Entertaining advice with Carla McDonald of The Salonniere - Home Front

Carla McDonald
Jan 18, 2018

Nationally known entertaining expert Carla McDonald is a go-to resource for hosting dinners and parties on her website The Salonniere. Carla spent 25 years in public relations and special events and can answer all your questions about the art of tablesetting, menu planning and dos and dont's.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Nationally known entertaining expert Carla McDonald has a big following on her website The Salonniere. She knows about party decor, food, fashion and playlists. Carla spent 25 years in public relations and special events and can answer all your questions about the art of table setting, menu planning and dos and dont's of party etiquette. Is it okay to Instagram during a dinner party? Carla knows the answer. Let's chat.

Good morning! I'm Carla McDonald, the founder and editor in chief of The Salonniere, the nation’s leading site dedicated to the art of entertaining. I’m a huge fan of Jura’s column, so I’m thrilled to be here today to online-chat with all of you! Thanks to everyone who sent in a question—I’ll do my best to type quickly and get to as many of them as I can! If I don’t get to your question, feel free to search the topic on The Salonniere at www.thesalonniere.com. We have more than four years of great party content on the site. Also, I hope you’ll take a moment and follow us on Instagram @thesalonniere—it’s one of our favorite ways to meet and socialize with our readers. I look forward to getting to know all of you! 

I have like questions on fabric choices and decorating in general that were asked in today's post. Am I in the right place?

That was last week's chat. Stay tuned for more decorating advice on future chats. Today we are talking about entertaining and parties.

Are thank you notes still necessary? Or is a text message ok? What's the protocol?

We did a survey a year ago that revealed that only half of party guests send thank-you notes of any kind after a party. That surprised (and saddened) me.  So, yes, they should be sent! And they don't have to be long. Even just a few lines are fine. Although handwritten thank-you notes are always welcome, you can use the party as your cue for the best type to send. If it was an informal or casual party, a text or call is fine. If it was a more formal party, a handwritten note is best. But, at the end of the day, the show of appreciation is what matters most! 

What are your top party must haves and top 3 party pet peeves?

A great party is like a great film--it's comprised of a variety of elements (acting, script, scenery, etc.) that come together to form a wonderful and entertaining gestalt. So my party must-haves are all the elements of a great party -- a terrific mix of fabulous and interesting guests, a great ambiance, delicious and creative food and cocktails, a few "wow" moments, etc. In terms of pet peeves, I hate to focus on the negatives when I'm at a party, but harsh lighting is a major downer. People want to feel beautiful while they're socializing, not self-conscious. So turn off those overhead lights and turn on lamps and light candles. Oh, another of my pet peeves is poor pacing -- for example, cocktail hours that go for more than an hour. They really should last for 45 minutes. It's important to keep things moving along.

Re. de-cluttering: What if your house is packed with valuable items - antiques, quilts, paintings, etc. - that you've either inherited or collected but have no inclination or time to check out the best way to get estimates for selling the items? Elizabeth

You can have an estate sale expert come to your house and look at what you have. They can tell you if it's best to sell at a sale, sell online or auction. Also you can check with local auction houses - take photos of what you have. Also some professional organizers can help you decide the best way to deaccession your things.

Do you believe that having a signature cocktail is necessary at a party?

I love signature cocktails! They're a great way to set the tone for a party from the moment your guests arrive. And remember, you can use any cocktail recipe that you love and just give it a new name that fits your party's theme. :)

What are your favorite Hostess gift ideas for winter and spring parties over the coming months?

Oh, there are so many great options! I love giving vintage items, like books on topics of interest to the host or little treasures that relate in some way to the party topic. For my fellow gin lovers, I'll be giving Henro gin, which won a bunch of awards at the World Gin Awards. It's delicious and comes in an adorable bottle that your host will love to showcase on his or her bar. Whimsical cocktail napkins from August Morgan and Kim Seybert are always fun to give too, since a host can never have too many cocktail napkins. In the spring, I'll be giving edible flowers - they're so fun in cocktails! 

Damp glasses on my wood furniture leave water stains. Is it polite to ask guests to use coasters? I leave a stack on my coffee table but not everyone uses them. Is it okay to just slip one under their glass when they are not looking?

