Premier Party Planner’s Home Entertaining Tips

From Santa Barbara Independent, May 14-21, 2020. Photo by Megan Sorel Photography.

Dishing With Merryl Brown, Event Designer Extraordinaire

While wow-worthy fundraising events may be in our rearview mirror for a while, anyone who’s ever attended the Pacific Pride Foundation’s Royal Ball, the Community Environmental Council’s Green Gala, or the Bellosguardo Foundation’s inaugural Great Gatsby–themed soirée knows what a thoughtful, creative touch that Merryl Brown and her team bring to every event.

While we’re all so eager to have our friends and family once again able to join us in our humble abodes, here is some entertaining advice from the expert.

How do you plan a small house party? I sit and I think about who is coming and who I want to be there and who will interact well with whom. Then I think about the flow of the party and what it’s going to feel like.

It starts with the invitation: What’s it going to tell you? How are you supposed to dress? Is it going to be a dinner? Are you going to get cocktails and hors d’oeuvres? You want to convey the theme and really give a sense of the party — without giving too much away.

Make sure everything is spotless in your home, that the bathrooms have a candle lit and that everything is clean and tidy. Make lots of space on your counter if you’re having a caterer. I’m a big believer in that it’s really hard for people to cook, make food, and be able to entertain their guests simultaneously.

If you want to cook, then have some extra help in the house. You can always enlist people who can take some of the burden off of you, so you aren’t stressed. That’s probably the single most important thing: The host or hostess really leads the mood. If a person is really stressed out when they’re entertaining, I think it really kills the mood of the party.

And when the party starts? It’s important to have a bar that people can get to right away and get their drinks. I think it’s really fun to have a couple of fun, interesting drinks and create a drink menu that you can put on your bar. Get interesting glassware and have interesting things that you can put in the drinks: edible flowers and interesting ice cubes where you invent something inside of them, glowing straws, or metal straws. There’s all different kinds of things that you can use to make your drinks look and feel great — and it becomes a point of conversation. You want to make sure to give that to people, particularly people that don’t know each other.

You can also have a person with a tray passing drinks if you have a bigger party, to take pressure off the bar. My favorite way to entertain is to traypass hors d’oeuvres and keep everything really neat and tidy (so people aren’t sharing germs). If you go online, there’s a million different recipes.

If you are limited in your budget, you can have custom cocktail napkins done very reasonably. Have some little quote or some funny little saying, or some sort of image. I did a memorial one time, and there were lyrics from a song that the person loved on the napkin, and it was meaningful.

What if I don’t have a bar? You can create a bar. You can take a six-foot table and put a linen on it; you can get some PVC and you can cut four pieces exactly the same size, and you raise that table up a little bit so that the front bar’s a little higher; you put another six-foot table behind it. And then you display your bottles; you display your artifacts; you make some cool things. Everybody should have a hot-glue gun — what you can do with a hot-glue gun is a beautiful thing. You can find fun stuff [Michaels, Art From Scrap, and Art Essentials are her go-to places] and make cool things that are in the theme of the party.

You have to get creative and have fun with it, and don’t be so nervous that it’s not going to be good enough. When you make an effort and you have fun with it and are not all nervous and stressed about it, people are psyched. They just want to have a nice time and they want to have a new experience and they want to be a part of something meaningful.

I think people really want to connect. The more that you give people things to connect about, to talk about, the more fun people are going to have.

What about the tablescapes? I try to layer things. For example, if you’re setting the table, it’s not just about the china and the linens and the glassware and the flatware and the floral. Those things are part of it, but there has to be something more, those little lovely surprises that make things pop. Have the beautiful calligraphed menu tucked into the napkin and this beautiful flower, and then they lift the napkin up and there’s a lovely little fortune or some little surprise, some little special poem or whatever it is.

What’s your most critical piece of advice? The single most important thing when you do an event is just to do it with love, infuse it with love.

I can’t wait to go to your coronavirus containment party. I want to throw that party. You’re going to have to come with your own hand-painted mask and your own gloves that you created yourself. We’ll all carry a six-foot scepter pointed out, so that everybody is six feet away from you, and then it’s a dance party in a great big space where everybody is far apart. And there’s no buffet at all; everybody gets their own individual food when they walk in the door.

See you there!


Stay at Home and Garden, special issue of SB Independent May 14, 2020.

This story was originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on May 14, 2020. Click here to read it as it appeared in print.

