How to Host the Ultimate Lavish Holiday Party

Susan MacTavish Best knows what makes a good holiday bash—and it’s not perfection

Margo True
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The Party Whisperer

At a Susan MacTavish Best party, you might find yourself squeezed in the hallway next to a venture capitalist, or a trombone player, or a neuroscientist, deep in an unexpected conversation. Or maybe you’re in the dining room, helping yourself to a vast spread of food—beef tenderloin, smoked trout, roasted pork, tapenade. Or in the living room, sprawled on a sheepskin, listening to a musical performance or a talk on genetics or the history of Scotch whisky. You leave with business cards and phone numbers and new ideas, merrier than when you arrived.

At least twice a month, at her San Francisco townhouse and at her loft in New York, Best hosts 50 to 125 people—all with, she says, “a minimum of fuss.” As founder of a lifestyle brand, Living MacTavish, and a PR company, Best Public Relations, she creates these modern-day salons for her clients (who include software start-ups and politicians), slipping them into the swirl of guests to meet and make connections. Tall and slender, Best has the aristocratic look of Cate Blanchett, but has an endearingly goofy side that instantly puts her guests at ease. Her art lies in creating an environment that ignites a spark in everyone who comes.

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Manage the Guest List

How does she light that party spark? First, the guest list. “I like it to be as eclectic as possible—that’s where the excitement and fun is. When you introduce a filmmaker to a surgeon, you never know what might happen. I like the ages to be as different as possible too.” She enjoys seeing a 20-something techie hit it off with an 80-something psychoanalyst. “And I love piling people up.” She invites so many people that they’re brushing up against each other. They forget to look at their phones and end up talking instead.

The ambience is key too. There’s more than a tinge of glamour in Best’s background—a Scottish castle, a father who served in Canada’s parliament, a famous grandfather (Charles Best, co-inventor of insulin)—and her house is filled with antiques. Yet the setting feels playful and cozy. She sets out lab beakers instead of glasses. A stuffed toy frog tops her Christmas tree. Paintings don’t hang straight, plates don’t match, and there are never enough chairs, so most people end up on the floor or leaning against a wall. It’s a gentle way to disrupt her high-powered guests. “You leave your pretensions at the door,” she says.

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Make It a Little Messy

Then there’s the food, a staggering outpouring that’s designed to get people a little bit messy and relaxed—juicy roasted carrots picked up straight off the platter, crumbly walnut meringues, cocktails you pour yourself. Best produces it all from a tiny kitchen, an extra fridge downstairs, and a beat-up backyard grill, using easy recipes that pack a lot of flavor and can be made ahead. But she also likes to cook as people arrive, because it livens things up and sends enticing aromas through the house.

These touches of theater and surprise and ease make all the difference. “We can get so bogged down in the minutiae of every day, and so much good comes out of breaking the routine,” she says. “And our lives are so imperfect ... how do you encourage people to come together and not need to be perfect?” It’s a question she answers with every party she throws.

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Best’s Big-Party Tips

  • The Guests: Invite lots of interesting people, from all walks of life and all ages. “It’s like making a recipe; you know the connections that will work out well.”
  • The Decor: Nothing should be too staged. “If everything looks just so, it makes your guests tend to act on edge and on show. That’s a terrible vibe for encouraging people to create new relationships!” That said, do include touches of fun—a blackboard menu in the kitchen, or a guest book in the bathroom, “where people naturally contemplate.”
  • Lighting: Put candles everywhere and twinkle lights in unexpected places (Best drapes them on the ram’s head over the kitchen door). “Ban overhead lighting—it’s harsh and unsexy.”
  • Music: “Usually I just get a friend to do Spotify. I really like the playlist ‘Smart Conversations.’ ”
  • Drinks: “Always self-serve. I don’t want it to be fancy, and it’s cheaper. Old silver cups I find at auctions for not much money—they last forever and don’t break. Also, I always serve pink Champagne for $20 a bottle.” Invite guests to bring their own bottles too.
  • Food: As with drinks, have some 
on the table before the party starts; Best begins with charcuterie, cheeses, and tapenade at minimum. Choose recipes that can be made ahead and don’t need to be hot, and
 get help with serving. Provide vegans with hearty pasta or salads. And use small plates. “I used to throw away a lot 
of food when I used big plates.”
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An Evening at Angora

On the twin lakes at Angora, located on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, lies a comfortable family-owned resort that Best loves, there since the 1920s. It’s a good spot to watch the sunset, the colors of which she distilled into this cocktail. A tip: Squeeze fresh juice days or weeks ahead and freeze it.