It's great that you are leaving coasters and napkins out for your guests to us. There is nothing wrong with slipping a napkin or a coaster under a glass to protect your wood table. Just try to do it unnoticed, if possible. You don't want to embarrass a guest. 

Theme parties: fun or tacky?

FUN!!! They provide a great organizing concept for parties. Just don't go too far overboard with the themed elements or your party can risk becoming a bit costume-y. 

Parties are becoming more and more a multi-cultural event: people speak different languages, come from various walks of life and cultural backgrounds. How would you suggest entertaining a multi-cultural crowd which consists of people who do not necessarily all speak the same language or may speak different varieties of English? What would you do if you were seated at a party next to a person who does not speak English at all or speaks English with a strong, hard-to-understand accent? How would you suggest making this person feel comfortable and accepted at a party? Thank you for your advice.

This is such a great question. As a host, the most important thing is to make people feel comfortable. I'd recommend doing plenty of homework before the party to know who speaks which language so you can make sure those people meet each other. One thing to watch for as a host is a group of people who are speaking a language that someone in the group doesn't understand or doesn't understand well. This can be very uncomfortable and isolating for that guest. In terms of having a hard time understanding someone at a party, the best course of action is honesty. Simply tell your dinner partner that you love their accent but are having a little bit of difficulty understanding them and you don't want to miss a word of what they're saying. You can then ask if they wouldn't mind repeating what they said or speaking a touch more slowly.  Most of all, people want to be heard, so no one will mind your efforts to hear more accurately what they have to say. 

I like the "Playing Favorites" part of your RSVP interviews with renowned party hosts. What are some of your favorite things -- dinnerware, stemware, flatware, linens, powder room candle, etc.

Oh, I'm crazy about home and tabletop products! There are so many fabulous options, as you know from reading Jura's column. Some of my favorite brands are Bernardaud, St. Louis, Alberto Pinto (GORGEOUS and very special dinnerware!), Christofle, Sferra, among others. Crate & Barrel, CB2, West Elm, and Target also have really great and very affordable tabletop items. In terms of hand soaps and candles, I like options that aren't too floral. Not everyone likes a floral scent on their hands. The Diptyque Figue candle and Jo Malone Grapefruit handwash are two of my go-tos. They're universally appealing.  

What are some of your favorite entertaining books and go-to resources for party inspiration?

We have a story on the site about the 10 best entertaining books of all time, and I love ALL of them! One of my favorites is "Entertaining is Fun," which was written by Dorothy Draper in 1941. It's still chic! I love giving it as a hostess gift to friends who love to entertain. I also love my friend Lulu Powers' book, "From Food to Flowers." It's chock full of delicious and low-stress (important!) food and cocktail recipes and her passion for entertaining is infectious. Darcy Miller's book "Celebration" brims with what I call "fete-spiration." You'll want to throw a party every week! 


What do you predict will be the biggest party trend of 2018?

More parties! We all need more joy in our lives! Dinner parties - large, small, casual, and formal - will be a big trend this year. We're all feeling a strong need to gather with friends and family and have fun! Also, "big social moments" are in. People are feeling a need to make a statement about who they are and what they believe in.

I have a tiny little place. What are your tips for entertaining in cozy quarters? For instance, my table only seats four, but what if I want to have more than four people over for a meal? I personally hate dining on my lap.

Cozy quarters are wonderful for parties! You always want a few more people than the space "fits" - it adds energy! Your place sounds perfect for eat-as-you-go parties, as opposed to sit-down dinner parties. You could set out trays of food and pretty little plates throughout your place, so your guests can nibble while standing or sitting. A bar cart be a wonderful way to serve cocktails. 

I live in a small apartment and my dinner table only seats 4. My saving grace is a large L-couch that has seated as many as 6, with the other guests sitting on the floor. What is the best way to utilize the space I have for dinner parties in the future, making it feel homey without making guests feel too cramped?

What is your opinion on using paper plates for a cocktail buffet? I know they are okay for outdoor parties, but I am seeing more of my friends use them for other entertaining.

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of plain white paper plates at parties. There are so many fabulous alternatives today - melamine, etc. - if you're looking to use something along those lines. But, of course, I always encourage people to haul out their best china, no matter what the occasion. Those pieces are meant to be used and enjoyed! 

