How to Create the Ultimate Backyard BBQ Vibe, According to a Pro Party Planner

"It's about tending to the space to energetically make it feel happier."

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Remember that dinner party you meant to throw last May? Right around the time when the sun came out and the world shut down? Well, a mere 12 months later, it’s looking like that moment has arrived. Congratulations, your time is now. Which is to say: Stakes are high (no pressure). 

Here’s the upshot, though: After you break the seal, we fully expect you’ll keep on throwing al fresco ragers. It’s all about the long game. “This summer, I just plan to smell like bonfire permanently. There’s nothing more nourishing,” says Alexis Schwartz, founder and director of roving natural wine fest “Thirsty Thirsty”. And as both a professional party planner, and a wine and food impresario, she’s got ample hosting secrets to help ensure that your friends will still like you after your ice-breaker soiree.

The Space

To start, let’s talk about the space itself. Whether you’re opting for a backyard, a stoop, a rolling pasture, or a picnic bench in your local public park, the same rules apply: “Give the space a sense of tidy vivaciousness,” says Schwartz. “Sweep away any stray leaves or branches, water any neglected plants and pluck away old leaves. It's about tending to the space to energetically make it feel happier. When you're outdoor hosting you want the space to feel raw but welcoming.” Naturally, this is made all the more difficult if you’re in a public space, but take a second to contemplate good lighting, seating and standing arrangements, and, of course, the centerpiece: Consumables. 

The Booze

In the realm of food and drink, Schwartz is something of an alpha. Beyond her string of food-forward soirees, she also hosts a wine club (eponymously titled Thirsty Thirsty), and pens a corresponding newsletter. But whether you’re planning on opting for a bathtub full of White Claws or a roster of fine wine pairings, her advice remains sound. “I keep all the wine bottles on a table or stoop step for self-service, but I keep an extra special bottle in my hand,” she says. Naturally, one of the great pleasures of hosting is refilling folks’ glasses. But for the most part, people will want to help themselves. So, make sure there’s plentiful ice, accessible booze, bottle openers of all kinds, and for non-drinkers or pregnant friends, a solid non-alcoholic option. “A great dinner party will always include non-alcoholic beverage options. Simplest is filtered water or big bottles of Topo Chico,” she says. Plus, it goes without saying that, whether you’re on the wine train or not, hydration is a positive. 

The Meal

As for food, the secret is, apparently, family style. For the most part, when you’re going the backyard BBQ route, you’re not in it for the delicate plating. You want tasty, large format, self-serve foods (of the variety that invites folks to go in for shameless seconds whenever they feel so inclined). “I often go for large format, discreetly vegan dishes that feel hearty. I want all of my friends with food restrictions to feel accommodated,” she says. “If you have a grill, marinate meat for the carnivores, then put everything out on the table for the taking.” No need to spend your evening serving or portioning (plus, full-on sit down meals limit mingling—one of life’s great, lost pleasures).

The Dessert

For dessert? Grilled fruit. It’s light enough to leave potential for post-meal dancing, easy to prep, dietary restriction-friendly, and decidedly aesthetically pleasing. That’s not all, though: “I believe in digestifs,” adds Schwartz. “Offering some kind of dessert wine or interesting spirit for sipping on post dinner makes things feel very elevated and fun.” Even in all the family style ruckus of whatever meal you’ve served, digestifs give the sense that your meal had a narrative—you’re all reaching this next chapter simultaneously. “You really can’t go wrong with a rad digestif, nice chocolate bars, and fresh fruit. That’s an old Alice Waters end-of-party trick.” she says. Plus, all of the above pair well with party games (yes, dancing qualifies as a party game). 

In any case, whether or not you intend to stick to the Alexis Schwartz bible on al fresco etiquette, we can certainly still help you out on the product front. Ahead, with Schwartz’s aid, we’ve compiled a roster of your backyard BBQ must-haves, from outdoor lanterns and non-alcoholic aperitifs to industrial coolers, and even grills.

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Polaroid Go

Not only will a kitschy set of Polaroids memorialize your garden party as 17x more charming than it actually was, but keeping one of these around will do some good work to discourage the limitless use of phone cameras (the hallmark of a good party is the accidental absence of cell phones).

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Funboy Retro Lawn Chairs

Nevermind the fact that these lawn chairs look like they were styled after something Joaquin Phoenix wore in Inherent Vice. They’re light and easy to move for improved mingling.They’ve got a fun, vintage vibe. And they’ll be plenty easy to store come clean-up. 

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Boar's Head

We’ve all had cravings for that smoky barbecue flavor. But firing up the grill at, say, lunchtime isn’t always an option. That’s why Boar’s Head’s created their new PitCraft Turkey. It’s inspired by real pit masters and slow-cooked to perfection to bring that real pit barbecue taste to the deli. Think of it as your ultimate hack for picnics, sandwiches, and more.

