The clink of ice in a glass, the faint scent of flowers in the air, the pimento-cheese tea sandwiches passed on Minton china—it’s all redolent of Southern charm. And there’s no one who knows more about that than Patricia Altschul, who wrote the book on it and stars in the Bravo TV series of the same name. While Patricia has no time for an inferior martini (an ex was related to James Bond’s alter ego Ian Fleming, after all), she’s more than gracious when it comes to sharing her tips for elevating the cocktail—and every other party detail—to perfect Southern standards. Adorn yourself in your sparkliest jewels and favorite caftan and listen in as the grande dame of Southern entertaining and a member of The Salonniere 100, our annual list of the nation’s best party hosts, reveals the secrets of her charm.
What defines a successful party? Does it differ in the North and South?
A Southerner’s door is (almost) always open because we love to entertain at home. Mixing the high and the low amuses people. Trying to be too fancy, formal, or correct can be a bore. Sure, you can throw a bunch of money at an event and recreate the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, but that doesn’t mean your guests will have a good time. You want your guests to relax and have fun. I’m shocked by how much people spend on parties, with the sole purpose of impressing their guests. I’m never impressed by excess—all I can think about is what a waste of money it is. People are more likely to remember your party if you do something genuinely amusing. Creativity and wit always trump wretched excess.
The dining room at Patricia’s Charleston home
What is your favorite type of party?
My favorite parties are intimate seated dinners for eight to 10 guests. One of the main problems with society today is that everyone is eating on the run. That makes a dinner party a special occasion. I put a lot of thought into assembling a lively group. Once I’ve determined my list, I pick up the phone and call each one. Conversing with a human reminds you why you wanted to invite them in the first place.
What legendary party guests would you have loved to host in your home?
Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Picasso, Queen Victoria, Richard Burton, Bunny Mellon, Steve Jobs, and The Duchess of Devonshire.
The hand-painted menu “card” at a party hosted by Prince Charles
Who have been your biggest and most enduring influences as a party host?
One of the best hosts of all time was a Southerner. The great writer Truman Capote grew up in a small town in Alabama. In 1966, when he was living in New York, he conceived and executed the Black and White Ball, which he planned the same way he wrote his blockbuster books In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He agonized over every detail: the theme (a masked ball), the guest list (the who’s who of all time), the dress code (black and white), the food (his favorites, spaghetti and chicken hash), and the décor (minimalist; he said the people were the flowers). He mixed high and low, and his budget of $15,000 was small, even for the time. And we’re still talking about that party today. The first lesson of entertaining is to be creative, to have a personal vision, and to dedicate the requisite time, effort, and resources to bringing that vision to life. Prince Charles is another great host. He gave a dinner in Buckingham Palace where he used his own silver, arranged the flowers himself, and had an in-house artist paint the menu on a fan. We were in the Painting Gallery and behind me was a footman, and behind him, a Rubens. He really upped the stakes.
How do you determine your seating arrangements for a formal dinner?
I always make sure my guests are properly introduced when they arrive so people are more friends than strangers by the time dinner is served. Then, after a drink or two, when everyone has loosened up, I’ll move things into the dining room. I will purposefully seat people together who I think will get along, but I like to keep everyone close together rather than spread out. The cozier everyone is, the more comfortable and intimate the party will feel.
Are there any conversation topics that are off-limits at a party in your home?
As a hostess or host, you’re the ringmaster, and at your circus, you have to pay attention to everything, including the conversation at large. Are your guests playing nicely with each other? I find that the two most incendiary topics are politics—especially these days—and religion. Lively discourse is one thing, but never get into an argument socially about these subjects. As much as I admire diversity and respect other people’s opinions, I refuse to get into a fight, because you’re never going to change anyone’s mind at a dinner table.
How do you extricate yourself from a dull conversation at a party?
Tolerating a conversation you don’t want to be in doesn’t make you more polite. Chances are there’s someone at the party you haven’t spoken to yet that you’d like to speak to. If you’ve been in your boring conversation for a while, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “There’s so-and-so. I’d love to go say hello to her.”
Patricia in one of her custom pet caftans
What is your go-to hosting attire?
I love wearing caftans, especially when entertaining at home, because of their comfort and versatility. If it’s a casual gathering, I wear a more casual caftan with fun jewelry and ballet flats. A formal occasion calls for an embellished silk caftan, heels, and real jewelry. In both cases, the trick is to select a caftan that fits properly and to pair it with the right accessories. If you’re tall, you can wear one that is voluminous because it will drape properly. If you’re curvy or full-figured, a caftan offers great camouflage. If you’re petite, make sure to get one that doesn’t have an excessive amount of fabric. I like the ones that are stitched down the sides because they look loose and structured at the same time. Big, bold jewelry makes a caftan come to life. Add cuffs, bracelets, heavy necklaces, dangly earrings, a multitude of rings, and you’re good to go. It’s an exotic look, and you should have fun with it. I do!
Any tips for avoiding caftan-and-candle catastrophes?
When it’s time to extinguish your candle, always use a snuffer. Candle wax is hot! You never want to touch it or let wax splatter on your caftan or the surfaces in your home. Also, putting candles too low is asking for trouble. Once at an event, my escort whisked me away as my ball gown was about to catch fire from a low votive.
Patricia’s butler Michael with her five o’clock martini
You’re a martini connoisseur. What defines a perfect martini, and who mixes one best?