Recipe: An Evening at Angora

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The Point Lobos

Best has a house near Point Lobos, south of Carmel, and she goes to the beach every evening she’s there. This cocktail evokes the golden, slightly foggy view.

Recipe: The Point Lobos

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Inverness Sunset

Chill all the ingredients before mixing, since this gently fizzy cocktail is meant to be served straight up. Best named it for the purplish skies over the coastal town of Inverness in Northern California.

Recipe: Inverness Sunset

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Black Olive Tapenade

“Tapenade is a great thing to have in your fridge over the holidays for drop-in guests, for slathering on everything from sandwiches of leftovers to a roast,” says Best. She often stores her tapenade in glass jars, so it can be served straight from the fridge. As for the quail eggs, “don’t put out 50, that would be silly,” she says. “They’re a talking point, really, they give folks a reason to speak to each other. And I certainly don’t peel them—too much work! Guests peel them.”

Recipe: Black Olive Tapenade

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Smoked Trout Pâté

“So festive! When I was a kid, my mother would buy the fish at Fortnum & Mason on our way back to America and make me carry it in my suitcase in case we got stopped at customs,” Best says. These days smoked trout is available just about anywhere, and this spread is very easy. “You can make this in 10 minutes. Anyone has 10 minutes!” Serve with crackers.

Recipe: Smoked Trout Pâté

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Hearty Winter Salad

Best likes this salad for large parties for many reasons: It’s sturdy, so it won’t wilt before the guests come. It’s vegan. And, she adds, “The potatoes make the salad hearty, helping to lace your guests’ tummies with all the cocktailing going on!” She serves it on a platter rather than a traditional salad bowl. “Salad bowls tend to be somewhat less inviting to guests ... a bit like a trough.”

Recipe: Hearty Winter Salad

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Roast Rack of Lamb with Lavender

“I roast these early in the evening and pass them around straight out of the oven. It’s a reward to the early arrivals,” says Best.

Recipe: Roast Rack of Lamb with Lavender

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Slow-Roasted Pork Belly

“No matter how much you make, it will be eaten,” says Best of these rich, juicy-crisp chunks. “It’s a fairly forgiving dish time-wise, so it’s great to have cooking as your guests arrive. And the smell, so welcoming.”

Recipe: Slow-Roasted Pork Belly

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Pulled Brisket Sandwiches with Sesame Slaw

Guests tend to gobble these up late at night, says Best, so you want a lot of them. Serve a batch earlier in the evening and the rest later. “The sandwiches should look abundant, just like the evening,” she adds. “If vegetarians are coming, make some sandwiches with slices of baked tofu. It’s usually seasoned and often smoky and good.”

Recipe: Pulled Brisket Sandwiches with Sesame Slaw

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Bacon-Wrapped Fillet of Beef

“Quite grand but so easy to do,” says Best. “It’s delicious warm or cold, and will be one of the first dishes to be finished off. I specifically keep this very simple, with no spices, for those who have a more traditional palate.”

Recipe: Bacon-Wrapped Fillet of Beef

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Rum and Honey-Roasted Cayenne-Cumin Carrots

Best serves these with their stalks still on so people can use their fingers. “They’re sweet, hot, salty, and juicy,” she says. “They are very popular. And wallet-friendly!” You can substitute tequila and agave or bourbon and honey for the rum and maple syrup.

Recipe: Rum and Honey-Roasted Cayenne-Cumin Carrots

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Powdered Stuffed Dates

“My grandmother used to arrive at Christmas with these dates,” Best says.

Recipe: Powdered Stuffed Dates

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Nanny’s Sand Tarts

Best makes these at Christmas, using her great-great-grandmother Susie’s recipe from 1850. “They’re chewy-firm and reminiscent of snickerdoodles ... homey and comforting.”

Recipe: Nanny’s Sand Tarts

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Nanny’s Walnut Meringues

These also come from Best’s great-great-grandmother.
 “So fortunate to not be hand-beating the egg whites now!” says Best. The egg whites shouldn’t be too warm—straight out of the fridge works just fine. If you’d like to double the recipe, make two separate batches rather than a single big one.

Recipe: Nanny’s Walnut Meringues