“Hello, welcome! Thanks for coming! Did you have any trouble finding the place? Oh, good! Well, we’re so glad you could make it. Can I get you anything? We have water and, uh, hmm, maybe juice. Dinner will be ready in a few hours, so feel free to snack on some saltines. Oh, you didn’t bring any drinks? Well, there’s a party store right around the corner. Anyway, Happy Holidays!”
We’ve all been there: the unprepared party. Maybe you were attending it, maybe you hosted it — I've certainly done both. Either way, there’s nothing worse than a group of people coming together to awkwardly stand around and wait for something interesting to happen.
The good news is, it can easily be avoided.
Even if you’ve never been to a party in your life, plenty of places in West Michigan are specially equipped to hold your hand through the process. This doesn’t mean hiring event planners or anything like that — just talking to people with years of experience.
To start, Revue talked with Amy Ruis — of Aperitivo in the Downtown Market and Art of the Table on Wealthy Street — for her insight. Her shops are practically made for party planning, whether you’re seeking out specialty foods, unique wines, kitchenware or an expertly made charcuterie board.
You could almost say her expertise is hereditary, going back to her grandmother, “the consummate entertainer.”
“My family has always had great meals and had fun around the table or in the living room. I grew up with that,” Ruis said. “With my first career, I ended up working in a kitchen store and I started learning about pots and pans, dinnerware, gadgets, all the stuff. I've always enjoyed putting those things together for friends to come over and throwing as lavish of a dinner party as I can muster up.”
PREPARE TO PREPARE
After all these years, Ruis’ biggest tip for throwing a great party is quite simply to be prepared. You don’t want to spend the entire evening “hosting.” The more you have planned ahead of time, the more you can be part of the fun!
This is especially key if you’re bringing together a group of people who don’t know each other well. You don’t want to leave people to socially fend for themselves.
“It doesn't need to be that you've got every minute planned, but just thinking about the tablecloth, the candles, what's going on the table — even if it's a cocktail party, what glasses am I going to use, what drinks might I serve?” Ruis said. “If it's a dinner party, try to have things pre-prepped that are already in the oven, or a salad that's already made and plated, or the vegetables are washed and cut.
“Those kinds of things I try to think about so when it comes time, I can be a little more relaxed about whatever party I'm having.”
OUTSOURCING HORS D’OEUVRES
Of course, the easiest way to be prepared is to buy something that’s ready and waiting for you to put it on the table, like the time-tested cheese and charcuterie board.
At this point in my being, I’m convinced that a cheese platter is the life of every party. It gets people excited the moment they walk in the door, it’s a conversation starter, it’s a place to congregate, it’s a decoration in and of itself, and it supplies energy throughout the night.
If you’re Midwest born and raised, you might be used to those plastic trays of diced deli meat with some cubes of white cheddar and colby jack. The shocking truth is: You can put together a solid board of brie, gouda, aged cheddar, and summer sausage for the same price as a big pile of processed cheese and meat. It'll be more impressive — and people will actually eat it.
Still, putting all that together can be intimidating your first or even second time. That’s where places like Aperitivo come in. You can walk in and tell them what kind of party you’re throwing, how many people will be there, and what your budget is, and they’ll help you find the perfect platter.
The key, Ruis said, is variety.
“The biggest thing we try to do is have an array of cheeses and/or meats, because you don't want just one taking up a whole tray.”
You can start with sourcing your spread from all over the farm — cows, sheep and goats all make pretty different kinds of cheese. After that, you can start to think about having different textures, from a firm aged cheddar to a creamy brie. Then there’s a whole world of flavors to explore, whether you want the cheese itself to be the star or have a slice infused with spices, herbs, or fruit.
For the holidays, you can ask specifically for those seasonal flavors like cranberry, cinnamon, butterscotch, clove, and so on.
The same principle applies to meat. A thick, seasoned salami is vastly different from a thin, moist prosciutto, which is why they go great together.
Obviously, you don’t need to bring the whole deli home with you! Having three to five main components is a good starting point. Then, Ruis says, they’ll fill in the blanks with an array of jams, honey, olives, and nuts — not to mention the near infinite possibilities of crackers and bread.
It’s a lot to think about it, which is fun for some and overwhelming for others, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. No one at the party needs to know.
WINING AND DINING
If you can, providing your guests with some social lubricant is always nice. When it comes to dinner parties, it’s nice to break away from the deluge of craft beer we Michiganders often experience. You can plan a festive cocktail if you’re a master mixologist, but it’s typically cheaper and easier to go with wine.
Ruis likes to pair her wine with the cuisine, if possible. The simplest way is to match the wine and meal’s origin, so French wine goes with a French-style meal, for example. Again, the best thing you can do is have a variety — at least be sure to offer a white and a red, as many people will only drink one or the other.
If you’re doing cheese and charcuterie, though, the best way to open the party is with a bottle of bubbly.
