Cocktail Hour: The Perfect Prologue to Your Reception 

Here are some top tips from a local wedding planner and Pittsburgh brides to help you plan your cocktail hour. 


A cocktail hour, typically falling between your ceremony and reception, is a perfect time in the day for guests to visit with old friends and possibly make some new.

“It gives guests a chance to relax and mingle before dinner,” says Jessica Transue, the wedding coordinator at the University Club in Oakland. “It gives parents, sometimes the bride and groom, a chance to greet guests. It allows extra time for the couple to take pictures as well.”

Depending on the venue, the hour filled with hors d’oeuvres, drinks and conversation can play out in a variety of ways. Below, our how-to guide dives into the details of a based on advice from Transue and several Pittsburgh brides who have been through the planning process.



Before any details can come together, it is important to evaluate how much of the couple’s overall wedding budget will go into the cocktail hour. When laying out the budget allocated to the hour, there are basic aspects to take into consideration.

“You want to plan for at least an hour of open bar, a displayed food option like vegetables and cheese so guests can help themselves, and I recommend at least three passed food options,” Transue says.

Gina Critelli and her husband, Ryan Boyer, who had their reception on June 1 at Fox Chapel Golf Club, focused a lot of their budget on the food included in their hour.

“I have been to weddings and different events where you are waiting for a while for the next server to come around,” Gina says. “We wanted to avoid that by having a good variety of both plated and buffet-style options.”


The Menu 

As Gina points out, food options are important to a successful cocktail hour. Before the reception’s multi-course dinner or buffet-style feast, cocktail hour is the time for guests to indulge in appetizers after sitting through the ceremony.

According to Transue, at least one vegetarian option, at least one drink and a food option that kids/teens would enjoy, as well as fruit-infused water stations, are must-haves. When selecting the food options, it is important to think not only of the taste but also of the experience.

“When I do a taste testing with couples and they try the passed food, I have them eat with their hands so they have the same experience as a guest would to ensure that the food is easy to eat while balancing a drink in the other hand like most guests would during this time,” says Transue.

At her cocktail hour, Gina offered ahi tuna, vegetarian bruschetta, roasted vegetables, buffet-style meat and cheese and seafood options including shrimp and mussels.

Outside of food, drinks can play a role in a guest’s experience. An open bar is a great way to give guests the opportunity to select their own drink; however, the lines can get long.

“We did not have a signature cocktail, but we had red and white wine options ready to be passed out by waiters to whoever wanted it to alleviate lines at the bar,” says Gina.


Other Must-Haves

According to Transue, on top of having plentiful amounts of food and drink for guests, there are other “must-haves” to take your cocktail hour to the next level. One “must” Transue emphasizes is background music.

Brittany Whiteside opted for a live band at her cocktail hour on the terrace of The University Club on Aug. 10.

“We had a beautiful day, and in terms of music, there was an option to set up speakers but I had a band for the reception anyways so we allocated 45 minutes for a three-piece band to create a cool atmosphere at the cocktail hour,” says Brittany.

During the hour, guests will be walking around and mingling, but it is also important to include a variety of seating options.

“Make sure there are lounge furniture and high cocktail tables. It should be a relaxed atmosphere, but not all low tables for guests to sit. The point is to allow guests to mingle before entering the formal part of the night,” says Transue. “The space should be open allowing people to walk around without feeling crowded.”


The Newlyweds’ Presence 

For couples that opt out of a first look before the ceremony, cocktail hours act as an ideal time for newlyweds to take their posed photos individually and with their bridal party. While the party takes photos, guests can stay busy with small dishes and conversation.

However, the hour can also be a time for the newly married couple to informally mingle with their guests before sitting for the formal dinner at the reception.

“For half of it, we were with the bridal party to celebrate with them because it is our closest friends and family, and then halfway through we came downstairs and mingled with our guests,” Gina says.

Gina and Ryan held their cocktail hour in the outdoor patio of the Fox Chapel Golf club. After being introduced, the couple opted to cut their wedding cake at their cocktail hour.

“We thought it would be when we have everyone’s attention,” says Gina. “We did it when we were introduced, and since everyone is focused on what is going on then it felt like the right time to do it.”

Brittany and her husband, Steven Aloia, were also present for their cocktail hour. In the blur of the day, Brittany found the hour to be the best time to see and talk to most people.

“I liked the idea of being able to mingle informally with everybody before the actual reception started,” she says. “My husband and I did a first look before the ceremony because it was important for us to enjoy the hour.”

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