Scheduling and Planning

What Time Should a Cocktail Party Start?


A cocktail party is fun, sassy, and modern. Time to host or crash in on one, right?

If you plan on hosting one of these parties, are you wondering what time a cocktail party should start? A cocktail party starts later on in the day, outside of the usual meal time time frames. Therefore, the ideal time to host a cocktail party is in the late afternoon before dinner time, or at least 30 minutes after what most people would consider dinner time, which is is usually after 7:30 pm.

In this post, we’ll answer in more detail the questions that both hosts and guests often ask:

  • For hosts, when to start a cocktail party and how long it should last.
  • For guests, how long to stay at a cocktail party.



Cocktail Parties During Dinner Time?

Cocktail parties are about drinks and┬áhors d’oeuvres only. Hopefully, it’s understood that one shouldn’t show up with a completely empty stomach to a cocktail party.

It’s typically expected for guests to have had dinner just before a cocktail party, so it isn’t unusual for parties to start shortly after dinner time.

Host your party in the late afternoon or after 7:30 pm, but never host it exactly at dinner time unless you have plenty of bite-sized food to offer.


In the Late Afternoon

Evening cocktail parties are more common, but they aren’t unusual in the late afternoon, either. Work- and business-related cocktail parties are often hosted in the late afternoon.

These kinds of parties are often hosted around 4 pm or 5 pm.

You know, it happens to coincide with happy hour… ­čÖé

Afternoon cocktail parties tend to have a light, sophisticated feel about them, so embrace a theme that matches that vibe. Host a spring or early summer get-together over cocktails and take your cue from the party that’s typically hosted in the afternoon – the traditional tea party.

Of course, your guests are expecting something more potent than tea, although they probably won’t complain about a glass of Long Island Iced Tea.

One side note I should mention is that you should probably offer some heavy┬áhors d’oeuvres. Since it’s been a few hours since your guests have had lunch, it isn’t a bad idea to offer some more filling options. Plus, you’ll have a perfect excuse to let your cocktail party run over into dinner time.


After 7:30 PM

Ok, now you can officially call your cocktail party a real soir├ęe…

Most people typically have their dinners around 6 to 7 pm, so starting your cocktail party around 7:30 pm may seem a bit too soon for some hosts. Remember that most of your guests will be fashionably late, however. So technically, a 7:30 pm casual cocktail party on paper will actually mean that your earlier guests will arrive around 7:45 pm to 8:00 pm.

There is no formal sit-down dinner, so the timeline for cocktail parties is a bit more loose.

Ultimately, you want all your guests to have arrived between 7:30 and 9 pm. That way, they’ve just had their dinners and are ready to wash down their meals with a sparkling drink. It also leaves you a nice amount of time for drinks, socializing, and activities without your guests pulling a sleeping beauty or Cinderella moment at midnight.

So, let’s talk about the duration of the cocktail party.


How Long Should a Cocktail Party Last?

Most cocktail parties last about 2 to 3 hours, but how long will largely depend on how much food and drink you plan to offer.

Make sure to have enough food and drinks for your guests so you don’t run out. Expect to offer each guest about 2 to 4 cocktails, and allocate about 1 to 2 pounds of ice per guest.

By definition, an┬áhors d’oeuvre is something eaten in a single bite. Offering each guest only a few┬áhors d’oeuvres for the entire evening won’t be enough. Plan on offering about 3 to 6┬áhors d’oeuvres per guest per hour, especially if the party is around their usual dinner time.


Setting Up the Expectations in Your Invitations

Timing Expectations

Whether you’re sending written invitations or just an Evite as a host, you’ll want to give your guests a time frame for the cocktail party.

Don’t write an exact arrival time since it isn’t a formal sit-down dinner. Do not write something like “party starts at 7:30 pm.”

Instead, the timing section of your invitation should look something like this:

Cocktails from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm.

Cocktail parties don’t usually require an RSVP from your guests, but if you do require it, make it as easy for your guests as possible. Allow your guests to text you, click a button, or email you back. It would be silly to expect a written RSVP for a casual cocktail party.


Food Expectations

Be careful when hosting a cocktail party around dinner time. While it may be ok to host a cocktail party one hour after everyone’s dinner time, you also don’t want your guests to arrive to a full buffet of┬áhors d’oeuvres they’re too full to eat.

It will look like no one wants to eat your food.

Make sure to denote that you’ll be serving heavy┬áhors d’oeuvres if you’ll be doing so in the evening. This will tell your guests to eat lightly before they arrive.

On the other hand, if you’ll be serving light┬áhors d’oeuvres only, don’t mention this anywhere in your invitation.



How Long Should You Stay at a Cocktail Party?

For guests, a cocktail party is flexible and doesn’t require the same formal etiquette that formal dinners do.

Your host probably won’t expect you to give them an official hug goodbye and let them know you’re leaving. Especially if the guest list is large and crowded, you should probably depart discreetly.

For one, your host is probably busy replenishing other guests’ drinks. Try to say goodbye as a sign of courtesy, but if your host is busy, it’s fine to leave.

If other guests are having fun and enjoying themselves, leave discreetly because you don’t want to give the impression that the party is over if you leave early. It will have an undesired domino effect, and others will want to leave shortly after you.

If your host is saying goodbye to you, he or she will probably take you to a designated area away from the main area (like the foyer where you might have arrived) and say goodbye to you there. Play along and part cordially.

Having said all that, a cocktail party lasts several hours, so you shouldn’t leave unless you’ve been at the party for 90 minutes at least.


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