Carly Blair photographed for The Scout Guide Austin by Kate Zimmerman Turpin at Page Home Design Gardens.
There’s something about the intimacy of home entertaining that just can’t be replicated at a restaurant. Everyone is more relaxed, there’s room for things to go a little off script, and the night can progress at an unrestrained pace. However, time constraints and the pressure to make everything “just right” can prevent us from issuing invitations. To help us overcome hosting paralysis and feel prepared to entertain at a moment’s notice, we reached out to Carly Blair, owner of the Austin, Texas-based event planning and floral design company House of Margot Blair, for advice. “I’ve realized happiness involves celebrating the everyday moments,” she says. “You don’t have to wait around for those big moments, or make them perfect. There’s reason to celebrate every day, even if it’s a random Tuesday.” Here is her expert advice.
Let go of perfection. Blair’s number one rule is to stop aiming for flawlessness. Instead of waiting for a situation when your life is photo-shoot ready, Blair advises you embrace any inclination to entertain. “Sometimes the very best gathering is to have a couple of friends over to cook dinner on a week night,” she says.
Allow yourself to be spontaneous. We all have busy lives, but Blair believes that shouldn’t stop you from spending time with friends in the midst of the chaos. Since trying to pick a date amongst several friends and make everyone’s evening schedules match up can be next to impossible, she prefers to plan gatherings at a time when people are more likely to be free, like a Saturday afternoon. “Even if the house is a mess, that’s the perfect time to invite everyone over for a crawfish boil,” she says. “Here in Texas, you just need to grab some beer, crawfish, potatoes, and corn, give it a boil, and throw it all out on a paper-lined table.”
Adopt a carefree approach to place settings. Don’t let the fact that you lack a full set of china for 12 stop you from having people over. “I use mismatched plates in the same color palette, so they all work together,” Blair shares. To pull off this eclectic approach, she recommends keeping things neutral with your linens. “I like to throw out a natural-colored linen tablecloth, and I keep a set of high-quality linen napkins on hand,” Blair says. This lends a consistency to the decor and keeps your table settings simple yet elegant.
Don’t overthink your flowers. According to Blair, there’s no need to invest significant time or money into florals for a last-minute soiree. She points out that most florists have mini arrangements that you can pop in and pick up (at her shop, these are referred to as “Margot Minis”). Or, you can just pick up a bouquet of a single flower, put a couple of blooms cut at different lengths in a variety of similar bud vases, and run them down the length of your table for a quick and classic arrangement.
Keep candles on hand for instant ambiance. Dimming or turning off the lights entirely and lighting candles instantly makes an evening feel special. “I have a thing for cobalt blue vintage candlesticks that I collect,” Blair says. “I always keep neutral, taupe-colored tapers on hand, and they result in an elegant look.” If you’re entertaining during the day, use natural light to your advantage; Blair advises going outside if the weather is agreeable, and if not, letting as much light inside as you can.
Be flexible with your seating. “I have found that one of the main reasons people don’t entertain at home is because they don’t have enough chairs or a table that’s big enough,” Blair says. “Don’t be afraid to throw a bunch of pillows down on the floor and seat people around the coffee table with others on the couch.” A casual seating plan will put your guests at ease and encourage maximum lingering.
Streamline drinks. Having beer and wine on hand is a must, Blair says, but there’s no need to go all out with a full bar. For an easy, festive cocktail, Blair keeps champagne in the fridge and combines it with St.~Germain. “It’s also important to think of your friends who aren’t drinking for whatever reason,” she notes. Sparkling or flat water with lemon is an easy and refreshing alternative to alcoholic drinks.
Simplify your fare. When entertaining off-the-cuff, avoiding complicated recipes is a must. “You want to hang out with your friends, not be working away in the kitchen,” Blair says. If she’s having people over for drinks and not necessarily dinner, her go-to is a charcuterie plate. “I pop over to my local market and stock up on cheeses, cured meats, hummus, and whatever looks good at the olive and pickle bar. Grain-free crackers and a baguette ensure it will suit every palette and dietary restriction.” For dinner, if she doesn’t feel like cooking, she’ll pick up a rotisserie chicken and a few sides. If she is in the mood to cook, she opts for a sheet pan-type meal, where everything cooks at the same time in one pan. “Bon Appétit has great recipes for this,” she says.
Outsource dessert. It’s rare that at least one of your guests won’t ask you what they can bring. “I almost always put someone else in charge of dessert. I love to cook, but baking is not my thing,” Blair shares. If delegating dessert is not an option, Blair recommends keeping a stash of high-end chocolate bars on hand, breaking them into pieces, and placing them in the middle of the table for your guests to enjoy as an easy and crowd-pleasing alternative.