Nationally, Tara Guérard is known as one of the country’s top event maestros—her Tara Guérard Soirée has appeared on best planner lists from Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Martha Stewart Weddings, and more. But here in Charleston, the mom of three is known as a fun-loving hostess who combines old-school Holy City etiquette with a vivacious personality and her own brand of covetable panache.
What’s her secret? With all the flourish her for-hire affairs boast, her answer might surprise you: true sentiment. At the heart of a good party, Tara says, is catching up with close friends and enjoying each other’s company. “And there’s no better time for that than the holidays,” she adds, “or a better place than Charleston. Being a small town, we still have that close-knit feeling.”
To host an easy, intimate soirée for you and yours, Tara has a few suggestions. For starters, lean on your existing holiday décor to dress your gathering with festive flair. Next, keep your refrigerator and pantry stocked with cheeses, nuts, and crackers, and your bar packed with essentials. Want specifics and a fail-safe setup like hers that makes entertaining at the drop of a hat (well, let’s say with 24-hour notice) a cinch? Read on.
Skip the paper (and paperless) invites. Tara may own the letterpress stationer Lettered Olive, but she says that for an informal gathering of 20 or fewer guests, phone calls make the best, least hassle, most personal invitations.
Brush up on your besties. Who has food allergies? Drinks only this or that? Know your pals’ preferences and you can make them feel at home in your home.
Be a music maker. Set the mood with good tunes; a go-to holiday album: The A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.
Get your glow on. Lower dimmers for a flattering, cozy glow. Don’t have them installed? After 6 p.m., use lamps and candles instead. And no matter what, she advises, skip LEDs.
Opt for greens. Evergreen garlands, wreaths, and boughs are her favorite long-lasting decorating materials.
Drinks on the House:
Build the best bar cart with a little forethought
Smart Cart: Tara found her vintage 1950s glass-and-brass bar cart at an antiques shop here in town. (Her favorite local spots are Antiques of South Windermere and Antiques Market in Mount Pleasant.) For glassware, she loves to mix vintage stemware—even if it’s a partial set—with newer pieces, like the Marta collection from CB2 ($1.50-$2.50). “I don’t usually put out my William Yeoward, other than at smaller dinner parties, because if a guest or I broke a $150 glass, I’d get depressed!” laughs Tara. “But a $1.50 one? No problem.”
“A drink in hand makes a happy guest,” says Tara, who started off in the hospitality world ordering vino for a local restaurant before switching to an event-staffing position elsewhere. That mix—knowing what to serve and the ins-and-outs of service—is a hallmark of her seamless events. And as for food versus beverage? “I’m more worried about running out of drinks than food,” she says.
Stock up. Check out the must-haves for a home bar below.
Keep things cozy. “Make sure there’s enough comfortable seating and surfaces to place drinks.”
Greet guests and offer them a drink as they enter. “I usually put my husband, Russell, on this,” Tara says. “Always get a beverage in their hands first, before food, before anything else. It doesn’t matter what it is—liquor, tea, seltzer—giving someone something to hold always makes them relax.”
Help them help themselves. Ask guests their drink preference, serve them the first one, then show them the bar so they can pour their own thereafter.
Know what your friends like. “I have a friend who only drinks tequila, another who prefers Bud Light, and a couple whose favorite champagne is Veuve Clicquot,” says Tara. When they come over and I offer them those, everyone feels a little special knowing their drinks are there. Everyone gets to feel the party is a little about them, which makes for comfortable, happy guests.”
Have a backup bar. “Have one bottle of each of the basics then backup seconds stashed away,” says Tara regarding smaller get-togethers.
Be mindful. Appoint a friend-bartender to keep an eye on the ice bucket and refill as needed. Same goes for lemons and limes.
Go for cute. Quaint mixer or seltzer bottles make a sea of liquor bottles look more personal, Tara says.
What’s on Tap
In cool weather, Tara suggests having more brown liquor on hand, while in the summer, clear liquor tends to be most popular. Add beer (regular and light varieties); white and red wines; champagne; mixers, soda, and sparkling water; ice in a bucket; shakers, a bottle opener, and a fine hand towel; cut lemons and limes; and nuts (pecans in winter; roasted or boiled peanuts in summer). “And don’t forget linen cocktail napkins!”
Satiate one and all with a simple, well-appointed charcuterie platter
STYLE & SUBSTANCE: While Tara leaves plating garnishes to her cheesemongers (she loves the sprigs of rosemary and colorful pickled vegetables and dried fruits Goat.Sheep.Cow. adds), she has a few handy accents herself. Pomegranates, she says, are long-lasting holiday décor that you can pick up inexpensively at the grocery store. Another grocery find? Saga blue cheese from Harris Teeter. “It’s inexpensive, delicious, and one of my favorites,” she notes. As for toasting bread, she only crisps day-old fare. “When it’s fresh, enjoy it fresh,” she suggests.
