Elizabeth, New Jersey
Before his thirtieth birthday, my now husband Alex not-so-subtly hinted that he "had always wanted a surprise party." What he didn't know was that I had already been planning to do that for months. The vibe -- a grown up house party with a bit of holiday glamour thrown in. Since our New York City apartment barely fit the two of us, my in-laws graciously allowed me to take over the first floor of their house, which included moving a jazz band into the dining room and setting up ping pong on the kitchen table.
Given how hard he pushed for it, the party shouldn't have come as a surprise -- but it did! The night was filled with great food, great drinks, and great music. Here's to thirty!
How many guests?
About 40 friends and family.
How did you set the mood?
Especially for a big party, I really believe that you should start setting the mood for the party from the time the invitations are sent. Since this was a party for a milestone birthday, I opted for printed invitations - which immediately made the event seem extra special. I also requested on the invitation that people wear cocktail attire, and everyone showed up looking incredible.
My husband loves jazz, so I had a jazz band come play for a few hours. A friend connected me to some talented jazz-playing friends of hers who were recent college grads. Not only was this much more economical than hiring professionals, but they lent a younger, more laid back vibe to the party. They also stuck around to party with us after their set.
As far as the atmosphere, I wanted it to feel lux but laid back. I turned the lights down low, lit a fire in the fireplace and put out lots of candles to make the space feel sexy and cozy. To keep it from feeling too formal, I brought in a ton of helium balloons with long silver strings, and set up ping pong on the kitchen table.
What was on the menu?
My grandma's roast beef
Store-bought truffle ravioli
Salad with mustard vinaigrette
Store-bought chocolate birthday cake
Individual vanilla rum panna cotta with salted caramel
Personalized Reese's peanut butter cups (Alex's favorite!)
How did you get it done?
A lot of help and advanced planning. I made most of the food and set up the decor the day before, and accepted help from anyone who would give it!
Any party tricks?
One that I have used several times for larger parties is hiring someone to help during the event. It is more affordable than you would think, and it buys you the freedom to be present with your guests and enjoy your own party. He or she can take time-consuming tasks off of your plate, from re-stocking the bar, to heating and serving food, to cleaning up stray cups and dishes. It also makes the night of/morning after clean-up so much easier.
I generally have the person arrive thirty minutes before the party starts so I have time to walk him or her through the timeline of the night, point out where they can find more beer to restock the bar, or where cleaning supplies can be found if there is a spill. Taking a few minutes to jot down a timeline with key instructions is the best way to help them help you. Mine would look something like this:
7:30 - guests arrive (begin preheating oven).
8:00 - put ham in the oven to warm through/begin boiling water for ravioli.
8:45 - take ham out of the oven, cook ravioli (cook for 2-3 minutes).
9:00 - serve dinner.
9:45 - clear dinner.
10:00 - bring out dessert.
Throughout the party, periodically make sure that: beer and wine are stocked at the bar, water dispenser is filled, candles are lit.
I also wanted people to have something to take home with them, so I had custom matches made (I always seem to be in need of matches) and personalized Reese's peanut butter cups with pictures of the birthday boy printed on them.
Air your dirty dish -- did anything go wrong that you hoped people wouldn't notice?
Of course it did! I definitely took on too much food-wise and a few things did not turn out as well as I would have hoped. The ravioli were overcooked and the panna cotta did not set (I've tried the recipe again and it's delicious). I served everything anyway and it was all eaten. The moral of the story is - nobody will care as much as you do (especially when the drinks are flowing!).
Also, my dress completely ripped down the back halfway through the night, but luckily I happened to have a backup! People did notice this one though....
Best part of the night?
Definitely the look on Alex's face when he walked through the door and was completely shocked to see everyone he cares about in the same room.
Written by: Sara Ortiz
Photography: Sara Ortiz