Entertaining in Small Apartments: A Big Night Goes Off Without a Hitch


As a design writer at CH+D I’ve helped pull together plenty of picture-perfect holiday-party stories, from outdoor harvest celebrations on rambling vineyards to glittering cocktail parties in luxurious lofts for our end-of-year issues. Thanks to the jaw-dropping locations and incredible talent of professional designers, the final product always turns out looking fabulous, effortless and like a whole lot of fun.

Watching these events materialize for others is great (and not a bad way to spend a workday), but this season I felt ready to take all that I’ve learned over the years and throw my own holiday party. Despite my access to a deep well of inspiration, I knew the similarities between my party and those I’ve written about would end at the first Champagne cocktail because instead of a rambling vineyard, my husband, Danny Montoya, and I live in a condo on the edge of San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood with exactly 507 square feet of prime party space—and that’s if you count the bathtub. When it was suggested we photograph the event for the magazine, the stakes were suddenly very high.

I frantically called some friends who could help me up the ante. Although I fancy myself a capable home cook, another night of my wild rice–stuffed peppers wouldn’t stand up to the setting. So I approached Chris Beerman, a friend who had just opened his own restaurant, Citizen’s Band, just a couple blocks south of my place. He agreed to help me make a dish similar to his perfectly cooked pork loin with chanterelle mushroom and lobster sauce, along with his creamy corn chowder—he even offered to bring a throwback butterscotch pudding from neighboring Pinkie’s Bakery for dessert. Everything was simple enough to be executed in our small kitchen, with its two burners and pint-sized refrigerator.

That refrigerator (bigger than your average college dorm-room model but smaller than just about everything else) was a major shocker when my husband and I came to look at the condo three years ago—and a dramatic symbol of the crafty maneuvering that was in our future. Although we’d each migrated from equally small spaces, the fact that we would have to find room for both his records and my books—not to mention two offices, a beloved dining table and the entire contents of a foodie’s pantry—meant creative solutions were in order. Industrial galvanized steel open shelving in both the kitchen and the bedroom took advantage of our high ceilings, gave us instant, easily accessible storage and could be adjusted if we wanted to make major changes down the line. I love a good open shelf for the same reason I love living in a small space: You see everything you have all the time, so you are forced to live only with what you need.

But since the spotlight was suddenly on our modest little home, the list of things I needed grew a little longer. Jennifer Jones, the principal of Niche Interiors and a good friend who lives up the hill from me, offered to help find a few simple pieces that would get the place party ready, from extra side tables for people to set drinks on to seating that could be quickly tucked away when not in use. At a local antique shop, she came across an impeccable yet inexpensive chrome and glass bar cart that, with an easy swap, could take the place of a bookshelf for the night.

In our teeny abode, a piece of furniture makes the cut only when it’s flexible—like the hollow-framed sofa that can store guest linens and the pair of cube coffee tables that open to reveal my Sunday paper and a half-dozen magazines. But the biggest space savers were built by Danny, a kindergarten teacher who decided one day that he wanted to learn woodworking. He started with simple shelves to hold his record collection and turntables (15 years ago, he decided he wanted to learn how to deejay—now it pays a chunk of our mortgage). Most recently, he finished
our dresser, two desks and a loft, which turned our tiny bedroom into an actual room—as opposed to the bed with four walls that it was when we first moved in.

With the furniture squared away, it was time to focus on the atmosphere. Another friend, Heather Williams, is a freelance floral designer. We met 10 years ago when we were both waiting tables and have since ventured together to nearly every new restaurant in the city—and cooked up quite a few successful meals of our own. Her creative skillset is unsurpassed. She volunteered to troll fabric stores with me, sew all new table linens, create the floral arrangements and even make homemade marshmallows and placecards for party favors.

As the evening of the dinner party approached, my apprehension about how the craftiness of our little home would stand up to the fabulousness of the others in the issue turned into a calm satisfaction. It was precisely because of that craftiness—from the custom-made case goods to our hacked entertainment center (a tweaked television arm that lets our flat screen fold back out of sight)—that when we were in party countdown mode, there was ample space for the madness, including Beerman’s impressive mise en place and the stockpile of dinnerware that had to be evaluated and discussed at length. We slid our dining room table from its everyday station against the wall—where it comfortably seats two—to the center of the room where six could feast. We strung an old industrial pendant lamp from the exposed pipes in the ceiling, set the table with a mix of vintage holiday plates and silver-rimmed wedding china, wrapped a metal wreath frame with fairy lights and popped the Champagne. And although it was worlds away from a Wine Country vineyard (and effortless wasn’t a word that even entered into our vocabulary during the weeks leading up to the event), the party was just our style. Everyone had a blast, proving that—just like our tiny fridge—it doesn’t matter if a home is small as long as it’s filled with a bunch of stuff you love.

Styling by Jennifer Jones and Heather Williams


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