Creating a memorable evening with a themed party
Written by Cynthia McFarland / Photos by John Jernigan / Recipes & table designs by Cindy Dinges, Decadence A La Carte
In this season of celebration and festivities, the idea of one more “must-attend” event will probably make you cringe. The thought of hosting a group of friends for dinner? Not even remotely possible, you say.
OK, you’re off the hook this month, but why not pull out your calendar and pick a date early in the new year to “do dinner” with some of your favorite people? Even better, think beyond the “typical” dinner party. Instead, let your imagination off its leash and throw a party with a theme.
And no, we’re not talking the stereotypical pirate or princess kids’ party. A themed adult dinner party provides focus for planning your menu and décor. Plus, guests love the idea of getting into a specific theme, too.
But won’t a themed party be more expensive than a “regular” dinner party? Not necessarily. The secret is to be inventive when planning your menu and determining decorations.
For practical suggestions, I turned to local expert Cindy Dinges, a classically trained chef and owner of Decadence A La Carte who specializes in themed events. A self-proclaimed “Army brat,” Cindy spent her childhood in multiple states but graduated from high school in Gainesville and considers Florida her home.
Cindy graduated from the Florida Culinary School and has been a chef since 1995. She launched Decadence A La Carte that same year and has been doing weddings, receptions, cocktail parties, showers, corporate functions, children’s events and private parties ever since. Among Cindy’s favorite assignments are destination events. Her passport is always current so she’s ready to fly anywhere and cook once she arrives.
Cindy loves the fact that her job is never the same.
“It lets me be creative on a daily basis. I basically get to do anything with food, so I never get bored, which suits my ADHD self,” she laughs.
When decorating for a themed party, look at what you already have with new eyes. Then fill in the gaps and shop for a few additional props.
In her ongoing quest to find unusual and funky décor items for parties, Cindy frequents local shops like The White Elephant, a thrift boutique. Don’t overlook Goodwill and similar thrift stores, along with discount outlets like Big Lots and, of course, craft/hobby stores. Cindy loves papermart.com, “a great online source for any type of decorating.”
When it comes to menu planning, it’s easy to go overboard but totally unnecessary. Always have a signature drink. This saves money by eliminating the need for a full bar. Then all you’ll need is beer, wine (if serving alcohol) and standard beverages, such as soda, tea, water and coffee.
Unless you’re having the entire event catered, just pick a couple dishes to make yourself. You might even print out recipes for the one or two featured dishes you made so guests can take the cards home and recreate the dishes themselves.
Round out the menu with items that can be ordered from a caterer and dropped off the day of the party or picked up ready-made from your local grocer or specialty foods store. For unique serving pieces, gourmet food items, wines, cheeses and more, Cindy relies on Stella’s in downtown Ocala.
Dinner Party Basics
There are certain basics that apply to any dinner party, themed or not.
For starters, invite an interesting mix of people. Don’t worry if everyone doesn’t know each other; they all know you, and if you like them, the odds are good they’ll like each other.
Plan ahead. The further ahead you plan and the more details you consider, the easier you make things for yourself. This includes knowing how much food and beverages to buy. As a rule of thumb, plan on each guest drinking a minimum of two drinks and eating two appetizers per item.
“People always run out of ice, so buy double the amount you think you’ll need,” advises Cindy. “It doesn’t go bad, and it melts!”
Don’t forget lighting and music; both are key components of a successful dinner party. Plan the music around your theme and don’t skimp on candles. Keep the lighting as soft as possible, as this is most flattering. You can swap out plain bulbs for colored ones to immediately change the mood. (Think red or orange bulbs to add a sultry, stimulating ambiance, but avoid blue, which tends to be calming and diminish appetite… not exactly the effect you want for a dinner event.)
Factor in help. Unless you’re Super Woman (and none of us is), you can use some extra hands for the prep, serving and/or clean up afterward. If you’re having a full bar, hire a real bartender. Caterers can recommend someone; you can even ask the bartender at your favorite restaurant if he or she is available for a side job. Beyond the bartender, you may be just fine hiring the neighbor’s teenage daughter to help serve food.
Favors aren’t just for kids’ birthday parties. Don’t overlook the fun of having a little takeaway goodie for your guests, giving them another reason to fondly remember the evening.
Favors can be left at each place setting, but the easiest method is to have them in a decorative basket or tray in an obvious place so each guest can pick one up as they walk out the door. They don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, but presentation is part of the fun, so chose favors you can put together a day or two ahead of time.
