Ceremony. Dinner. Dancing. It’s a somewhat predictable formula most weddings follow. But what if you aren’t predictable? Maybe the thought of sitting down for an hours-long dinner with a ton of long-lost relatives makes you wince, or the idea of a buffet line crowded with kids is enough to have you considering an elopement. We say forget the formal dinner and consider a small-plate party, instead.
“It’s fun, a little less formal, and the cost can be a little more wallet-friendly,” says Jane Smith, general manager and owner of Portland’s Dame restaurant and wine bar. The idea behind throwing a cocktail party–style reception is to free your guests from the shackles of a seating chart. More small plates, less time spent waiting on waiters. More mingling, less forced table talk.
“There are no rules anymore!” says wedding planner Kayla Hoppins. “Cocktail-party receptions definitely allow for more mingling and interaction with your guests, as well as time for guests to interact with each other, versus being seated at a table for a formal dinner,” she continues. “It’s especially a nice idea if your families or friends haven’t had a lot of time together yet.”
Additionally, hosting an appetizer-heavy celebration allows you to be unencumbered when it comes to the menu. Make no mistake, less formal doesn’t have to translate to less elegant. Instead, it’s about making each bite count. “You have to leave an impression in one bite, so everything has to be a little bit more intense,” says Kei Ohdera, the chef/butcher/owner behind the Pasture menu at Dame. “Dishes should be both texturally balanced, and balanced in acidity, salt, umami,” he says. Basically, a big burst of flavor all at once.
The menu Ohdera and his co-owner and fellow chef and butcher John Schaible planned for our fête summarizes their use of whole animal cuts and the bounty of Pacific Northwest produce. When it comes to food for this type of party, they say everything should be easily picked up and eaten with fingers. “It shouldn’t be too messy—people are walking around and talking and not really sitting down and eating with silverware,” Ohdera says. Not to mention, guests are also wearing their wedding day best. For the chefs, this translated to beef sausage with celeriac purée and pickled shallots, fluffy mini pita topped with pork belly and yogurt, hazelnut fritters with aioli, rabe wrapped in pastrami, and roasted carrots with garlic yogurt and chili oil.
How to wash down those tiny-but-mighty bites? Cocktails are fun, but don’t feel tethered to needing to serve mixed drinks. Wine, beer, La Croix—whatever! Part of the ease of hosting this style of reception is that there really are no expectations—except to have fun, of course. Instead, pour what it is the two of you want to drink. Wine from the Yakima Valley? Great. Beer from Bend? Delish. Tea from a local blender? Perfection.
The same low-pressure vibe goes for décor, as well. “Take into account the styles already in play at your reception locale,” says Hoppins, “whether it’s a signature wallpaper à la Dame, or a gorgeous communal table moment.” The key, she says, “is to identify the items you want to highlight, while also working in special décor pieces that make it your own.” Home in on elements that are completely customizable—think coasters, printed menus, and flowers—to let your style as a couple shine.
When it comes to flowers, Kailla Platt suggests making a more intimate, cocktail-style reception feel special by adding focal arrangements that feel particular to your celebration. “Don’t just go with the flowers that might already be in the space weekly,” she says. “Instead, use custom florals that have a look and feel that’s specific to you as a couple.” To maximize impact in a minimal space, she suggests opting for just a few larger arrangements instead of lots of smaller ones. “Flowers can really set the mood for a wedding and reception,” she says, “especially in a more intimate venue.”