My second husband Ed was related to Ian Fleming, the writer who created James “shaken, not stirred” Bond and apparently made the best martini in the world. Ed inherited the family talent. Now, I depend on Michael, my butler, who has the magic martini touch. First he smashes ice in a special Lewis bag to ensure the perfect consistency. Then he shakes the precise proportions of gin, vermouth, and ice, pours it into a glass, and garnishes it with an olive or lemon, depending on my mood. [Click here to download Michael’s martini recipe.]
How do you handle it when a host hands you an inferior martini?
When Michael goes on vacation, I abstain from my five o’clock martini. If I’m at a restaurant or a bar and the martini is below my standards, I will not drink it. Period. I have no interest in drinking an inferior martini.
What are your favorite rituals for getting ready for a party?
While preparing for a party, I have a dressing drink for two reasons. If I’m entertaining at the house, I really don’t have time to sit and have a nice cocktail because I’ll be getting up and greeting people, showing them around or introducing them, and I don’t want to be doing that while holding a cocktail. If I’m attending an event, I know I’m not going to get what I want where I’m going—and I like my martini.
For parties, Patricia sets up a bar in the Morning Room
What are your must-haves when setting up a bar at home for your parties?
The correct way to set up a bar is to have an assortment of glassware, basic kinds of alcohol, and mixers. When we set up for a party, we also include fresh lemons, limes, and doggie swizzle sticks, which are very cute. Michael, my butler, recommends having tons and tons of ice—his formula is 8 ounces for every guest. At parties, I serve only white wine, rosé, and Champagne—never red wine, in case there’s a spiller in the group. We also have a range of ingredients on hand in case someone wants an unusual drink—onions for Gibsons, cherries for Manhattans, and olives for martinis. Stock two or three kinds of vodka, because everyone is so fussy, and a few brands of gin. It’s nice to have rye and several good bourbons—Southerners like Bulleit for a mixed drink and Pappy Van Winkle to sip straight up. Select your alcohol on the basis of taste, not price. Yes, they should be good quality, but the most expensive brand is not necessarily the best. We always keep a very good dry vermouth, orange bitters, and regular bitters in case we get a request for a Champagne cocktail.
A table topped with Patricia’s favorite party food
What are some of your favorite foods to serve at your summer parties?
I want to make sure that everyone is well fed, so I put out plenty of food, both savory and sweet. My menu is usually the same, with a few variations. I serve assorted deviled eggs, a big bowl of shrimp on ice, ham on biscuits, cheese straws, celery stuffed with pimento cheese (a Southern favorite), a beautiful cheese platter, and tea sandwiches—white bread with homemade pimento cheese and white bread with heirloom tomatoes, butter, salt, and pepper. [Click here to download Patricia’s favorite party recipes.]
Are there any wines or Champagnes that you particularly enjoy in summer?
Remember my adage, “One cannot drink cheap wine in the heat.” In the summer I definitely prefer white wine and Miraval rosé, and I like Dom Pérignon, which I buy at Costco. Although you don’t see them much anymore, I think Champagne towers are beautiful, and people are always fascinated by the way they work.
Before a party, Patricia arranges the furniture to encourage conversation
How does a home’s décor set the tone for the parties that are hosted there?
I’ve learned from the best, Mario Buatta. It’s truly important to have seating areas: sofas, love seats, club seats, and armed chairs and stools that can be moved around.
What do you like to do for flowers?
According to my dear friend Carolyne Roehm, there are no bad flowers, only people who have no ability to use them correctly. For a formal dinner, a low floral arrangement is a good choice, but I avoid flowers that give off too strong a scent. However, if there are no flowers, I find a clever assortment of objects can be eye-catching too. If I am using a florist, I will dictate the varietals and colors to be used. The palette of the room décor should dictate the flowers.
One of Patricia’s floral arrangements
What makes a great thank-you note? Are there any standouts that you’ve received?
To write a proper note, you need proper stationery. In fact, you need a selection, ranging from formal to informal. People have gotten out of the habit of ordering personalized stationery, but there are so many resources, at all different price points. I always get my stationery from Mrs. John L. Strong, and I order both cards and sheets with matching envelopes. You may think that finding the right words is the hardest part of composing a note. While I have a certain style, I find that the best sentiments are those that are immediate and from the heart.
What’s the best thing that ever happened to you at a party?
I met two of my husbands at parties.
Are there any current party trends that you feel should be retired?
Karaoke! Karaoke should be retired. Period.
Patricia’s home in Charleston is an antebellum landmark built in the early 1850s
Playing Favorites with Patricia Altschul
Let’s play favorites. What’s your favorite:
Glorious Food in New York; Charleston Cru Catering and Hamby Catering in Charleston
Zezé florist in New York and Stems in Charleston
Brand of gin?
Beefeater. It’s not the most expensive brand, but I find it to be less biting than other kinds. I’m joking when I refer to my martini as “medicine,” but gin is actually full of botanicals.
Brand of vermouth?
Boissiere, which is dry, white, and French.
I collect dinnerware. I love Meissen’s Swan service, Minton, and, for more casual parties, Mottahedeh.
Brand of crystal or glassware?
Antique Baccarat, etched crystal, and William Yeoward
Brand of table linens?
Léron or Porthault
Lap-Over-Edge by Tiffany
Candle for the powder room?
Nest’s “Bamboo” scented candle. I like it for every room!
Soap for the powder room?
Photo sources: Architectural Digest, Charleston Home + Design, Patricia Altschul