Do you believe in place card seating all the time or just sometimes?

One of the great joys of hosting a party is helping to facilitate what may become lifelong connections, so I recommend seating guests.  There are lots of ways to seat guests - by shared interest, etc. - but I like to seat mine according to personality type. For example, extroverts are usually drawn to each other and will tend to sit together, but that usually means one end of the table will be dynamic and filled with laughter and perceived to be where all the fun is happening. Extroverts are precious at a party, so have to split them up and spread them around. We have a story on the site right now about this. 

I want to throw a party, but I don't know where to start? What is the first thing I should do when planning a party? (Flowers, catering, decor, venue, etc.)

The first thing to think about is the objective. It's important to know what you're trying to achieve with your party. Is it a milestone occasion to celebrate someone special? A fundraiser that will raise money for a charity that you care about? Once you know what you're trying to achieve, you can develop and choose your party elements accordingly. After that, the most important thing to do is to set your budget. 

My question is related to today's HOME article on clutter. I have a hard time parting with my deceased parents' things. No one else wants them, and I can't just throw them in the trash. Photos, Dad's fireman's hat, etc. They are not useful to anyone else so can't just donate them to a charity. What to do?

I know what you mean and many of us are struggling with those issues. First, I would photograph the things you love but don't really have a place for, including that fireman's hat. Send the photos to all your relatives and family friends and ask them if they have any interest in the items. That fireman's hat would be great in a child's bedroom or playroom. Photos can be shared with others and you don't have to keep all the albums - you can have them scanned and toss the old crumbling photo albums. Put aside the things that mean the most to you. Other things like china and collectibles can be sold at consignment shops or on Craigslist or eBay. Display some of your most beloved things in your house, in a special cabinet or shelf unit. Hopefully you can pare down the number of things you hold on to and not feel bad about it.

What is your opinion about mixing cheap dishes with valuable china at informal dinner parties? Also, would you ever use paper napkins with fine china & silver?

I LOVE high-low mixing on tables. It's such a wonderful way to express your creativity and put your own personal stamp on things. As for paper napkins, there's certainly a place for them, but I generally avoid using them at parties, especially because there are so many fun and inexpensive linen options out there!  If I do use paper napkins - and again, there is a time and place for them - I'll buy them through ForYourParty.com and personalize them in a fun way to communicate the party's theme. 

Hi, Carla! I loved the "Five Delicious and Easy Champagne Snacks" on The Salonniere and I can't wait to try them. What is your favorite food/drink combination to serve at parties?

Hi! Ooh, my favorite? That's a tough one since I love cocktails and I love food! :) It really depends upon the party, but I think high-low drink and food mixing can be really fun, i.e., Champagne with caviar on Lay's potato chips, sliders served with a really fabulous Cru Beaujolais or Cabernet Franc. Yum! 

Hi, I am the worst at selecting paint colors! I am looking for a neutral tone for the majority of the house (kitchen, family room, loft, upstairs hallway, foyer). Our floor plan is open and all these spaces flow into each other. We have brown-toned furniture and fabrics and gold framed mirrors and I feel gray would feel too cold.

I'd go for a warm beige or creamy khaki - Benjamin Moore Goldtone; Benjamin Moore Vellum; Ralph Lauren Yellowhammer; Farrow and Ball Dorset Cream would be a few suggestions.

I love those roly poly glasses that people are using to serve all beverages including wine. Do you think these are also okay for wine at the table? I hate stemmed glasses and they area pain to wash.

Sure! Anything goes! And I love them, too! 

When the party exceeds whatever dishes I own, Chinet (Costco!) and really sturdy plastic cutlery (because there's always ONE fork or spoon that gets tossed by mistake when you use the stainless). AND a large (collapsible) refuse bag. But I use real glassware for drinks.


Is the RSVP dead? I hate it when guests don't RSVP and just show up or cancel without notice. Do you have any suggestions for eliciting an RSVP from hard-to-nail-down guests?

