Party on a Dime

a beautiful budget-wise spread

What’s your fantasy of the perfect party? Nobel laureate guests? Buff servants in harem pants serving exotic drinks? No matter how differently we see the particulars, there is a universal ideal to the dinner party fantasy: hosts and hostesses swirl at the center of the action, oozing with charm and sparkling with cheer, resistant to stress and extra pounds. In our minds, we see our svelte, idealized selves wearing an au courant ensemble with shoes that do not make our feet hurt, even in the highest of heels. We get along with our significant others like Romeo and Juliet because we never fight and are so blissfully happy. Drinks and conversation flow like the Tiber and the food is nothing short of glorious: fit for royalty, piping hot, visually exquisite, and camera ready. Nowhere, however, in the history of party fantasies has it ever included, “And you have to do it on a budget.”


But alas, in the new world of stay-cations and unemployment, excessive spending is out and frugal is the new cool. How exactly does the current economic climate change the party scene if you must or simply want to throw a party in this post-financial meltdown, post-Madoff season? It’s surprisingly easy: all you need is a little planning, a few make-ahead menu items, and an attitude adjustment. Incite your inner gamer and view budget entertaining as the fabulously fun challenge it is. Methodical is marvelous, especially if you can make careful spending also look positively clever. You know, anyone can call the secret number for the baker who makes that death-by-chocolate flourless chocolate cake that Brad and Angie love or the incendiary caterer who charges $150 per person. Only you can make your party happen on a dime. Take enormous satisfaction this celebration season in knowing that you can rise like a phoenix to a challenge of entertaining well on a smart budget.

So, here it is: a do-it-yourself guide to not only a delicious party using ingredients all found at Trader Joe’s and the 99-cent store but also complete recipes for creating this elegant dinner for 10. For what you might spend on dinner for two at a celeb-encrusted little trattoria with an appetizer and shared entrée, you can throw your own killer party. What you’ll need is a comprehensive shopping list, a timed agenda of what goes in the oven when, and some household staples. (This menu assumes you have extra virgin olive oil, flour, salt, and butter.) For our get together, we spent about $175 (yes, including all alcohol) to make a relatively simple meal that looked like it cost much more than it did. For your own party, be bold, go forth, and above all, have fun. And book a mani-pedi with your many leftover dimes.


Menu: Recipes

Shopping List


Party Tactics

Want to splurge or ask friends to cart something along?  Add four bottles of a fantastic Italian white wine (skip the Pinot Grigio and go for Sylvaner, Kerner, Grechetto or Falanghina) and four bottles of a great red like a Brunello di Montalcino. Pop into an artisanal cheese shop and get Humbolt Fog from California, any great quality Manchego or Istara from Spain, Brillat-Savarin from France or anything your cheese purveyor recommends.

Serve dessert with an array of beverage choices: decaf or regular coffee; an interesting tea, like Rooibos; yummy, really cold Moscato di Asti in your best flutes.

As for décor and serving, if you don’t have glassware, buy wine and water glasses at the 99-cent store. It is not only acceptable to have glasses that don’t match: it’s fantastic. For napkins, buy two yards of fabric, cut them into squares with a child’s ragged-edge safety scissor, roll and tie with ribbons, also from the 99-cent store. Borrow plates if you don’t have enough. Don’t have a centerpiece? Break off fantastic tree branches from your yard (or a neighbor’s), spray with gold spray paint and wrap them in twinkle lights. Buy multi-colored gourds and place in a large bowl. Remember, for entertaining and economy, imagination rules. Sip Piña Coladas, listen to Hawaiian music and pretend you’re on the Big Island. Eat Italian food, put on a CD of whooshing water and pretend you’re on a gondola (but be prepared for the side effects).

There you have it, a menu fit for even my fantasy dinner party guests of Winston Churchill, Lincoln, Mata Hari, Ghandi, Orson Welles and Ingrid Bergman. Hey, it’s my fantasy party.  Who would you invite to yours? Make your fantasy party a bit more real this year by shopping smart for great ingredients and making some magic in the kitchen while you party on a dime.

Allison Robbins is the owner of Allison Robbins Wines, a wine import-distribution company that also holds custom wine education seminars.

This article first appeared on

photos: Deborah Alexander

food styling: Sasha Emerson

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