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On-trend bar and food stations

As clients increasingly request their event be worthy of posting on social media sites like Instagram and Twitter, event planners are using food and bar stations to unleash their creative genius, designing inventive, memorable experiences that keep the party going strong.

Features | December 1, 2022 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

Taken after sunset, this shot reveals the dramatic lighting design that served as a backdrop to the stunning cocktail bar that awaited guests at a private wedding reception under a clear-top tent. Planning and design: Evantine Design Inc. Photo courtesy of Dan Chen of Roey Yohai Studios and Evantine Design Inc.

After the past several years where holiday parties were decidedly low-key and restrained—if they happened at all—this year’s celebrations have been positively giddy. This is an exciting change for event planners who of course welcome not only the business but also the chance to let their imaginations run free, creating events that keep people engaged and snapping photos to post on social media.

Components like food and beverage stations, and even somewhat smaller elements like glassware and flatware, not only offer ample statement-making opportunities, they can turn a so-so event into something memorable and worth documenting. Let’s take a look at some of the trends in play when it comes to these contributors at events and holiday gatherings.

An elaborate sushi bar takes center stage during a cocktail reception for a wedding. Planning and design: Evantine Design Inc. Photo courtesy of Dan Chen of Roey Yohai Studios and Evantine Design Inc.

Glassware and flatware sparkle

Glassware is closely tied to the types of beverages being served, which in turn is closely tied to what is on-trend in terms of what people are drinking. According to Victoria Dubin, owner of Victoria Dubin Events in Purchase, N.Y., more holiday parties are incorporating professional mixologists and exotic, signature-named drinks served in specialty rental glasses that range from unique and whimsical to traditional cut crystal.

Emily Archbold, senior event planner for Evantine Design Inc., a Philadelphia, Pa.-based full-service special event, design, production and planning company, says her company is seeing a big demand for specialty glassware, driven by the interest in signature cocktails. Also, rather than serving all wine varietals in a generic wine glass, more people are requesting both white wine and red wine glasses.

“Ultimately, though, it comes down to this concept: the level and variety of beverages being offered at the bar should coincide with the glassware it’s served in,” says Archbold.

Having one central bar instead of several spread throughout an event can often allow bartenders and barbacks to serve guests more efficiently. Planning and design: Evantine Design, Inc. Photo courtesy of Tyler Boyle Photography and Evantine Design Inc.

Sara Murray, owner and creative director of confetti & co., agrees. Located in Philadelphia, Pa., Murray offers event planning and design services primarily to wedding clients. 

“We’ve seen that a lot of cocktails themselves dictate the glassware, so we’ve been seeing a lot of Aperol Spritz in sweet coupes, and champagne always in sweet fluted glassware,” she says. “We’re also seeing a lot of faceted glassware, things that reflect light and lots of colors, adding fun and personality to events.” 

As for flatware, Murray says sparkling gold remains a “top option” for her clients, many of whom are updating their flatware to match a metallic palette. And as beverages influence the glassware, so is the case with the menu, which her clients are continuing to refine, with flatware serving as “a grounding, design-based element.”

Held in a New York loft, this birthday party featured a custom-built bar designed to coordinate with the modern lounge furniture and the fire and ice theme. Bartenders served drinks throughout the evening to guests, accompanied by the sounds of the jazz bands situated on the raised stage in the middle of the bar. Planning: Victoria Dubin Events. Bar design: Ed Libby Events and Victoria Dubin Events. Photo courtesy of Roey Rohais Studios and Victoria Dubin Events.

The bar takes center stage

No surprise, event planners and their clients are taking Instagram, TikTok, Reels and other social media into account, focusing on devising document-worthy experiences, with bar stations frequently serving as star players in this respect.

“[These] are foremost in everyone’s mind, and any social occasion that allows someone to capture a unique or playful moment they can later share becomes part of the enjoyment and thrill of the event,” says Dubin, referring to the above platforms. “From simple get-togethers to formal events, the cocktail bar is always where the action is, so people are loving getting creative with immersive bartending experiences and signature cocktails.”

Dubin—whose full-service event planning and design company (with New York locations in Westchester and NYC as well as Miami, Fla.) handles bespoke events including weddings, mitzvas and birthday parties—says the martini bar is the hottest “of the moment” station. Guests not only get to try out different martinis, they also get to watch them being made, which adds to the fun.

Her preference is to locate little cocktail stations around the event while also having one large bar where specialty drinks are available. She will often incorporate “fun” signage here as well as using lighting and “fabulous light fixtures” to draw additional attention to this station.

“We recently had a huge LED structure built above the bar that was the focal point of the decor of the event,” Dubin recalls. “What we are loving is seeing entertainment as part of the bar raised in the middle, like a musician, vocalist, dancer or rotating performers. The concept is to never let the guest experience get boring, but to continue to delight all with the unexpected—anything interesting, one of a kind, surprising, Instagram-worthy.”

Because bars act as a natural gathering spot for guests, Archbold says Evantine Design tries to have its tented events feature a central, statement bar rather than having multiple bars located around the perimeter of a wedding reception. This latter strategy, she says, often results in people lining up and overcrowding one bar while some of the others go unnoticed and underused.

“One larger bar allows the bartenders and barbacks to serve guests and replenish glassware, product and so on much more efficiently,” she explains. “This also allows for a more significant design of the bar. Several looks we love are a circular bar with a statement floral display, a square bar with dazzling back bar shelving, and a long, linear bar featuring a live floral front facade.”

This immersive experience welcomed guests who were arriving to Lake Como for a destination wedding with an aperitivo of Aperol Spritz. The planning involved a collaboration between Victoria Dubin Events and Leslie Mastin Events, and a design collaboration with Vincenzo Dascanio. Photo courtesy of Ira Lippke Studios and Victoria Dubin Events.

Food stations surprise and delight

On the other hand, when it comes to food stations, Archbold leans toward the opposite, encouraging clients to consider having multiple stations located throughout the space. This allows guests to roam and nosh as they please, trying out different tastes as the mood strikes.

As for that food, she says that post-COVID, finger foods have fallen a bit out of favor, as have communal snacks, which are now nearly “nonexistent.”

“There is definitely a focus on personal portions,” Archbold says. “For reception-style events we love to encourage small, passed plates of menu items that can easily be eaten in a few bites with just a fork.”

Although her clients are still leaning toward plated dinners, Murray says confetti & co., is receiving more requests for lavish and robust cheese stations mixed with charcuterie and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, decorated with flowers. And the company likes to throw some fun stations into the mix for cocktail hours.

“We most recently did a Greek station, a hibachi station and an eclectic charcuterie table at our last tented wedding, which were all showstoppers in their own right,” she says.

Some of the hottest trends currently in play are bars and food stations matching the theme of the event that allow guests to become part of the experience. Shown here is an immersive taco and margarita station that also served Bloody Marys and cold brew. Planning: Victoria Dubin Events. Designer: Cerka Creative. Photo courtesy of photographer Michael Jurick and Victoria Dubin Events.

Dubin likes to use the perimeter of the tent for various food setups, explaining these always attract the guests and keep them interested. If the event doesn’t involve a sit-down dinner, she’ll try to spread out about three or four that the guests can wander to and discover the unexpected as they explore.

“We are also experiencing demand for more interactive or engaging experiences,” she says. “For example, instead of a big sushi station, we are seeing high-end omakase ‘I leave it to you’ concepts, allowing chefs to create dishes in front of guests using surprising preparations and pairing their fashionable dishes with specialty liquor or sake.”

Clients are also embracing more elevated cuisine, presented very cleanly and without fuss. And they’re favoring serving and display that is more modern and minimalistic, incorporating high-end serving utensils of the type they might have at home, Dubin says.

“Simple and clean and easygoing is what is on-trend, yet presented in a clever, upscale way,” she explains. “Many are also asking for their food stations to incorporate specialty beverages as well, like a high-end burger station with a selection of exotic ales, or a behind-the-scenes taco station where you learn the art of making fresh tortillas and flavorful margaritas and more.”

The big unknown is how the economy and the resultant higher prices will affect these events, potentially causing people to scale back their ambitions as money tightens. Some clients are making adjustments. For example, says Archbold, she might see clients deciding to cut back on the design of the cocktail reception bar, directing more of their budget to making a bigger statement with the dinner station instead.

However, Dubin hasn’t seen this strategy implemented yet.

“At our events, food and beverage is not where people are cutting back,” she says. “If anything, they are cutting their guest lists, shortening the event timing or simplifying the complexity but not the detail, not the design, not the food, nor the entertainment. They want the experience they are giving their guests as high end as before. They are just simplifying where they can. Less is more in that you don’t need it all, you just need what you decide to do to be the best version it can be.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.

SIDEBAR: Fine-Tuning Touches

Rethink signage

“Menu signage has been very popular but often feels overdone at this point. Guests don’t necessarily need to see a sign at the bar that says ‘beverages’ or a sign at an escort table that says ‘find your seat.’ Instead, we see a growing interest in providing guests with insight to specific menu contents, including locally sourced items and dietary restrictions.” Emily Archbold, senior event planner, Evantine Design Inc.

Staff up

“The biggest challenge at events is having the proper staff. No one wants to wait for a drink, be in a line or not feel like they are being properly attended to. Move the lines along; have multiple servers and bussers. No mess, no soiled napkins, glasses or plates around. Keep it all fresh, pristine and well-attended to throughout the event.” Victoria Dubin, owner, Victoria Dubin Events.

Create consistency

“We like to ensure that the food and bar areas are unified, so plateware and server ware all match and feel consistent with the overall event experience, along with any signage and glassware, elevating it all to the same level and not leaving it forgotten.” Sara Murray, owner and creative director, confetti & co.

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