We did a survey recently and found that about 50% (if I'm remembering correctly) ignore RSVP requests. That's terrible, especially when many hosts need that information to plan their menus, do their shopping, etc. If you don't hear from someone, and you need to know if they're coming, you can send them a quick email asking if they're planning to attend under the guise of asking if they have any dietary restrictions. If you don't really need to know if the guest is attending (for headcount purposes), just let it go and count them as attending.  

What trends are you predicting for parties this year?

The biggest trend is that people will be having more parties. People are feeling a strong need to connect with one another. In terms of decor, the "wow" moments - the Instagrammable backdrops - will move from inside the party to the entry point, as a way of setting the party's tone quickly and in  breathtaking fashion. Look for huge balloon installations and dramatic exterior lighting, for example.  Greenery - lush foliage - will also be very big this year. And who else is excited about Ultra Violet, Pantone's color of the year? Jura, do you like it? I love it for parties! It's fun and rich-looking and goes with everything, including lush, green foliage! 

How do you handle sticky situations at parties? (i.e. a guest becomes slightly too tipsy)

That's a great and important question. The best thing to do is to speak with the person with whom the guest came and suggest that it may be time to take his or her date home. If the person came alone, you can pull him or her aside and say that you think it might be time for them to head home. Then call the person an Uber if they've had too much to drink and phone them in the morning to check in and make sure they know that all is well, since they may wake up feeling embarrassed about their behavior.  

Political discussions are taking place everywhere we turn these days, it seems, and everyone has an opinion. Is it ok to talk politics at parties or is it a faux pas (religion and politics)?

It's fine to talk politics at parties as long as it's done respectfully. We did a story about this because it's an important topic. The most important thing is to be respectful and to have an "exit plan" (another topic) for the discussion if it gets too heated. 

Walking around with food and a drink and shaking hands can be messy (and hard to juggle!). What are your go-to food choices for cocktail parties?

Hah, this is so true! Offer plenty of places for your guests to set down their drinks and handbags and serve your appetizers in bite-sized portions. 

When dinner party or cocktail hour conversation is becoming too political, how do I as a hostess respectfully restore the peace?

Humor and redirection are your friends in a situation like that! You can simply say, "Well, it appears that we aren't going to solve that problem tonight, so how about we talk about..." 

How long after the party should I send a thank-you note to the host/hostess?

The most important thing is to send one, but sending it right away - the next day - is best. The memories of your host's fabulous party will be fresh in your mind, so your note will be filled with authentic gratitude. 

Just do it! We recently hosted a dinner party for the first time in months and are now kicking ourselves for not doing it sooner/more often. It doesn't have to be complicated--we just invited two other families and made three times as much of our regular food. Don't let the ideal be the enemy of the actual!

Indeed! Good for you.

What do you do if you show up to a party and you are under/overdressed?

Get yourself a drink and forget about it! Now, if you feel so uncomfortable that you can't enjoy yourself, the best thing to do is to quietly exit. 

Do you have any tips on how to be respectful and courteous when telling the host/hostess about your dietary restrictions?

We are all used to accommodating dietary restrictions in today's health-conscious world, so this is nothing to fret about. Just be sure to mention your restrictions to your host early enough so he or she can make the necessary accommodations. 

It seems to me that a kitchen island (properly situated) provides the optimal entertaining environment. Guests can mingle around the food without getting caught in the dreaded party corner with no way to access drinks, food...or new conversation partners. It creates a nice and natural flow. My question is, if your home isn't large enough for this setup, how can you create this same sense of communal sharing and movement when hosting a party?

People naturally congregate where drinks are being served, so you can set up a beautiful bar with pretty bottles, barware, glasses, and flowers on a table or credenza and let that serve as your party's main gathering space and focal point. 

So many questions today - entertaining is a topic we must visit more often. Carla you did a masterful job in answering so many questions and giving so much great advice. Next week we have a chat on bathroom and kitchen remodeling. Kerry Ann Rodriguez, director of project development at Case Design/Remodeling will join us. Until then, be well.

How do you prevent a party from becoming too crowded if you have a smaller home without limiting your invite list?

Don't worry too much about this. You can count on about 10% of your guests not attending because of illness, a last-minute family obligation, etc. 

That was fun! Thank you to everyone who sent in a question, and thank you, Jura, for having me! Here's to a year filled with joy and revelry! 

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Carla McDonald
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