First it was retro fashion (mini- skirts in the boardroom). Then it was retro furnishings (the bean- bag chair is back). Now we’ve progressed (regressed?) to retro entertaining.
We’re heralding, specifically, the return of the progressive party-not the one organized around Teddy Roosevelt, but that singular style of entertaining where multiple hosts serve up hors d’oeuvres in one house, entrees in a second house, and dessert and coffee in a third.
By splitting the costs among more than one host, the progressive party becomes an economic alternative-and everything is couched in economic terms these days-to eating out or entertaining solo. Plus it’s a quirky change of pace on the still-frenetic party circuit.
“It’s a unique opportunity for guests to change their environment. There are so many beautiful homes in Dallas. It’s fun, it’s different, and it cuts on costs,” says Ed Lumbley of Savories, a catering and party planning service. Lumbley and partner Pam Mullins have even come up with their own term for the progressive party of the Eighties: leap-frogging.
After watching party budgets shrink over the past few years, Lumbley and Mullins aren’t too surprised by the return of the progressive. Mullins, who served as catering manager of the Mansion for five years before opening Savories last December, has seen the best and worst of times. “Around seven years ago, when the Mansion was booming, people did not ask prices, and we threw some lavish, lavish parties. But toward the end, everyone had a budget,” she says.
In August, Savories was already fielding inquiries about progressive parties for the holidays, after pulling off a lavish, seven-course progressive dinner for sixty-seven guests at the Claridge in June. Described as a “logistical nightmare,” the party required fourteen waiters and bartenders, a kitchen staff of three, and a clean-up staff of three, all moving from course to course and floor to floor in the Claridge’s sole service elevator. The timetable for this challenging event went like this:
7 p.m. champagne and caviar in the seventeenth-floor penthouse
7:30 cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (grilled baby lamb chops and grilled jalapeno chicken tenders wrapped in bacon) on the seventh floor
8:15 a summer soup tasting on the fourth floor
8:45 a seated dinner of salad, veal ton-nato, and carrots, celery, and onions on the eighteenth floor
9:30 dessert and brandy on the eleventh floor
The Fort Worth Ballet is also considering making one of next season’s fundraisers an ultra-progressive affair. Billed as an “international night,” the party would take place in twelve homes, with twelve different ethnic dinners. Three hundred and sixty guests (at $150 per ticket) would meet at one house for cocktails, then draw their dinner destinations out of a fishbowl.
Although plans for the ambitious affair are currently on the back burner, executive ballet board member Carol Dunaway hopes to settle things soon. “I haven’t been to a progressive dinner in a long time,” Dunaway says. “Everybody on the committee thought it was-not a new idea, but something to bring back.”
H. Keith Nix of The Nix Company, who coordinated the party at the Claridge, has also been hearing progressive parties mentioned among Dallas’s gala-chairwomen types-something along the lines of cocktails at a gallery, then dinner in a hotel’s private dining room. That sort of progressive evening, Nix theorizes, is an import from Washington, D.C., where a shortage of big ballrooms and the predominance of taxi cabs make traveling parties the norm. “I think it’s just seeping into the Dallas mentality,” he says.
During the last few years, while progressive parties were out of favor on the social circuit, they were still big in the business world. Ginger Swallow of Creative Cuisine Catering, a party planning service, remembers throwing progressive parties from floor to floor in new office complexes, or from model home to model home in new subdivisions. Lately, realtors have turned to progressive luncheons to show off the glut of new listings on the market.
Progressive parties at home, be warned, are not as easy as they sound in Nata Lee’s Complete Book of Entertaining, vintage 1961: “As the progressive party starts at the house of our hostess with hors d’oeuvres, she farsightedly cooked extra lobsters on Friday night. Hostess Number Two planned her main dish so that it would keep in a low-temperature oven while she attended the first part of the party. The salad hostess left the sliced alligator pears, tomato wedges, and chopped cucumber marinating in French dressing-all ready to be tossed into the salad greens.”
No word on the nine-to-five working hostess. But the progressive party is possible if you follow a few rules. First, plan to the nth degree. For the menu, use foods that don’t need perfect timing, or you’ll be watching your souffle fall while your guests are stuck in traffic. Be prepared ahead of time at the next location. Set up a timetable; assign one person to be timekeeper and announce when it’s time to move on.
Consider transportation. It’s best to leave no more than fifteen or twenty minutes between stops (although we do know of one party that moved from hors d’oeuvres in Highland Park to a main course in Bent Tree to dessert in Richardson). If your guests will be driving their own cars, keep the guest list to twenty-five or less, give maps to everybody, and go easy on the alcohol. Otherwise, you can hire a shuttle service.
A progressive party can be as cheap or as expensive as you want. If you use a caterer, your food costs can run anywhere from $15 to $75 per person. Beyond that, the charges for beverages, service help, rental costs, flowers, and valet parking can be considerable. And don’t forget to figure in the cost for tips and the 8 percent sales tax.
Since dining trends adhere to the trickle-down theory better than wealth does, we should be seeing more and more progressive parties popping up as word gets around. “I just don’t think it dawns on a lot of people,” says Mullins. “If it were more promoted, I think it would be a lot more popular.”
Marie Dreibrodt, whose condo served as the dessert stop at last summer’s Claridge party, put it best: “I’ve given progressive parties two or three times, but that’s been ten or twelve years ago. I don’t know why we never did it again. It really was delightful, and not too much trouble.” Sort of like the beanbag chair.