HOW TO: Set Up A Bar For Your Next Dinner Party

Because who has time to serve drinks when you’re busy not burning supper?
Publish date:
February 16, 2014
dinner parties, bar, dinner party

I’m sure there are people who have dinner parties down to a perfectly timed art, where the first guest doesn’t arrive before the music is on and the host is dressed, where the next course is ready to be plated just as the previous one’s ready to be cleared, where nobody ghosts because everybody stays through dessert but nobody straggles. Those are probably the same people who are hobby biathletes, because they can time their shots between two heartbeats. Those people are not me.

I hosted a small dinner party last week. Three couples, three courses, plus dessert. It should have been easy enough, except I gave up on the appetizer before I began it, salad had to be delegated, I was covered in flour and had yet to change when guests arrived, and to boot, my dog attempted to take a bite out of my best friend’s boyfriend’s bum. My apple pie required a crust intervention, because I let the syrup caramelize before I poured it through the lattice, so instead it just kind of blobbed on top. Still, I would rate the evening a success, mostly because my guests were able to imbibe freely, without any help from me.

Having a bar setup, whether it’s a full-on cart (I tend to reserve that for holidays) or a countertop tray, is a holdover from midcentury entertainment etiquette that doesn’t have to feel outdated. By all means, if you’d like to opt for cut glass or crystal decanters with silver-plated decanter labels, do you. Similarly, if you’re looking to appease the people of pinterest, feel free to load up two of every barwear tchotchke you can find, like Noah’s alcoholic ark.

But if what you’re after is a festive but practical solution to helping guests help themselves, you’ve come to the right place.


Don’t run out and buy every liqueur and spirit known to man. Be practical, not taxonomical, in your selection. Covering your bases means keeping gin, vodka, rum, whiskey and tequila on hand, plus a couple liqueurs. I don’t even keep vodka on hand at all times, since the only thing I mix it into is salmon tartare, but it’s a pretty safe bet to have some in stock. Angostura bitters are good to keep nearby, too.

When you’re building up from there, I would recommend keeping your own tastes in mind for 75% of your purchases, then those of your guests for the other 25%. I kept a couple good single malts on hand when I was single because they were always popular, and dates never failed to be impressed by my “taste” in Scotch (truth be told, I hadn’t even sampled the bottles.) I’d splash out more frequently on aged rums, a few good gins and Champagne because that’s what I prefer to drink. And I am by far the most frequent guest at my parties, so I keep me happy.

A note on storage: although your liquor may look fancy sitting on your kitchen counter, keep your investment safe by storing the bottles away from heat (that means far from the oven!) and sunlight. I keep my bottles on a tray in a cabinet, so I can pop them onto the counter or cart before guests arrive.

I try not to keep too much wine on hand, lest any day that ends in –AY be a cause for impromptu celebration, and I find that my guests usually arrive with a bottle in tow, so I don’t generally buy too much wine for dinner. It’s a smart idea to keep one red and one white at the ready all the same, and maybe a special dessert wine (I’ve been obsessing over Hungarian Tokaji wines lately.)


Soda water, tonic and soft drinks are all good mixers, and if you want to get fancy, small-batch tonics by artisanal outfits like Fentimans are a worthy complement to premium liquors. I like to have some of their lemonades and ginger beers available for those who aren’t drinking, since they’re way more fun than a can of Coke.

Set out little jars of cocktail onions and olives -– I put mine in half-pint wide-mouth preserve jars, alongside a dish of citrus slices and mint leaves. If you’ve got a signature cocktail in mind for the evening, set out whichever additional garnishes are necessary, otherwise you’re set.


Keep it simple. A bottle opener for wine and beer, a basic martini shaker and strainer, cocktail napkins and toothpicks should suffice. Leave your craft-cocktail surgical tools in the closet unless you’re looking to tend bar all night. I like to put out a mason jar filled with candy-striped paper straws –- you can purchase these at any party supply store, or even Target –- because they stand in as stirrers as well.

I keep an ice bucket handy for Champagne as well as one with tongs for cocktails. If you’re a serious wino, invest in a stone or ceramic holder for your whites. Ice buckets will actually make the temperature of the bottle drop further – not what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re serving tannic reds (think Barolos and Cabs, or Bordeaux wines) you’d do well to have a decanter at hand, too.


Your basic needs in terms of glassware are lowballs, highballs and stemmed glasses (suitable for martinis and the like). When you consider your wine needs, things can get more complicated if you want them to be, or stay simple. Most companies have an all-rounder glass, designed to bring out the best qualities in reds and whites. Purchase a set of these. I serve table reds out of small jam jars, which double as my lowballs. My highballs are vintage mason jars, and I find them appropriate for beer, too. Champagne coupes work for bubbly (flutes, while lovely to look at, suck for getting at the full flavor profile,) juleps, martinis and anything else not served on ice.


If you’re serious about purchasing a vintage bar cart (or reproduction), there are many options out there, though because they’ve had a recent surge in popularity, unless you find one out in the sticks, you’re likely to pay for it. Folding tray and card tables are suitable, as is just about any flat surface that’s at a safe distance from your stove and accessible to guests. Mine is a vintage Lucite media console table that I picked up at a retro furniture store locally.

Be creative; if you have a large bookcase, a sturdy shelf or two might do the trick. So would the top of a buffet, or a console table or even the versatile Ikea RASKOG, if you’re looking for a budget-friendly alternative to the glass-and-brass ones.

However you choose to set one up, your guests are sure to enjoy it. So that even if your pet tries to eat them, they’re likely to forgive and forget (or at least drink to their sorrows.)