Pulling It Off
Here’s the good news: It’s fully possible to host a fun and memorable dinner party that will be the talk of your friends. Not only will the event be delightful for your guests, but you can—and should—have a great time at your own party. The secret is all in the details. That means strategic planning so you’re not racing around like the proverbial chicken with her head cut off at the last minute.
No matter what theme you choose for your party, if you follow these basic guidelines, your guests won’t be the only ones enjoying the evening.
1 Month Ahead:
Decide on a theme.
Finalize your guest list.
Send out invites at least four weeks ahead so your guests can save the date; be sure to mention the theme and attire in the invite.
Include your email address or cell number so friends can RSVP.
Plan your menu, focusing on one or two standout dishes, with the rest being simple items you can make ahead or, better yet, hire someone else to make.
Decide on a signature drink, and remember, it doesn’t have to be alcoholic.
Hire bartender/server/kitchen help, if needed.
Start planning your music playlist.
2 Weeks Before:
Order flowers, if purchasing, and arrange for pickup or delivery, keeping in mind that many florists aren’t open on weekends.
Purchase any décor and “props” you don’t have.
If you aren’t sure how something fits in, practice by setting everything up; edit or add pieces accordingly.
Order from caterer any food items you aren’t making yourself, and arrange for pickup or drop off on the day of the event.
Complete your shopping list for food and beverages; buy ahead everything that doesn’t need to be purchased just before.
Finalize music playlist.
2 Days Before:
Make your final shopping run.
Clean the house (or at least all the parts guests will have access to!).
Tidy up the yard, walkway, porch and parking areas.
Make sure there’s adequate lighting for guests to walk from their vehicles to your door.
Package up party favors, if giving, and set aside in a basket or tray.
1 Day Before:
Pick up the flowers or have them delivered.
Prep all food items that can be made ahead.
Buy extra ice.
Set up your décor and props; close off that part of the house if possible to keep curious kids and pets from “rearranging” your carefully designed scene.
Set the table completely; you can cover it with a clean flat sheet if you’re afraid of dust, but we’re only talking 24 hours.
Set up the bar, if you’re having one.
Lay out your own outfit (accessories and shoes included) so you have no last-minute decisions about what you’re wearing.
Arrange and set out flowers.
Make signature drink.
Complete final food prep.
Place favors near the door for guests to take when leaving.
Do a final walk-through of all areas guests will see; tweak any last décor items and props.
Light the candles 30 minutes before guests arrive.
Don’t forget to eat something healthy during the day; don’t wait until dinner!
Pick A Theme
We’ve chosen three very different themes to highlight. Use all of the suggestions and follow the theme to the letter, or just pick and choose your favorite ideas.
Although you’ll find a complete menu for each theme, due to space limitations, we’re not able to include recipes for every suggested dish. Some items can be ordered from your neighborhood grocer or specialty foods store, and the beauty of the Internet is that you can “Google” recipes online for the remaining dishes.
This theme lends itself beautifully to either indoor or outdoor (hello winter in Florida!) dining, so go with whichever works best for you. Guest attire can be cocktail or more casual, depending on whether you’re dining inside or on the patio.
Décor & Prop
Use an old barn door or similar weathered piece of wood for a serving table; simply place atop an existing table or buffet, or use sturdy sawhorses draped with burlap as a base.
Rosemary topiaries as centerpieces
Pillar candles of varying heights in wooden holders and grouped on wooden trays with greenery
Wood trays and bowls for serving pieces
Earth-toned, pottery-style dinnerware
Wood chargers, or make your own by cutting thin circular “slices” from a tree stump 14 to 16 inches in diameter
Thick, cloth napkins in earth tones tied with twine and accented with a sprig of rosemary
Contemporary Mediterranean or low-volume opera tunes
Small bottle of gourmet olives in a burlap bag; tie with twine and tuck a wooden serving pick in the knot
Fig and Lemon Martini
In a blender, process together 6 figs, 1 juiced lemon, 3 tablespoons honey and ½ cup vodka. Serve in a martini glass, and garnish with a lemon twist.
Pear Gorgonzola crostini
Belgian endive stuffed with white bean, lemon zest and fresh basil
Chicken Romano with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach (recipe follows)
Wild mushroom polenta topped with crispy leeks, basil and fontina
Artisan breads, high quality olive oil and butter
Flourless chocolate cake topped with port-marinated raspberries
Chicken Romano with Sun-dried Tomatoes & Spinach
(Allow for 1 large breast per person, and adjust recipe accordingly.)
Pound large boneless chicken breast until flattened. Lightly dust with flour. Sauté in pan with olive oil and butter until done and meat contains no pink. Remove chicken from pan; add tomatoes and spinach and sauté 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of white wine; cook until reduced. Add 1 cup chicken stock; cook until reduced. Add 1 tablespoon butter to thicken tomato and spinach sauce. Salt and pepper to taste. Arrange cooked chicken on each plate, and pour sauce over top. Garnish with thin strips of basil.