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MYSA Natty Wine Starter Kit

You may or may not take pleasure in curating the wine selection for this particular fete (if, in fact, there is to be wine). Either way, a pre-selected pack from folks who do know wine—like the natty wine gurus over at superstore, MYSA—will make your booze shopping easy. Plus, take it on our advisory that a little ice cold skin-contact (wine) in the summertime is essentially the nectar of the gods.

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Schott Zwiesel Unbreakable Stemware

On the subject of wine: Offering actual stemware at your backyard BBQ is something of a death wish. However, without sacrificing class, consider an affordable, unbreakable option like these internet-beloved vessels.

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Sonos Roam

Naturally, a party without music is sacrilegious, so make sure you’ve got an outdoor music set-up worthy of your celebration. In our humble opinion, Sonos is the creme de la creme when it comes to sound quality, so why not give their brand new portable speaker a go? Just be judicious with your licensing of the proverbial aux chord. 

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Igloo Picnic Basket Cooler

It’s cool if this isn’t the Catalina Wine Mixer. Everyone loves a cold beer. Except for your friends with gluten allergies. So pack this retro Igloo brand cooler with ice and potable, canned goods, then position her front and center. Oh, and if you’re venturing elsewhere for your get together, this picnic basket-style, transportable container will feel like a real game changer.  

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Outdoor Bar Cart

We get it, it’s been a long year. Everyone deserves a martini. Or seven. So whether you’re serving your own pre-made punchbowl concoction or planning for a more DIY situation, a sturdy outdoor bar cart like this one is any easy way to position ice, limes, bottles, and mixers all within reach. 

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Ghia's Le Spritz

On the flip side of things, if you want to ensure your pregnant or non-drinking friends have an option that feels as notably chic and tasty as whatever negroni situation you’ve orchestrated, you’d best go with Le Spritz. The canned beverave is an on-the-go sequel to the fan favorite non-alcoholic apertif, Ghia. It’s a perfect alternative for slow-sipping, and hey, you can always add gin.

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Heavy Duty String Lights

No matter how early you kick things off, folks will certainly linger until after dark. So, without having to a) migrate indoors, or b) converse sloppily in the dark, keep the ambiance alive with some solid string lights. Just be sure to go for a pair that’s designated for the outdoors like this set of sturdy weather resistant bulbs. 

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Balmuda Lantern

On the subject of lighting: It’s always helpful to keep a more concentrated light source on hand. Whether you want to position it as your dinner table centerpiece or keep it grill-side, this ultra bright, moveable Balmuda lamp will surely help to stave off many a stubbed toe (and/or many a charred hot dog). 

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Pink Flamingo Lawn Ornaments

Yard flamingos, you know?? An authentic staple of The Wild. 

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Citronella Jar Candles

Speaking of the great outdoors, we’d best address the flurry of mosquitoes inevitably in attendance. Without sacrificing your hard-earned aesthetic, distribute these cute, well disguised citronella jar candles wherever possible. By which we mean literally everywhere. Your guests will thank you.

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Pine Infused Sea Salt

We don’t mean to question your culinary prowess. But we do mean to suggest that any/all errors can be smoothed over with a high quality salt. So this time around, maybe skip the multisyllabic artisanal spice blend and go right for the good stuff: sodium. 

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Conservas Selection

The Internet does not seem to be abandoning its overwhelming affection for tinned fish anytime soon. So do the righteous thing and serve the infinitely hip, convervas-style snack as an early-evening appetizer. This killer selection includes things like mussels in Escabeche, yellowfin tuna belly in olive oil, and razor clams. And even if no one eats them, you best believe someone will get a hell of an Instagram out of the spread. 

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Floyd Outdoor Dining Set

When it comes to dining decor, you can either go simple and classic with your run of the mill picnic table (and we assure you, there’s no shame in this). But if you feel like going the boutique route, this weather-resistant number from beloved furniture purveyor Floyd makes for an excellent dining canvas.

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Weber Gas Grill

Ah, it would appear we’ve saved the best—and most essential—for last. But let it be known, we’ve given this one quite a bit of thought. And after plentiful research, we’ve surmised that this gas grill from Weber, with cast-iron grates, double food trays, and a built in thermometer, is your best do-it-all option.

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George Foreman Indoor/Outdoor Grill

That said, if you’re not exactly ready to drop $600 on a grill, this is most definitely a reliable budget alternative. It’s electric and it’s indoor/outdoor safe—so you’ll get plenty of use in the off season. Or at least, you can tell yourself you will. 

Eliza Dumais is a former staff writer at Thrillist. She now works as a lifestyle editor at Refinery29.
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