porcelain shades, which shed a soft glow, like mini pendant lamps.

16. Create the space: Turn a backyard corner into a cozy nook with a colorful rug to define the area.

17. Warm it up: Cluster eco-friendly mini fire bowls for a little heat without all the smoke.

18. Inside out: Bring out your favorite cushions or blankets, or buy a few inexpensive ones that you can leave outside.

Get it: Porcelain Disk string lights in Storm by Pigeon Toe Ceramics ($164/strand of 10). Pondicherry cube by Roost ($250; available at Lawson-Fenning, 323/660-1500). Mini River Rock fire bowls by Restoration Hardware ($49 each; 10-in. diameter, 51/2 in. high). Ombré rug by CB2 ($249; 5 by 8 ft.). Pondicherry floor pillows by Roost ($195 each; available at Lawson-Fenning).

Hot chocolate cocktail

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Warm up with a drink

19. And that nightcap? Brew some dark hot chocolate and serve it on a tray with add-your-own nut liqueurs and gourmet marshmallows. Our favorite combo: E. Guittard Grand Cacao Drinking Chocolate ($9) with Nocino della Cristina walnut liqueur (about $30).

Get it: Spoon coffee mugs by CB2 ($16/set of 4).

Location: Design by Chad DeWitt (415/894-5102); landscape design by Patricia St. John (510/848-5673)

Beach dinner party

Photo by Shelly Strazis

Take Thanksgiving further

20. Stretch your outdoor dining adventure: Try taking the celebration to the shore. To see how, click on Thanksgiving on the Beach.

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