Big Ideas for Small Spaces

Authors Isa Bird Hendry Eaton and Jennifer Blaise Kramer Discuss Small Garden Style

Gardens are magical in any season, but during this seemingly endless season of COVID-19’s “sheltering in place” restrictions, there’s never been a better time to have a garden to escape to in Santa Barbara.

No matter how much space you have to work with, authors Isa Bird Hendry Eaton (a landscape designer) and Jennifer Blaise Kramer (a lifestyle writer) have collaborated on a book that’s here to help. Small Garden Style: A Design Guide for Outdoor Rooms and Containers is an excellent resource to help you create a design framework to bring your garden dreams to life.

“It’s all about being really encouraging, really accessible no matter what size space you have,” said Eaton. “Even if you’re doing just a couple containers by your front door or your porch, everyone deserves to have a little garden in their home, and why not make it something that really feels like you and bring your individual aesthetic?”

A key component of the book is helping you figure out what your individual aesthetic is. There’s a really fun quiz that kick-starts the book with a series of questions that help you define your style. Are you a Clean Minimalist who starts your morning routine with black coffee and a cold shower? Or is your style more Bold Eclectic, with a black leather Eames lounge chair as your favorite place to relax at home? Perhaps Organic Modern is more your vibe if your ideal mode of transportation is hiking shoes, as you head for the mountains. Or is it a Jeep Wagoneer with wood paneling that reflects your New Traditional style?

“Then we walk you through these different gardens,” said Eaton, acknowledging that many have crossover styles. “We take you through the design framework behind how to put a container together, how to design an outdoor room, so you can understand the design theory behind doing a really dramatic container.”

By the time you’re at the nursery picking plants, the vast choices are not so overwhelming.

“It’s like a little mini design school for the reader,” said Eaton.

The authors embarked on the project when they wouldn’t find another garden-meets-design book. “We wanted this to feel like a design book for your outdoors,” said Kramer. Her own garden was designed by Eaton, who focuses on layering. “But not just in a pot and not just in a garden,” said Kramer. “It’s the whole look, it’s the whole room, and it’s thinking about your outdoor space just like you would your indoor space.”

Their goal was to make the book be “fun and beautiful and inspirational, but also very practical and useful,” said Eaton. “A container is a miniature garden; it’s the best place to start. There’s a little bit of trial and error. Read the book, then go to the nursery on Saturday morning and try it out — you don’t have to start designing the entire garden; you can start with a couple of containers. Now’s a great time to plant!”

Small Garden Style can be purchased at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.) or

Stay at Home and Garden, special issue of SB Independent May 14, 2020.

This story was originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on May 14, 2020. Click here to read it as it appeared in print.

Advice to Grow By

Santa Barbara’s Master Gardeners Keep Calm and Garden On

Working to cultivate home gardeners who want to learn about soil, sustainable landscaping, plant and tree care, and growing their own fruits and vegetables, the UC Master Gardeners of Santa Barbara County are 163 trained and 74 currently active volunteers trained to share their knowledge with the community.

They come from all walks of life.

“My class had students just out of UCSB and retirees in their seventies,” said Master Gardener Amy Mayfield. “We all loved our crash course in all things related to plants from top professors from UC Davis and Riverside.” Once they’ve gained some garden knowledge, helping others is a key component of the Master Gardener program. “Volunteering in our community is a great connection to people and plants,” said Mayfield. “My go-to place to volunteer is the community helpline because every question makes me use my brain and research skills to find an answer. I love helping at Harry Potter night at the Public Library, too.”

While the group is currently observing physical distancing, they are also “encouraging the public to prioritize mental and physical health by gardening, and volunteers are still standing by to answer questions through helplines,” said Danica Taber, the Master Gardener Program Coordinator. Volunteers are available to help by phone ([805] 893-3485) or email (, and Taber suggested submitting photos along with questions.

“Pictures of the problem and details about your plant’s history and environment, like watering and fertilizing schedules, daily sun exposure, and location on your property, are helpful.”

Not all problems are easy to solve: Earlier this year, the Santa Barbara Zoo’s ponytail palms (which are more closely related to yuccas than palms) turned black at the tops. “The problem? Sprinklers in the field behind them would hit them with water on windy days,” said Taber. “This was not an obvious diagnosis to make for the zoo horticultural staff, because sprinklers weren’t aiming at the ponytail palms, and wind is an invisible, irregular force.”