“It cleanses the palate. It's fresh and flavorful, like a brut or a prosecco,” Ruis said. “I love, for example, Mawby's Blanc de Blanc. It's just across-the-board happy, I'll drink that with any plate.”
WATCH AND LISTEN
No one wants a helicopter host, constantly breathing down your neck and asking if you’re OK. But we don’t want to be left to float adrift either. Especially if you’re hosting a dinner party, make sure to keep the drinks flowing.
“I think it's helpful when you're cognizant of what the guests need,” Ruis said. “It's not necessarily anticipating what they need but knowing you can't just sit there all night. Bring more beverages, so it's not just everybody sitting there wishing they had more, but no host offered it.”
THINK IT THROUGH
Really, the key to throwing a great party is to be thoughtful — before and during the party. Plan the little details ahead of time, so when your guests have arrived, you’re focused on them. That way, they’ll want to come back and you won’t go to bed worrying over whether everyone had a good time.
After all, a party should be fun!
HOLIDAY PARTY IDEAS
Whatever holiday you’re celebrating, put together a curated playlist ahead of time with your favorite versions of songs that fit the party's atmosphere. Kenny G’s “Silent Night” will set a very different mood from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Either way, don’t be afraid to turn the volume up a bit.
If you really want to go all out, give your guests a little bag with fancy holiday candy, chocolate or even ornaments. At her parties, Ruis likes to celebrate with Christmas crackers — not the kind you eat, but the kind you pull apart to find a small gift or joke inside. They’re a hot commodity at Art of the Table.
You don’t want to force your guests to do something that makes them uncomfortable, yet if you’ve got a good group, you can always put together a special holiday game or some admittedly cheesy prompts like, “What’s your favorite holiday tradition?” or “What does the holiday mean for you?” For Ruis, her friends host an annual party where everybody writes and reads poems for each other. “Some people go all out, and others make it really funny or short,” she said.
Let your personality shine!
Aperitivo. Photo by Jeff Hage
Where to Supply Your Party
When the holidays roll around, time is a precious commodity. Keep your shopping short by heading to one special spot!
435 Ionia Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
The Downtown Market was built specifically to be a one-stop shop for nearly everything you could need. Hit up Carvers for some of the best quality meat around town, Spice Merchants for your seasonings, Old World Olive Co. for your vinaigrette, Bliss & Vinegar for your produce, and Love’s for your sweet treats.
Plus, the Market has classes throughout the month that will perfectly prepare you to host or contribute to a party:
- German Christmas Market (mulled wine, currywurst, doughnuts), Dec. 6
- Field & Fire: Stollen (fruit bread), Dec. 7
- Holly Jolly Cookies (leave with 8 dozen cookies), Dec. 8, 14, 15, 21
- Cocktails to Leave Santa, Dec. 17
Forest Hills Foods
4668 Cascade Rd SE, Grand Rapids
This grocery store has a huge deli that is more than happy to do most of the prep work for you. There are more than 20 different platters, ranging from meat and cheese to sandwiches, dips, veggies, and sweet treats. You can also get a deluxe ham dinner with enough ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, rolls, and pie for six to eight people, and it costs only $54.99.
Kingma’s Market & Butcher
2225 Plainfield Ave. NE, Grand Rapids
Kingma’s is chock-full of holiday treats, truffles, and stocking stuffers from all over the world, as well as house-smoked ham and other meats from the butcher. What’s more, you can head there early in the month for fresh-cut Christmas trees and wreaths.
200 Union Ave. NE, Grand Rapids
Martha’s is known all over West Michigan for its amazing selection of specialty cheeses, wine, and snacks, but the deli is also full of unique sides you won’t find anywhere else. Altogether, they make dinner and dessert easy and delicious.
There are a million party stores all over, of course. Still, some shops have become trusted experts in a specific field for a reason.
5295 West River Dr. NE, Comstock Park
There are tons of flavors to choose from here, including Forbidden Apple Brandy, Spunkin Punkin Pumpkin Spice, and Billari Amaro Americano.
Eastern Kille Distillery
700 Ottawa Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Never hurts to warm up with straight bourbon or make a refreshing cocktail with barrel-finished gin.
Long Road Distillers
537 Leonard St. NW, Grand Rapids
Try the apple brandy, cherry liqueur, aquavit, or nocino: a green walnut liqueur with holiday spices.
New Holland Spirits
Brighten up your cocktail with the Clockwork Orange liqueur or get boozy with the Beer Barrel Bourbon.
2869 Knapp St. NE, Grand Rapids
Leon & Son
972 Cherry St. SE, Grand Rapids
Tiffany’s Wine & Spirits
1714 W. Main St., Kalamazoo
Bellavinos Party Shoppe
3920 Plainfield Ave. NE, Grand Rapids
Craft Beer Cellar
404 Ionia Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
Rishi’s International Beverage
3839 28th St. SE, Grand Rapids
2840 Lake Michigan Dr. NW, Grand Rapids