Polly Zel has thrown parties in and around Portland for more than a decade, from luxe vineyard weddings to steampunk-burlesque birthday parties in her own home. This year, as Portland Monthly’s marketing and events manager, she hosted around 2,000 hungry locals at bucolic Northeast Portland barn and garden complex Rossi Farms for the magazine’s three-day culinary blowout Cowabunga, wrangling everything from live-fire cooking demos to Baby Ketten Karaoke sessions. But Zel says no matter the size of a bash, the same rules will help you throw a great party without losing your mind.

Know Your Basics

Nail down your ideal party date, rough budget, and number of guests before you call a venue or restaurant for a party rental. After all, you don’t want to book a space for 25 and later try to cram in 75 people. “A date range is helpful because you may find better deals on off days or in non-peak seasons,” says Zel. “And you don’t want to get enamored with a caterer or private dining room that has a $1,500 food minimum if you only have $500 to spend.”

Ask Questions

Locking in details early will save budget creep and preempt day-of problems: Ask your venue exactly which rentals are included in their fee (tables, chairs, bar, setup and breakdown staff, service items). For additional rentals, Zel likes The Party Place or Danner & Soli for unique and vintage scores. And quiz your caterer on what incidentals are included in a quote: “Ask if they provide ice, water dispensers, and nonalcoholic drinks.” (Psst: Zel says many of the best bartenders in town pick up extra shifts with bar caterer My Bartender and event craft cocktailer Merit Badge.) Speaking of drinks: “No matter how upscale your party, there’s always people there who don’t like Portland’s award-winning IPAs or palate-challenging sours,” says Zel. “Have a Bud Light in the back for your uncle.”

People Matter

“When it comes to throwing a party, you can have the best food, [but if you have] terrible service no one will remember how good the food was,” warns Zel. So, focus on hiring supportive staff as much as chef talent. Zel loves caterer White Pepper: “Genuine people, great staffing ratios, and beautiful dish presentations.” She also calls out industry vet Devil’s Food: “They know how to refine a menu and create an experience.” One more tip: more flowers, less cake. “People overspend on cake. But a lot of people don’t eat whole slices,” she laughs. “Bite-size desserts—little Bundt cakes, chocolate bites—are always a bigger hit.”

... And Finally, Don't Forget the Leftovers!

“Find out your caterer’s policy for leftovers and ask if they’ll provide take-home boxes. No one ever remembers that!”

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