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Food & Drink: Life of the Party

Fuel the festivities and flavor the fun with an array of small bites and shared plates. Seven local eats experts share their tastiest tips.

-Photographs by Dennis Wise | Styled by Theresa Crim-

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COCKTAIL PARTY

This is the portion of the party that’s typically about appetizers anyway, so it’s the premier venue to let small bites shine. Open the show with the unexpected—deconstructed crab pho in a cup, anyone?—or add flair to time-honored favorites. Chef Jason Stoneburner of Stoneburner restaurant in Ballard serves confit tuna deviled eggs and savory zeppole (Italian-style doughnuts) with cured meats and apricot mostarda. Keep in mind that most guests will also be holding a drink, so one- or two-bite items are best.

Perfect Pairings
Consider harmonizing your cocktail-hour swills and snacks just like you would wine with dinner. “I usually lean on textures and acidity when pairing small plates with booze,” says Stoneburner. “You have one bite to make an impression without being overpowering.” His signature crowd-pleasers include mussels on the half shell with barrel-aged sherry, grilled oysters with quince vinegar, and Dungeness crab and Hama Hama clam ceviche.

Punch It Up
Have drinks flowing from the get-go by serving punch instead of more time-consuming libations. “Punches are easily batched for large groups,” says Stoneburner’s bar manager Erik Carlson, “and they aren’t high in alcohol to wear down your guests early on.” Try Carlson’s popular Divine Rabbit Punch with tequila, lime, sherry, cucumber, orgeat, and a bit of nutmeg.

Chip In: Crisping is the new “pickle it!” Stoneburner likes caccio e peppe sweet-potato chips.


 

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TAPAS DINNER

Serving a unique selection of small plates is a beautiful opportunity to be creative, says BJ Duft, owner Herban Feast. Have an off-the-wall favorite you’d like to see on the menu? “You can take risks with this style of service because you don’t have to worry everyone will enjoy every item,” he adds. Herban Feast’s seasonally focused dishes—like wild king salmon with stone fruit chutney, mustard-braised lamb with gorgonzola mashed potatoes, and mini mason jars of truffled mac and cheese—will certainly give loved ones something to talk about.

Pass the Paella
Fun and flavorful Spanish cuisine is a bite-size no-brainer. Brian Parks, owner of Spanish Caravan Catering, recommends having six or seven tapas (e.g. chorizo with goat cheese and membrillo, Spanish tortilla with aioli, figs wrapped with jamon Serrano, and tuna-stuffed piquillo peppers) waiting for guests to descend on whenever they’re ready. Then use a sideboard to present fresh salads and a pair of paellas, and let guests dish up straight from the enormous pans.

Serving Size
For a recent wedding, St. Clouds Restaurant and Catering set up a street food feast with three stations offering noshes from different US regions. “We intentionally used smaller plates so the guests would visit each stop multiple times instead of loading up a large plate with hodgepodge of competing flavors,” says manager Aaron Wheetman.

Spanish Lesson: The word tapa means “cover” because these bites were traditionally served for free with a drink, balanced on top of (or covering) the glass.


 

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BITE-SIZE DESSERTS

Whether paraded around by servers or creatively displayed on stands for grabbing and getting back to the dance floor, tiny treats make a sweet meal finale. “Lately couples are requesting a cutting cake for tradition, but embellishing with other creative, often personalized, bites,” says Lisa Dupar of Lisa Dupar Catering (see her menu ideas below). Select an array of your favorites or themed seasonal specialties, and keep the party in full swing with dessert-and-cocktail couplings like spiked cinnamon hot chocolate paired with mini churros.

Eat These Words:

Burnt sugar waffle sandwiches 
with brown-butter buttercream

Grilled pound cake
with milk chocolate banana ganache 

Lemon verbena jellies
with tart raspberry puree

Deconstructed apple pie
with bourbon caramel in a shot glass

Mini Moscow mules
paired with ginger-molasses cookies

Family Matters
Work in your mother’s famous peach pie or a special sweet from your partner’s Irish upbringing  for a spread that showcases your combined family heritage. “Last summer we did a wedding for a Greek gal marrying an Italian gal,” says Dupar. “To highlight both of their histories, we baked up an entire buffet of cookies from each of their grandmothers’ prized recipes.” Other ancestry-driven options: a Dutch poffertjes station or mini jars of French pots de creme.

Station Master
Let your guests get in on the action—we’re fans of dessert bars for shaved ice with fresh juices, DIY s’mores stations, or made-to-order waffle cones with an array of toppings.

“If the desserts themselves are somewhat random, we’ll make sure the decor on the stations or passing platters tie into an overall theme.” —Lisa Dupar


 

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LATE-NIGHT NOSHES

Make guests feel warm and a little less fuzzy (let’s face it—most folks have had a bit to drink as midnight rolls around) with a second round of filling, booze-soaking eats, says Katie Benjamin, catering manager for Skillet. (See her menu ideas below.) She advises offering both salty and savory selections to satisfy the midnight palates of all your guests.

Eat These Words:

Gourmet popcorn bar
brown butter sage, mac and cheese, caramel-bacon

Fried chicken and cornmeal waffles
with maple syrup

Classic junk food:
sliders, cones of poutine, smoked corn dogs

Butternut squash soup
in espresso cups with grilled-cheese bites 

Seasonal milkshake shooters

Roll Out
A late-night jolt in the form of a food truck might be just the thing to push the party into the wee hours—or signal that it’s time to slow down. Skillet can pull up its retro-style Airstream. Other fan favorites: Native-American style fry bread tacos from Off the Rez, Napkin Friends‘ latke panini (served out of an old FedEx truck), or gourmet classics from the Grilled Cheese Experience.

The Brunchies
Breakfast for a second-dinner is always a delight. Benjamin suggests Skillet’s signature Little Rob sandwich, which sticks crispy bacon, fried eggs, and melted American cheese at the center of two buttermilk pancakes. We also like plates of fancy hash browns, buttered biscuits, and yogurt parfaits.

Favor Saver: Cute bags or boxes let guests enjoy finger foods in the car, bus, or Uber ride home.