The program, which is part of the UCSB Extension Program and is for anyone interested in a thriving garden, is designed to “empower home gardeners to help themselves by sharing knowledge and resources that are important for their particular gardening challenges,” said Taber.

Currently in the process of adapting to providing online education, the Master Gardeners offer intensive, practical courses on horticulture, soil and plant nutrition, pests and diseases and their control, plant management, and diagnosis of plant problems, as well as various public outreach events.

Said Mayfield, “It’s the best bang for your buck if you like people, plants, and knowledge!”

For more information, see . For a complete list of what to plant now, see

Stay at Home and Garden, special issue of SB Independent May 14, 2020.

This story was originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on May 14, 2020. Click here to read it as it appeared in print.

Nature Finds a Way

Nature Finds a Way, originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on May 14, 2020.

Out of the 1/9 Debris Flow Comes an Even More Magical Wildlife Retreat

“Nature truly is an awesome force,” says landscape designer Margie Grace, “both in terms of destruction and in terms of renewal.” The founder of Grace Design Associates witnessed nature’s competing forces in working on properties that were devastated by the Montecito debris flow of January 9, 2018.

One such project was for Penny Bianchi, whose ravaged garden reemerged as a thriving habitat less than a year after the catastrophic event. Even though the debris flows left her property covered in three feet of mud and detritus, it never even occurred to Bianchi not to restore her beloved garden. A National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat that was home to coyotes, bobcats, hawks, quail, doves, owls, mallards, songbirds, bats, butterflies, native pollinators, reptiles, and amphibians, the 2.5-acre property sits at the entrance to the 42-acre Ennisbrook Preserve and is bordered by Oprah’s estate on two other sides.

Bianchi had a premonition before that fateful day in 2018. Their house was not in the mandatory evacuation zone, but she fibbed to her husband, Adam, telling him on the way home from dinner at Birnam Wood that the zone was expanded and they had to leave. “I just lied,” she admitted. “I just made it up because I was so worried that he wouldn’t want to evacuate.”

So the couple, who are partners in McCormick Interiors, were safely ensconced at the Bacara when the massive debris flow struck, killing 23 people and destroying more than 400 homes.

“Our neighbor said it sounded like there was a freight train in the house,” said Bianchi, who had to wait three weeks before they could access the property, accompanied by a mental-health specialist in trauma. “I told her, we’re alive, my daughter got the cats out … so I’m not going to freak out,” said Bianchi.

“The scope and scale of the damage was mind boggling,” said Grace. “I’m trained as a geologist, so I know that this could happen, and I couldn’t believe that this happened.… Geology in action is really a lot for humans to absorb.”

Grace’s firm and contractors Giffin & Crane, who were both part of the original build team in 2004, came back on board to reconstruct two decimated structures — a garage and guest house — as well as the expansive gardens. Thanks to strict county regulations to build the main house two feet above base flood elevation, no mud got inside, although every single item in the antique-filled main house had to be removed and cleaned because of toxic contaminants from the firefighters’ boots.

While the Bianchi’s had excellent insurance, the $900,000 allocated for mud removal wasn’t nearly enough to get rid of it all. “I told them that’s all we’re spending, and then I’m making friends with the rest of the mud,” said Bianchi when they got the $1.6 million estimate to complete the rest of the job. She challenged Grace to figure out something to do with the mud.

“It was like, ‘When given lemons, make lemonade;’ this was, ‘Given mud, make mountains,’” laughed Grace. They created mounds along the property line, designed a new hill near the duck pond, and utilized all the boulders, which would have been even more expensive to move than the mud.

“Now our favorite part of the whole garden is the hill that was the result of the extra mud,” said Bianchi. “Margie designed steps up to it, and, where it was flat before, there’s now a beautiful view.”

About 95 percent of the plants had to be replaced — “what a silver lining,” said Bianchi — and now the 28-foot tall hill features sycamore trees and poppies. “Everything I put in the ground grew lightning fast; those trees just shot up,” said Grace. “She has bobcats; she has all kinds of birds, raptors all the way down to the couple of geese and hummingbirds. It is an extraordinary piece of property. I don’t know whether the good juju is part of the property or whether Penny brings that, but her roses even bloom in the shade; it’s just magical. Things just bounce back. Everything that gets put in the ground, you kind of have to stand back; it grows so fast it’ll knock you over.”

Bianchi is pleased with the rebirth. “Some of my friends still think that we’re strange for wanting to be here,” she said. “But we love it here, and we don’t feel worried about it happening again at all.”

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent on May 14, 2020. Click here to see the story as it appeared in print.


RH Yountville, originally published in Touring & Tasting, spring/summer 2020.

An enchanting, elegant and extremely upscale amalgamation of food, wine, art and design, RH Yountville showcases a dazzling new experience in the heart of Napa Valley.

The five-building compound features a chic indoor-outdoor restaurant where guests dine to the sounds of water trickling from dramatic seven-foot fountains under a towering glass roof, surrounded by 100-year-old heritage olive trees and sparkling crystal chandeliers.

Previously known as Restoration Hardware, parent company RH launched this flagship project in 2019, marking Chairman and CEO Gary Friedman’s ongoing collaboration with celebrated restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff and award-winning design architect James Gillam of Backen & Gillam (recognized as one of Architectural Digest’s Top 100 architecture and design firms in the world, including more than a dozen top estate winery projects).

“RH Yountville reflects our vision for creating inspiring spaces and authentic experiences that respect and amplify the local culture. This is an inherently personal project given our nearby headquarters in Marin County,” said Friedman.

In addition to RH Restaurant, featuring an ingredient-driven menu with elevated interpretations of timeless classics like ribeye steaks, lobster rolls and housemade pastas, as well as an extensive brunch menu, RH Yountville also includes a two-story stone Wine Vault at the historic Ma(i)sonry building.

Originally home to one of Napa’s first vintners in the early 20th century, the landmark building has been transformed with a 24-foot cedar ceiling, rough-cut fieldstone walls, luxe lounge seating and a monumental limestone bar. Visitors can discover a curated selection of rare, limited-production wines from some of the valley’s top small producers, as well as classic champagnes.

Adjacent to The Wine Vault is an outdoor Wine and Barista Bar serving craft espresso, teas, fresh cold-pressed juices and wines by the glass. Also on the property are two boutique design galleries, featuring globally sourced antiques and inspired objects — all connected by lush garden courtyards with granite and bluestone walking paths and outdoor living room areas that can be reserved for wine tastings.

For more information, visit category.jsp?context=Restaurant_YV.

Originally published in the spring/summer 2020 issue of Touring & Tasting. Click here to read this story and more!

Garden Plots

Gardens Books feature from 805 Living Magazine, Spring 2020. Two recently released books aim to celebrate and galvanize the gardening ambitions of 805-region residents.

Private Gardens of Santa Barbara: The Art of Outdoor Living (Gibbs Smith, 2020) by landscape designer Margie Grace of Grace Design Associates (, offers an intimate look at 18 distinctive gardens set on the grounds of large estates, modest homes, and surf retreats, including Grace’s own secret garden, which she affectionately dubs “Lotusland South,” after her storied Montecito neighbor.

“Coffee table books for me can be a three minute vacation that refreshes,” says Grace, who hopes her new book will offer just that to readers. With beautiful photography by Holly Lepere, the book is also packed with inspiration and takeaways for sustainable home garden designs with all-important water-conscious, maintenance-friendly, and fire-safety priorities in mind.

“We are starved for beauty in nature,” says Grace. “If we can get a little dose every day, we just feel better.”

For those with big garden dreams and small spaces in which to realize them, Small Garden Style: A Design Guide for Outdoor Rooms and Containers (Ten Speed Press, 2020) may prove to be an invaluable resource.

“We couldn’t find a garden meets-design book,” says Santa Barbara–based writer Jennifer Blaise Kramer, who co-authored the realistic take on fashioning gardens with Isa Hendry Eaton of Isa Bird Landscape Design (

The book starts with a fun quiz to help readers determine their small-garden style.

“Everyone deserves to have a little garden in their home,” says Eaton. “Why not make it something that really feels like you by bringing your individual aesthetic?”

The variety of ways to bring your own unique style to your garden are lovingly documented by local photographer Leela Cyd.

“We really wanted it to be fun and inspirational but also very practical and useful,” says Eaton. “A container is a miniature garden; it’s the best place to start.”

805 Living Spring 2020Click here to read this story as it appeared in 805 Living magazine 805 Living Pulse April 2020

Putting Homes in Good Hands

GreatBuildz from 805 Living Spring 2020

Looking to facilitate good experiences among homeowners who embark on remodels, Jon Grispul and Paul Dashevsky (at left,) co‑founded GreatBuildz concierge service. Photos: Kitchen by Langoworks Photography; Co-Founders courtesy of GreatBuildz.

