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Party Like It's 1999

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Whether you're finally getting married or you're just calling a few people for cocktails, you should know that a party isn't just a party anymore. These days, it's a live performance, a tour de force. And the 45 Barnums here will show you how it's done, with oysters and gazpacho whisked around in shot glasses, kosher-for-Passover spring rolls, and -- if you've got the cash -- bathtubs filled to the brim with Beluga.

What distinguishes one caterer from another? Aside from the food (which dresses a lot better than it did in the seventies and eighties, but then, so do we), there is the relative altitude of waiters' cheekbones to consider and, of course, their outfits -- black tie, Nehru jackets, even dog collars (the customer is always right). To stay competitive, caterers have been staking claims on exclusive spaces, poaching staff, devising elaborate stage sets down to the color-coordinated cocktails.

But there's one more prerequisite: the general willingness to do anything -- and we mean anything -- for a client. That includes throwing on an apron to cook a steak for Sharon Stone when the rest of the guests have capon on their plates; dispatching a sommelier to buy wine for a party at Sotheby's; or, in the spirit of Margaret Mead, living for a month with a tribe of reformed cannibals -- as one caterer did -- to collect some new fish recipes.

It's no coincidence that a vast number of New York's hottest caterers came out of the theater -- they know how to get the show on the road. And with so many people finding something to celebrate nowadays, restaurateurs like Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Charlie Palmer, and Matthew Kenney are loading their pots and pans on the bandwagon. Just what can they do you for? You don't need an invitation to find out.


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