Our series “The Great Outdoors” will show you how to turn your yard into the next great dining and party destination, from barbecues to picnics year-round.
We’ve turned our backyards into venues for nearly every occasion over the past year, from graduations to bridal showers — though we may have focused more on keeping chairs at a distance than creating playlists and mixing cocktails.
Now we’re able to congregate more freely and the weather is warming up, which means it’s time to bring our friends and family to the yard with a quality party that will make everyone feel comfortable. All you need is a keen eye for detail — and a record player.
Create an experience
While games like cornhole and horseshoes have a permanent place at backyard gatherings, consider doing more to create a total experience. Urban Cowboy Hotels owner Lyon Porter, who’s known for hosting eclectic hangs at his Catskill and Nashville properties, says backyard parties are opportunities to be original.
“People want an experience. My partner, Jersey Banks, and I try to be super thoughtful about things like themes or outfits,” Lyon says. “Urban Cowboy backyard parties have featured mentalists performing disappearing acts, séances, and roundtable talks in ‘Jeffersonian-style oration.’ It’s really about making the party memorable in unexpected ways.”
Prep for success
DC-based celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn has some sage advice: “If the host is going to cook, then they should do most of the work before the party — you never want to miss out on the fun. I always prep the day before, and that really ends up impressing my guests. If I’m going to grill steaks, I’ll be sure to rub them, season and marinate them, and have them in [zip-top bags] ready for the grill.”
Spike, a master snack maker, offers three easy ideas for backyard treats.
Mushroom Jerky: “We can’t talk about summer barbecue trends without talking about fungi. Portobello and cremini mushrooms have always been a substitute for meat. Just marinate the mushrooms, grill them on the barbecue a little bit, and then dehydrate them in the oven.”
Watermelon and Jalapeño Water: “Chop up the watermelon until it liquefies and then add a little coconut sugar and either honey or agave, and squeeze in some limes. Grill the jalapeños quickly, slice them, and infuse them in your watermelon water. It combines the spiciness of the jalapeño with the freshness of the watermelon.”
Strawberry Shortcake Log: “Macerate your strawberries, maybe throw some liquor in for a little kick, then get your angel food sheet cake. Whip up your vanilla cream, layer the strawberries over the whipped cream, and then slowly roll it up. Top it off with whipped cream and macerated strawberries, and that thing is a big, big win.”
Hire a bartender
Employing a bartender at your backyard party makes all the difference. “A bartender is a must,” Lyon says. “They can craft signature cocktails based on seasonal or event themes.” They also free you up to mingle and enjoy time with your guests.
Form small pods
Lyon suggests making seating areas into small pods of four to six people. “In smaller numbers, everyone can participate in that group discussion — and then when the food ends, it really turns into a party.”
Eventually people tend to retreat indoors and escape the elements. But to keep the party outside (and dirt from tracking inside), Lyon suggests adding some shaded areas in the backyard with umbrellas or tents.
Spread out the sound
Veteran New York City DJ Nick Russo likes to start out with “funkier and mellow stuff” and then introduce some indie or new wave music. He tries to play familiar songs early in the party so arriving guests feel welcome right away. If you don’t want a DJ, play vinyl records selected by your guests for a timeless party atmosphere.
Selecting the right tunes is obviously the first step, but designing the sound of your backyard venue is essential too. “Usually two speakers, on the left and right of the DJ, are enough. But you can go a step further with multiple speakers that cover all angles in a bigger backyard to make the sound as full as possible,” Nick recommends. “The speakers I use are Electro-Voice, 15-inch, that pack like 1,000 watts.”
Clean up in real time
Lyon says it’s vital to eliminate trash and clutter as it’s produced. “If you see something when you’re walking around, put it in the trash can. And have multiple trash cans set up everywhere — give people the option to discard garbage and recyclables.”
Play it safe
You’ll want to have bug spray, sunblock, and, of course, hand sanitizer for when your guests arrive. Lyon also says it’s important to take safety measures that would make your “most concerned friend feel comfortable coming over.”