An Experts’ Guide to Summer Entertaining

Photo courtesy of Peachtree Catering and Events. Photography by Minh from DuSoleil Photographie.

We’re in the midst of peak outdoor entertaining season, and while this annual rite can be as easy as firing up the grill and slicing up a watermelon, whether you choose to go strictly casual or embrace a bit more formality, it’s always fun to add a touch of elegance to an outdoor gathering. Recently, we checked in with five experts across the country for their advice on how to elevate your next summer soiree. From creating simple yet beautiful floral arrangements to composing enticing charcuterie boards to a menu that’s a celebration of the season, these recommendations will have you entertaining in style.


Choose a theme. To add structure to your gathering, and to signal that it’s more than a casual backyard grill session, consider creating a theme and sending out invitations. “Invitations really set the tone for the event, and paper products take it to the next level,” Anna Wynn, owner and executive planner at Anna Wynn Event Designs in Huntsville, Alabama, says. The invitations create a sense of anticipation and act as a visual touchpoint that you can build off of. You can carry the theme through the entire event, from the menu to signature cocktails, place settings, and more.


Always be prepared with a rain plan. While everyone hopes for blue skies and sunshine on the day of a summer get-together, we certainly cannot control the weather. In the event of a rainy day, Wynn recommends having a backup plan, whether that means a tent, screened-in porch, or another protected area. Preparing for inclement weather ahead of time will take a lot of stress out of the logistics should raindrops start to fall.


Keep your florals simple. When it comes to florals, Mary Cox Brown, owner of Margiold Designs in Birmingham, Alabama, recommends looking to your own yard. “If you’re lucky enough to have a yard you can cut from, you should start there,” she says. Hydrangeas, zinnias, cone flowers, sunflowers, and black-eyed Susans are common home-grown flowers that would look great on your table (a good rule of thumb is to choose three differing types of flowers in similar colors for cohesive but visually appealing arrangements). In terms of vessels, she suggests clustering bud vases on your table(s), or using small water or wine glasses, silver julep cups, and silver baby cups to create a casual yet festive vibe. If you’re aiming for something truly heat-proof, Teresa Wilson, owner of Camelback Flowershop in Phoenix, Arizona, favors decorating with succulents or cati, which can take high temperatures while adding beauty and interest to the table.


Add ambiance. “Lighting is always important to complete any look,” Christina Spillars Meadows, owner of Quintessentials in Raleigh, North Carolina, says. She notes that hurricanes are always a great choice for outdoor entertaining because not only are they practical, protecting from gentle summer breezes, but they also add drama. She’s fond of the substantial Waterbury Hurricanes by Simon Pearce, and recommends adding playfulness to your tablescape with pillar candles in a color that is complimentary to your table settings.


Consider a lively linen. Meadows recommends creating a bold foundation for your table by using tablecloths to bring in pops of color and pattern (her go-tos are large florals and subtle coastal prints that nod to the outdoors without being kitschy). For tableware, Meadows opts for all-white place settings because they let the food remain the focal point, and suggests selecting pieces that can stand up to the elements. “Melamine place settings now look just like stoneware, and we love the settings from Juliksa and Vietri,” she says. “They offer elegance without chips or breakage.” Go the distance with durable yet sophisticated acrylic flatware to complete the look.


Keep bugs at bay. One of the downsides to outdoor dining can be pesky unwanted guests: mosquitoes. Brown advises naturally keeping them away by incorporating basil, lemon balm, and peppermint into your flower arrangements. “Cut herbs and place them in bud vases down your table for an amazing look and smell,” she recommends. You can also swap out regular votive candles for ones made with citronella.


Consider hosting a cocktail hour. Entertaining doesn’t always mean committing to a full-blown dinner party. A cocktail hour gathering can be just as much fun—and ensures an early bedtime is still attainable. For such events, cheese and charcuterie boards are an excellent choice, as they will not only delight hungry guests, but they’re a feast for the eyes as well. Jon Weinrott, president and co-owner of Peachtree Catering and Events in Radnor, Pennsylvania, is passionate about cheeses and curating beautiful boards. He suggests sourcing local cheeses when possible, and then building around them with cured meats, different types of olives, Marcona almonds, and house-made pickles. Finish the spread with a selection of well-chosen wines. “We believe you can never stop learning about wine,” he says. “We look for new, unique pairings of lesser-known grapes from the old world.” For recommendations, seek out an expert at your local wine shop.


Streamline your meal. Just because you’re dining al fresco, doesn’t mean that’s where you have to do all your cooking. Weinrott loves to serve a simple and satisfying roast chicken as a main course at a summer soirée. He compliments that with a classic caprese salad, using top-quality balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, and recommends serving it alongside farm-fresh corn and summer squashes, and finishing with in-season stone fruit like peaches or plums served over vanilla bean ice cream. The overall effect is elegant, effortless, and a celebration of the season that makes guests feel indulged and at ease.


Feel free to phone it in. If the above feels too hard, then pick up the phone and call in an expert. There are wonderful local caterers who are happy to execute events on a variety of scales, or you can order takeout. “Inviting people to your home is such a personal experience,” Brown says. “And with this past year, people are aching for human connection.” Instead of delaying a gathering because it feels like work, Brown recommends beautifully plating your prepared-by-someone-else meal on gorgeous serving pieces, pulling out your good china and silver, and grabbing a nice bottle of wine. Que up Ina Garten’s Dance Party Playlist on Spotify and let the good times roll.


TSG Tip 396 from Anna Wynn, owner and executive planner at Anna Wynn Event Designs in Huntsville, Alabama; Mary Cox Brown, owner of Margiold Designs in Birmingham, Alabama; Teresa Wilson, owner of Camelback Flowershop in Phoenix, Arizona; Christina Spillars Meadows, owner of Quintessentials in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Jon Weinrott, president and co-owner of Peachtree Catering and Events in Radnor, Pennsylvania. Anna Wynn Designs is featured in The Scout Guide Huntsville. Marigold Designs is featured in The Scout Guide Birmingham. Camelback Flowershop is featured in The Scout Guide Phoenix & Scottsdale. Quintessentials is featured in The Scout Guide Raleigh, Durham & Chapel Hill. Peachtree Catering and Events is featured in The Scout Guide Main Line & Philadelphia.