www.baltimoresun.com/features/bs-sc-graduation-20130524,0,4628851.story

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For graduation parties, an intimate touch

Whether at home or a restaurant, thoughtful approaches abound for today's high school graduates

By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun

6:24 PM EDT, May 24, 2013

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When Madison Jacobson receives her Towson High School diploma on June 1, the celebration will just be getting started.

Jacobson, who will head to Roanoke College in the fall, will continue the festivities at home the day after graduation, when her family throws her a garden-themed party.

"It's Madison's launch from the nest," says Debbie Jacobson, her mother. "We are working with Lilly Pulitzer colors and pretty, picnicky food, like chicken salad with green grapes, croissants, fruit salad and sangria. It's going to be so pretty."

"A lot of people are doing a 2013 theme," notes Madison, "but mine is more springtimey."

The Jacobsons will be joined by numerous other post-grad partiers. Baltimore-area high schools produce thousands of graduates each year — making for a robust party climate.

"The graduation scene in Baltimore is kind of crazy," says Shannon Toback, events and catering manager at Wit & Wisdom Tavern in Harbor East.

Like the Jacobsons, many families host parties at home, often relying on local caterers and rental services (the Jacobsons will rent tables, chairs and linens from Loane Bros. in Towson). But celebrating families frequently host parties in Baltimore restaurants as well.

At Wit & Wisdom, Toback was planning several large graduation dinners for groups of about 12 to 20 guests. Tony Foreman, who co-owns five Baltimore restaurants with partner Cindy Wolf, says their restaurants are also busy this time of year. "It could be a dozen people in a small private room, with a pretty table and a set menu," he says.

Of the Foreman-Wolf restaurants, Foreman says, Pazo tends to be a favorite among large groups because the broad menu accommodates numerous dietary restrictions and tastes, though some graduates prefer Charleston for its refined dining experience.

Baltimore party planner Jennifer Grove, owner of Sky Blue Events, has noticed a trend toward planning upscale, intimate graduation dinner parties in restaurants. "It's a nice trend," she says. "Working with the restaurant's special events director, you can create a very special party menu and customize with flowers, personalized menus, place cards and nice invitations."

Grove points out that these smaller dinners are flexible and often easier to schedule during the busy weeks following high school graduations. "Big parties at someone's house are so much fun," she concedes. "But you're also competing with everyone in your graduating class having those types of events. If you scale back in size, you can create something more intimate — guests look at it as a special event they'd like to attend."

Madison Jacobson says that's the case for her and her friends.

"I'm doing it the day after graduation, and a lot of my friends are having their parties after Senior Week. Last year, a lot of parties fell on the same day, so there was a lot of party-hopping," she says. "We're doing the party open house-style, with no set party time, so people can come and go."

Larry Levy of Biddle Street Catering notes that families are scaling back in size and spending. "Back in 2008, they'd practically invite the whole class — bring 'em all!" he says. "Now it's closest friends. From a practical standpoint, people are limiting the amount of people they invite."

According to surveys conducted by party-planning website GraduationParty.com, average party size and expenses have decreased over the past few years. In 2010, the average amount spent on graduation parties was $983; by 2012, that number dropped to $578.

Local party organizers note that graduation parties can vary widely in cost. Grove estimates a cost of $100 to $150 per guest for an upscale, customized dinner party at a local restaurant; at Wit & Wisdom, Toback estimates $65 to $90 per person for food (not including alcoholic beverages).

Whether to serve alcohol to anyone is a hot topic among people throwing graduation parties for high school students.

"We decided on no alcohol because the party is not about the adults, it's about the kids," says Bonnie Evans, who planned to celebrate son Will's graduation from Dulaney High School with a party at home catered by Biddle Street Catering.

But for other families, and for college graduates, special drinks or bottles of wine may be a centerpiece.

"When there's a wine geek in the family, sometimes it's important to buy a bottle from the graduate's birth year," says Tony Foreman. "The family might come to Charleston, looking for a bottle from the '90s. That's kind of fun."

Whether it's an intimate dinner, a genteel garden party or a casual backyard bash, parents acknowledge that emotions are front and center during graduation festivities.

"It's important to me to remind Madison where she has been, where she is and where she can go," says Debbie Jacobson. "I just want everything to be memorable and special for her."

Bonnie Evans says her son's party will be one part celebration and one part thank-you to the friends and families her son has met during school. "It's a congratulations to Will and his buddies, and also an appreciation for the families who have played such a role in his life.

"It's a bittersweet time," Evans says. But a great time for a party.

Graduation party trends

Local experts sound off on what's hot for graduation parties this year.

Themes: Graduation parties have a built-in theme, but parents frequently let the guest of honor expand beyond that. Debbie Jacobson's daughter, Madison, chose a pink-and-green garden party theme; Bonnie Evans' son, Will, chose his favorite foods (including sushi and wings) for the menu at his bash, which will incorporate decorations celebrating his decision to attend the University of Miami next year.

Making it intimate: "I've had requests for throwing more of a restaurant dinner party, instead of friends and families invited to the family home," says Jennifer Grove of Sky Blue Events.

Following the food trends: "People are more sophisticated now, thanks to the Food Network," says Ken Upton, owner of Ken's Creative Kitchen in Annapolis. "Everyone knows what's good." This year, sliders, pork barbecue and food trucks are all big hits with graduation party hosts. "It's a cool thing to hire a food truck for your party," says Willy Dely, who handles marketing and events for the restaurant group including Kooper's Chowhound food truck and the Woody's Taco Island truck.

Endless summer: Upton and Larry Levy of Biddle Street Catering both see a trend toward island-themed foods, including roast pig, jerk chicken and conch fritters. Though they're not trendy, summery Maryland favorites — including all things crab — are always popular menu items.

Getting social: Online resources like Pinterest are a source of inspiration. "You can just snap something, send it to us and we'll re-create it," says Levy. "There are a lot of ideas and sometimes it's overwhelming, but it's a great resource."

Planning ahead: Tony Foreman has noticed that in recent years, party hosts are more prepared than ever before. "People are more organized and thoughtful," he says. "They call ahead and give us advance notice, with an idea of what they want."

dave@outdooradvantage.net