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Come summer, city dwellers who otherwise turn their noses up at suburban living tend to develop a syndrome known as Little Apartment Complex, characterized by envy of friends who throw fabulous parties in their big backyards with fire pits and pools. But with Labor Day still a couple weeks away, you can take advantage of the chance to entertain in the city. Even if you have only a small outdoor space such as a front stoop or balcony, you're upping your square footage. And with space-saving tips and ideas we gathered from expert party planners and hosts, you won't even miss the backyard.
Keep it simple. When it's hot outside and guests are showing up in shorts and tank tops, don't waste time (and kitchen space) on fancy hors d'oeuvres and composed entrees. Anthony Navarro, owner of Chicago-based Liven It Up Events, suggests keeping it casual with one or two crowd-pleasing main dishes, such as grilled chicken and beef, turkey and veggie burgers prepared plain. Then let your creativity shine with condiments – wasabi mayo, mango salsa, artichoke-cheddar spread and other specialty items – so guests can doctor up their food to their liking.
If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Don't even think about turning on the oven in an already stuffy space. Serve make-ahead snacks (pita chips and hummus, chips and salsa or guac) and sides (pasta salad, grilled veggies) at room temperature, and fire up the grill only for your main course. Avoid raw foods (sushi), as well as those that will spoil quickly in the heat (anything made with mayo).
Embrace the "small" theme. Not only can you serve more people at a time by grilling sliders rather than half-pound burgers on your little Weber Q, but you'll be doing guests a favor. "When it's hot outside, you don't want to serve anything too hearty or carb-loaded that will fill people up," Navarro said. When he's hosting a party at his own place, the professional planner prefers one-bite appetizers such as sliced cucumbers filled with chicken salad or a specialty spread, vegetable skewers, and – for a take on caprese salad – skewers of cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.
Punch it up. To save space, forgo a full bar with multiple bottles and mixers for one pre-made specialty cocktail such as sangria, recommends Debi Lilly, owner of Chicago-based A Perfect Event and author of a new book by the same name. Local bartender Tony Potempa (general manager and executive bar chef at Alpana Singh's coming-soon Boarding House) hosts twice-yearly parties for his regular customers in his 800-square-foot West Loop apartment. He's a fan of simple punches that can be made ahead in large quantities; at his summer bash in July, he served a spritzer with zinfandel, club soda and fruit, as well as a summer shandy made with beer, lemon-lime soda and lemon wheels. Uniquely shaped ice cubes made with molds like those at The Violet Hour take longer to melt and, well, just look cool.
Cover your bases. Always have beer and wine in the fridge for guests who aren't crazy about cocktails or punch.
Spread the love. To avoid a bottleneck in the kitchen, Potempa turns his bedroom into another gathering spot by pushing his bed against a wall and setting glasses and bottles of wine and champagne on a table. "People hang out where the booze is," he said. Just be sure to hide your unmentionables.
Don't overdo the decorations. Instead of an over-the-top theme party, Navarro suggests weaving a palette of colors throughout different elements of the party, such as disposable napkins, plates, glassware and silverware. In general, less is more. "The biggest bang for your buck when it comes to small-space decor is candles, candles, candles," Lilly said. Place them on top of platters, plates or mirrors for instant ambience.
Move it on out. "I always used to worry about having enough seating, but when it gets crowded, people just kind of stand around anyway," Potempa said. All of our experts recommend creating an open central area in your main room, whether that means pushing furniture against the walls, moving it to a bedroom, or imposing on a kind neighbor. Potempa goes a step further and rents high-top tables and staggers them throughout the room to create hubs where groups can hang out.
Make the most of your little piece of sky. The same advice applies to outdoor spaces; leave one table for snacks and clear out the rest of the furniture to make more room for guests. Instead of putting the cooler on the balcony, keep it right inside the door where it's still accessible but doesn't take up valuable room outdoors. For unobtrusive lighting, wrap simple white string lights around the posts of a balcony or stoop. If you do go with a theme, tiki torches and grass skirts wrapped around a table or bar add a summery Hawaiian feel without trying too hard.
Stagger serving times. Hosting an open house where people come and go over the course of several hours can help avoid an onslaught of hungry and thirsty friends all at once.
Beat the heat. The more people you cram into a small space, the hotter it gets. To keep guests cool, Navarro suggests stocking up on hand-held fans from a Chinatown shop or mist spray bottles or battery-powered finger fans from a dollar store.
Have a backup plan. In case of rain or extreme heat, make sure you're able to accommodate guests indoors-only, whether by moving out furniture or hosting a shared party with a neighbor.
Erin Gibbons is a RedEye special contributor. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago