Being a party-goer is easy: you show up, eat food, drink drink, have fun, and go home. Nice. But sometimes you need to return the favor, do your part and be a good guy. Sometimes, it's gotta be your turn to host.
That's why we're creating the ultimate man's guide to backyard entertaining. We're skipping the burgers and hot dogs, but saving the grill-power and the open flame. This is no fancy dinner party with flowers and special place settings and specialized utensils. But it is an event for grown-ups (read: no kegs) who want to get together and enjoy a great evening of good grub, tasty wine and conversation.
To make it happen, we sought out a partner in Murphy-Goode, a Sonoma winery that makes great wines for occasions just like this one: good times, good friends, and good food. Read on for tons of DIY tricks and small, simple projects that make this a decidedly ManMade take on the backyard barbecue.
(Oh, and hey, city-dwellers, ye backyard-less wonders, these tips will work just as well on your patio, porch, fire escape, your building's roof, your driveway or parking space, the front yard, or even the local park. Just check with local authorities and your super first.)
Now, let's light the charcoal, pop the cork, and get started.
THE THINGS YOU ARE ABOUT TO LEARN!
- Inviting Guests
- Where to Put These People (Seating)
- In Vino Festivus (Simplifying Your Drink Menu)
- Whose Drink Is This?
- Flora and Flames (decor with a lowercase d)
- Lighting (NOT LIGHTNING!)
- What To Do When the Talking Stops (Entertainment)
You know what I hate? Facebook invites. E-vites. Meeting requests. Nothing makes a party sound like an interminable staff meeting like an appointment with a 30-minute reminder on your Google Calendar. Stop it.
The ManMade recommendation? Don't do it. Digital invites are confusing, often require special account creation, and usually make the guest list and RSVPs public. Facebook events are designed for your college roommate's DJ nights, not for actually reaching out to your friends. I have seriously never attended a real-life event I got invited to by Facebook alone, and I doubt you have either.
Do you need custom letter-printed paper invitations with a handwritten note? Naaaarp.
Just call them. Don't email. Don't text. Don't use some third party thing. Just call your friends on the telephone, and speak directly to the folks you wanna hang out with. If you're nervous about it, just read this script:
"Hey, I'm hosting a barbecue at my house in a few weeks and I wanted to see if you're free that evening cause I'd really love for you to be there."
Tell them the date, and then, after you discuss, let them know that you'll follow up by text or email so they have the details, your address, and the start time for reference later.
Let Your Guests Bring Stuff If They Ask
Don't be a hero and do everything yourself, but don't compromise the vibe you're going for, either. If someone asks if they can bring something, say yes. And use the opportunity to allow your friends to help provide the things you don't own enough of. Don't have 20 chairs? Tell your friends to bring one for each person that arrives in their group. Most of us don't have enough wine glasses to host a large group, so tell your guests to bring one for themselves, or a set of four, and you'll wash them and give it back to them before they leave. And if someone texts you on the way and says, "hey - can I pick anything up on my way over?" the answer is always: Yes. Grab a bag of ice.
Unless it's a pot-luck, I avoid asking people to bring food. It's usually annoying (for them), and probably won't go with the menu you have planned out (we'll talk about that later).
Where to Put These People (Seating)
A barbecue has a different vibe than an indoor dinner party; you can invite more people than can fit around your dining table. Which is good, cause people shouldn't be sitting around a table like it's Thanksgiving. Instead, use your outdoor table space to lay out your drinks and food, and just let people eat wherever they want. You want folks shuffling about; that's what a barbecue is all about (well, ok, it's about grilled meat, but also shuffling).
Don't have an outdoor table space? Make one! Some ideas:
- Bring indoor tables outside, cover them with tablecloths or brown kraft paper.
- Use a folding or card table.
- Get a piece of plywood and some sawhorses and create a pop-up table.
- Use cinder blocks and some 1 x 8"s to make a long flat surface to place your food.
Raid your dining room and home office for chairs. If you still don't have enough, then embrace full-on picnic mode and invite guests to sit on the ground. Throw down some blankets in the right spot so your guests know where it's cool to sit. If you don't have the right blanket, hit up your local military surplus store. They have all kinds of rustic, masculine blankets at affordable prices, and you'll find all sorts of uses for them.
In Vino Festivus (Simplifying Your Drink Menu)
We like cocktails as much as anyone, but a backyard barbecue is not the time for mixing custom drinks, buying ten bottles of spirits and a billion mixers so you can make just the right drink for everyone. A backyard barbecue is a time to keep things simple, and you don't want to spend the whole night measuring and stirring and shaking drinks. There's a perfect libation to serve that will make everyone happy: wine.
Everyone likes wine with good food. Between a rich red and a chilled white, there's something for everyone, and, most importantly, your guests can serve themselves as they wish. We're gonna go even further and say: serve only two wines - one red and one white. That way, there's no clamoring to make sure everyone tries each vintage, and no one will hog the expensive stuff. Pick two great options that work with the grilled foods your serving, and allow your guests to help themselves. The entire drink problem is solved.
But when you're keeping things simple, you gotta make sure your two choices make sense for your meal. So, we consulted the winemakers and house chef - The Grill Sergeant - from Murphy-Goode Winery to select the right bottles. We'll be sharing our discoveries in Part II - Food and Drink Planning and Prep.
Whose Drink Is This?
I love eating and hanging out outside because of the movement that happens when you interact in an open space. Folks get up often, get refills, grab a snack, check out what's going on at the grill, etc. Which is great for atmosphere, but it means people often lose their spot, their plate, and set down their drinks all over the place.
Anyone who's ever shared a bottle of wine has done the "which glass is mine?" dance with a stranger; it just comes along with territory. And they make things to help sort that out: they're called wine charms, and they're little wire and bead things that attach to the stem of the glass and they're horrible and ugly and something no man should use at his party.
But, you know what else attaches to wine glasses? Tape. Particularly, masking tape that you can write on. You already have some in your desk or some blue painters tape from your toolbox. Just place a roll and big black marker next to the wine glasses, and folks will get the idea. Attach it to the stem of the glass to avoid losing tackiness with condensation from chilled white wine. You could even set a few up ahead of time. No jewelry necessary.
Oh, and this also helps having to avoid asking that person you just met what their name is again. Just glance at their wine glass. Done.
Flora and Flames (decor with a lowercase d)
You don't need a "theme" to your party. You already have one: you're cooking outside. But, our vote is more the "campfire in the woods" kind of outdoor cooking than the "Father's Day card with checkered table cloth and yellow and red squeeze bottles" sort of thing.
To pull it off, you need but two things: something green and nature-y, and something on fire. If you have a grassy yard with trees, you're all set on the green part. If your space is more of a deck or fire escape (or dirt lot), get some basic potted plants. Even placing some succulents in bowls on the table conveys the tone.
As far as fire, there are several options. A backyard fire pit is ideal, so if you have the space, go for it. Use an established pit or ring for safety, and I recommend some basic concrete pavers underneath the pit if you're setting it on something flammable. If you don't have one, you can use a kettle grill to build a small, safe wood fire, or you can always make one. Here's the ManMade tutorial, and these are some other good DIY options. Just be sure to check your local city codes for open flame laws.
If a fire pit doesn't make sense, plenty of other options will work just fine. Tiki torches are a great solution, adding lots of vibe and helping to keep the bugs away. If you don't have a spot to stake them in the ground, embrace the power of the citronella candle. Get lots, and use them on every flat surface you have.
To make your yard a festive place where people will want to hang out, bust out the string lights. You can use the ones you already have and put on your Christmas tree, or get the more outdoors-y globe lights or cafe lights. You can definitely find these online, but check discount stores, party supply shops, and garden centers, which have these for sale year round, not just in May and June.
The trick, of course, is hanging them. You need them to be high enough so that folks can walk around freely and not clothesline themselves, but also low enough so that they light the space. The layout depends on your yard and its features, you'll want to use your roof, any trees as you can, but here's an easy DIY technique to extend them further:
- Get some 1/2" metal conduit pipes in the electrical aisle at the home improvement store. These come standard 10' in length, which is perfect for this project.
- Attach some medium-duty S-hooks to the top with wire, creating a spot to anchor the lights.
- Place the pipes against any sturdy features you have: fences, decks, lawn furniture, trees, etc. If you can push them two feet into the ground, you'll have more support, and a solid 8' of clearance. Attach them to existing structures with zip ties, or for a more permanent solution, 1/2 pipe straps or hangers.
- Use as many as you can to define the hangout space, but don't worry if you only have enough anchors for a few sets. Two or three strands really helps establish the party tone. When connecting multiple strands, loop the male and female plug ends around each other so the hanging tension won't pull them apart (top left).
What To Do When the Talking Stops (Entertainment)
The point of a cookout is to gather, visit and meet new people, and, of course, eat and drink. But it's always nice to have a general focal point or conversation starter to keep things moving throughout the night, and give folks a way to interact once the trips to the food table have slowed down.
Our vote: go for the outdoor movie. It's reminiscent of a trip to the drive-in, or a movies in the park on a picnic blanket. Digital projectors are easy to rent, and have become increasingly affordable to buy. Just get one with an HDMI in port, and plug in your DVD player, Apple TV or Roku box, or laptop. Someone you know probably has one of these. We picked up this one from ViewSonic online. It's an affordable option that's plenty bright, and all the tech review sites give it the thumbs up. We'll keep using it for many ManMade projects and outdoor movie nights to come.
Here's the thing - you don't actually have to watch the movie. It's really background entertainment. It's more about giving movement to the space. It gives people something to chat about. And having a flickering screen brings a special something to the party, like visuals at a concert, or the TVs set to low at your local pub. And because no one has to watch, it's a great chance to throw on a movie filled with scenes and set pieces that everyone knows well ... those comfort food movies that you can't help but watch on a rainy day. You could even make a YouTube playlist of some iconic music videos. Here's a list of recommended films that will work for any party:
- The Goonies
- Back to Future
- The Big Lebowski
- Wayne's World
- The Princess Bride
- Blues Brothers
- This Is Spinal Tap
- Ferris Bueller's Day Off
- Three Stooges Shorts
- Stand By Me
- Cool Hand Luke
- The Graduate
Once the film has served its purpose, use the projector and screen combo to do something interactive: play some video games. It's a great way to get folks that don't know each other to connect, and, if you choose the game wisely, create a opportunity for anyone to participate.
Of course, you'll need a screen on which to project your images. Here's how to make an easy DIY option that you can hang anywhere:
- Get some white blackout cloth, which is used for window shades and curtains. You can find it at the fabric store or online.
- Get two lengths of 1/2" PVC pipe and fold and sew a channel along the bottom, and basic sleeve at the top, leaving some space for insert hardware. If you don't have a sewing machine, you can try a strong adhesive like E6000 or PVA glue, or you could even use a medium weight staple gun.
- Then, insert some evenly spaced grommets along the top.
- Slide in the PVC and cut to size, and use rope and hooks to mount it (on a wall, your roof eaves, a shed, a tree, etc). You can easily remove the PVC and fold it up for storage, and insert some eyelet screws in your ceiling for indoor use.
Yes, you should have some. Not so loud it's distracting, but enough to make it feel like a party. Set the volume to be loud enough that folks can hear it and recognize the songs the already know, but not loud enough that anyone has to speak up to overcome it.
We recommend setting up the music away from the grill, just to avoid any potential damage from heat or smoke to your gear. Find a spot in a corner, near the drinks, perhaps. These days, the easiest route is a Bluetooth speaker playing tunes from your smartphone, tablet, or nearby computer.
We used a Jawbone Jambox, which was plenty loud for our space, but there are several Bluetooth speaker options out there, many under $40. Just find one that uses a rechargeable battery, so you don't have to deal with any power supplies or extension cords. For tunes, we made a custom playlist through Spotify featuring lots of 60s and 70s R&B (think Motown and Stax records) and then fading into some moody electronic pop as the night wore on. Here are a few free playlists to help give your gathering some energy.
- Backyard Beer Tasting Playlist - Indie Pop and Folk
- Calm Down - Mellow tunes for all generations
- Reggae BBQ - enough said
- Tranquility with a Beat - Music doesn't have to be slow to be relaxing
- Beer and Burgers - Rockabilly and Old School Rock and Roll
- Songs for Sunsets - Relaxed tunes for sitting around with friends
- Weekend Hangouts - Subtle electronic pop for any gathering
Coming up later this week, we'll be sharing our menu and food preparing tips, as well as ideas for selecting the right wines for your party. Then, we'll cover some basic tips for getting your house ready for guests (no, you don't have to scrub it from head to toe), and some best practices for grilling, and tips for getting all the work done ahead of time, so you can enjoy your party, too.
While you're waiting, check out our dedicated How To Host an All-Out Backyard Barbecue Pinterest board:
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Event photos by the amazing Margaret Jacobsen.
This post was sponsored by Murphy-Goode Winery, but all opinions are mine alone. We're grateful to our sponsors for helping us make long-form, in-depth content like this possible. And for the good wine!
This ManMade post was originally published in August 2014. We're excited to be collaborating with Murphy-Goode wine again this year, so we're sharing again for this summer. Enjoy!