Homeowners looking for trusted professionals to help with a home repair or renovation may be interested to hear that a new online service can lead the way.

After renovating and flipping more than 350 homes, local real estate investor Paul Dashevsky was looking for his next project when he came to a realization. “The most brutal part of my own experience doing hundreds of remodels was working with contractors,” says Dashevsky “and I did this professionally. I started doing my homework and realized it must be really hard for the homeowner that does this every 10 years.”

This prompted him to co-found GreatBuildz (, an online concierge service connecting homeowners with home-repair and-improvement professionals.

“The best experiences come from a referral,” says co-founder Jon Grispul, Dashevsky’s nephew. “People typically start online. What we do is take this a few steps further.”

Free to homeowners, GreatBuildz currently provides services in Los Angeles County, the Conejo Valley, and parts of Ventura County, using a 10-step vetting process that includes interviews, background and reference checks, and verification of contractor licenses. Once homeowners submit project information, a GreatBuildz concierge reaches out to learn more about their renovation needs and then matches them with up to three approved contractors available in the area. The concierge stays involved throughout the project because, Grispul says, “We always want to ensure the contractor is doing the work promised and that our clients are fully satisfied.”

805 Living Spring 2020Click here to read this story as it appeared in 805 Living magazine 805 Living Pulse April 2020

High Impact Housing

High Impact Housing from 805 Living Magazine, Winter 2020.

Tragedy can sometimes lead to innovation. One example: Plant Prefab’s ( new scalable prefabricated home, the Sunset Bud LivingHome, designed by Burdge Architects ( and presented in partnership with Sunset magazine.

“As a resident and one of the leading architects in Malibu, Doug Burdge [founder of Burdge Architects] wanted his first LivingHome to be especially capable of meeting the needs of those who lost their homes during the Woolsey fire and who want a way to return to their property as soon as possible,” says Plant Prefab CEO Steve Glenn of the recent addition to his company’s LivingHome line.

Created in response to a City of Malibu program that allows victims of the 2018 fire to install accessory-dwelling units (ADU) as a temporary housing solution, the Sunset Bud LivingHome offers an efficient and flexible model for ADU-compliant properties everywhere.

The modular units can be configured in a range of housing sizes from studio (445 square feet) to two bedrooms plus a studio and garage (1,200 square feet), with prices starting at $315,000.

Originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of 805 Living Magazine. Click  here  to   read the story as it appeared in 805 Living. 805 Living Pulse Winter 2020

Roses in November

805 Living Roses in November

Macchiato Roses photo by Debbie Kline, Florabundance. Courtesy 805 Living Magazine.

During the fall, roses in warm earthy colors are in high demand. Among the newest additions to this palette are Macchiato roses. The color of blushing cheeks, these beauties are available locally at Florabundance (, a wholesale flower supplier in Carpinteria.

“Growers in the flower world are working on new varieties all the time,” says Florabundance buyer Debbie Kline, who suggests a few options to consider in an arrangement of Macchiato roses for the Thanksgiving table. “I personally like to see the brown tones mixed with burgundies and even blushes or peach; natural elements with texture always bring interest, too, like bronze Amaranthus, burgundy Scabiosa, and chocolate lace flowers.

“The process for creating new, natural varieties is actually quite fascinating,” Kline says, “and anticipating future trends is tricky. [Growers] also work on producing new colors and varieties that are stronger and more productive to grow.” —Leslie Dinaberg

805 Living Magazine, November 2019.

805 Living Magazine, November 2019.

Click here to read this story as it appeared in 805 Living magazine, November 2019 805 Living Magazine November 2019.

2019 Best of Santa Barbara

SB Independent Best of

From the Santa Barbara Independent, October 17, 2019.

So, I had the honor of writing up the Santa Barbara Independent‘s Best of Santa winners this year. It was a huge, fun project. People were so happy to hear from me and so excited to have won! You can read the whole thing (203 winners at last count) by clicking here, or on the PDF below.

Santa Barbara Independent Best Of Oct. 17 2019_Part1

Santa Barbara Independent Best Of Oct. 17 2019_Part2

Santa Barbara Independent Best Of Oct. 17 2019_Part3

Best of Independent Cover