“At an informal party like this,” says Tara, “I want guests to be able to lean over the coffee table and help themselves to a little cheese and crackers. It’s almost impossible to hold a glass, plate, and fork at a cocktail party, so offer self-serve finger foods with napkins. It’s the older, more proper way to serve a handful of guests.” Add some ham biscuits and soup in small cups, and you’re set. If the guest list rises above 20 to 25, she suggests rethinking the menu and hiring a server for bussing and restocking.
Enlist help. Tara’s favorite charcuterie platter is anything that Goat.Sheep.Cow puts together for her. “Tell them the number of guests, size of serving (appetizer versus course), and your price range per person or total,” she advises.
Don’t go crazy. “I ask for an assortment of crowd-pleasing cheeses and meats. If you go too out there, most people aren’t going to touch it.” Otherwise, allow the pros to make the picks—they know what’s freshest and most popular.
Let the pros plate everything. Tara takes a favorite brass tray (another vintage find that works great for meat and cheese) to the Church Street shop and asks them to style the selections on the platter.
Skip the labels. Any glance at Pinterest shows a slew of picture-perfect apps with tidy signs proclaiming what’s what. Pass on the verbiage for a small gathering, says Tara, as you can talk out the offerings. It makes for good ice breakers and conversation, she adds.
Play with knives. Tara collects cheese knives, especially those with horned handles. She also has a weak spot for the gold S-piece slim cheese knife set ($49) by CB2. Mix and match the high-end finds with the steals.
Wipe your mouth, dear. A cotton or linen cocktail napkin is the only way to go, says Tara. “Polyester doesn’t absorb anything.” Her most cherished napkins are from The Boutique on Broad Street and crisply laundered collections from antiques shops.
While Tara generally lets her cheese shop pick specific varieties for her platters, here’s an overview of what, at minimum, she likes to include: manchego, cheddar, and soft blue cheeses; proscuitto, sausage, pâté, and mustard; cornichons, pickled beets, dried fruit, and almonds; as well as crackers and French bread.
A Sweet Finish
Cap off your holiday offerings with simply made—or ordered—sweet treats
ATTENTION TO DETAIL: The right serving pieces make desserts as much a feast for the eyes as they are otherwise. Here, a home-style caramel cake from Halls Chophouse is elevated when showcased on a tall cake stand.
One of the best holiday gifts you can give is to take it easy on yourself, says Tara. “A friend of mine is a very successful celebrity wedding planner in Los Angeles, and she once told me, ‘I never was that mom who made a fresh batch of cookies for the class parties, but I did have macarons delivered from France—and they were the best macarons those kids ever had!’ I really take that to heart,” notes Tara, “because I am not that mom either.” Her takeaway? “Don’t feel guilty you didn’t make everything from scratch. Just call in the best when you need to and voilà!—you are ready for a get-together!”
Tips for Treats
Add color. The caramel cake needed a little embellishment, says Tara, so she plucked a camellia from her courtyard and paired that with evergreen sprigs.
Jazz up simple votives. Tara cut branch snippets from extra Christmas greenery, wrapped them around inexpensive glass votives, bound the ends with floral wire, and tied them off with ribbon.
Order baked goods at least a day before you need them. While some take-out party fare can be utterly last-minute, most kitchens prefer at least a few day’s lead time, especially during the holidays.
Choose china or silver plates. Desserts call for something more substantial than napkins.
Cut the cake. When guests seem ready for sweets, Tara cuts the cake herself and serves everyone slices. “You don’t want anyone else getting all sticky,” she says.
Line trays with wrapping paper. Tara gave her platter of pots de crème (at right) a holiday touch.
Pick a dessert you can make ahead. If you are going to cook, do it the night before. “Besides being a time-saver the day-of, says Tara, “some make-aheads like these pots de crème taste better after a night in the fridge.”
Tara’s Holiday Decorating Tool Kit
Here’s what the owner of Tara Guérard Soirée says comes in handy when you’re decorating at home for the holidays. She packs her “tools” in a handy canvas tote that she has at the ready from November to January. Use these elements for hanging evergreen wreaths and garlands, tagging gifts and more, and even crafting a festive collar for your pooch.
Planning, décor: Tara Guérard Soirée (54 Chapel St., 843/577-5006; www.taraguerardsoiree.com)
Charcuterie platter: Goat.Sheep.Cow. (106 Church St., 843/480-2526; www.goatsheepcow.com)
Caramel cake: Halls Chophouse (434 King St.,843/ 727-0900; www.hallschophouse.com)
Linens:The Boutique (47 Broad St., 843/722-1441; www.theboutiquecharleston.com)
Antiques Shops: Antiques of South Windermere (22 Windermere Blvd., 843/571-2755) & Antiques Market (634 Coleman Blvd., 843/849-8850)
Wrapping paper: T.J. Maxx (www.tjmaxx.com)
Garlands, tree, wreaths: Thackeray Farms (1364 Harts Bluff Rd., Wadmalaw Island; 843/559-9058)
Makeup: Cheryl Quinn