Release Your Inner Diva
This one’s for the girls! Invite your closest gal pals and friends for a “girls’ night in,” and celebrate in feminine style.
Cocktail dresses and killer shoes (think Sex in the City… that great new dress your husband doesn’t know you bought)
Décor & Prop
Go all out with energetic colors like tangerine and fuchsia, which happen to look fabulous together. Buy several yards of fabric in each color, and use them as tablecloths and drapes for the serving buffet.
Buy an array of colorful, inexpensive boas. Greet each guest with a glass of the signature drink and her own boa.
Find an inexpensive plaster bust at a thrift store or garage sale, spray paint it tangerine or fuchsia and include it as a prop in the serving area.
Individual Gerbera daisies in glass vases all along center of table
Scatter confetti “diamonds” and individually wrapped pieces of quality chocolate down the length of the table between vases.
Tangerine or fuchsia colored napkins
An energetic mix of “empowered women” songs (everything from Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” with some great Indie music thrown in for a good balance). For additional fun, you might even want to rent a karaoke machine so your guests can belt out the tunes themselves.
Bottle of nail polish (think red, hot orange or bright pink) and a few individually wrapped pieces of quality chocolate in small gauze drawstring bags
Combine in a shaker: 1 jigger rum, a splash grenadine, 1 small can pineapple juice and a squeeze from a halved lime. Serve in a martini glass, and garnish with a cherry.
Cheese straws shaped like high-heeled shoes
Phyllo cups with cilantro chicken topped with mango chutney
Lemon & papaya sushi
Citrus Carpaccio with grilled salmon topped with jicama-mango slaw and a citrus dressing drizzle
Champagne-infused fruit with fresh mint (recipe follows)
Chocolate fondue with crisp bacon, marshmallows, pretzels, strawberries and raspberries for dipping
Champagne-infused Fruit With Fresh Mint
Cut assorted fresh fruit (melons, berries, kiwi, etc.) into bite-sized pieces. Soak for two hours in a mixture of champagne (use one-half to full bottle, using larger amount if you have more fruit), 1 cup orange juice, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 tablespoons honey and the zest from 1 orange or tangerine. To serve, drain most of liquid from fruit and serve in individual stem glasses or large glass compote. Garnish with pomegranate seeds.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s
This theme follows the movie’s suggestion by featuring breakfast dishes instead of the predictable dinner fare. Plus, it allows the hostess to don her best Audrey Hepburn-esque dress. Guests dress in cocktail attire; if you really want to keep with the theme, suggest they wear black and white.
Décor & Prop
Buy the classic movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s and have it playing in the background with the sound turned down.
Black tablecloths with a Tiffany blue runner
White taper candles in crystal holders down the center of table
Strands of “pearls” and fake diamonds scattered around candleholders
White or silver napkins wrapped with a single strand of “pearls”
Cigarette holders with candy cigarettes at each place setting
A mix of 1950’s and early ‘60’s tunes (think “Rat Pack” music by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, etc.)
Chocolate-covered bacon wrapped in cellophane and tucked into Tiffany blue Chinese take-out boxes with silver and white tissue paper
Green Bloody Mary Martini
In a blender, process together 1½ oz. vodka, 1 small green apple, dash of green Tabasco, horseradish, ¼ English cucumber, 1 tomatillo, pinch celery seeds and 1 green tomato. Serve in martini glass, and garnish with lime and a crispy bacon strip.
Grilled pineapple skewers with rum-mint-jalapeno dressing
Caprese flat omelets with fresh basil & thyme
Bourbon and orange-glazed ham (recipe follows)
Peaches and cream French toast
Sweet potato-bacon-onion casserole
Lemon and orange rolls
Raspberry-mascarpone cream pound cake pops
Bourbon & Orange-glazed Ham
Purchase a large shoulder or picnic ham. Make glaze by combining 3 cups bourbon, juice of three oranges (zest them first), 1 tablespoon dark rum, 2 cups brown sugar and a pinch of cloves. Cook over low heat until mixtures reduces down and thickens. Brush ham with glaze, and cover with foil. Cook at 325°F for 1 hour. Then, uncover ham and brush with glaze every 15 minutes, and continue cooking for another 45 minutes, or until done, to create thick, crusty, glazed coating. Garnish with orange zest before serving.
Need Help With The Party? Decadence A La Carte / (352) 362-7711 / Thank you to Cindy Dinges for providing recipes for drinks and menu items.