10 Tips for Setting Up an Awesome Chili Bar

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

If you’re looking for an excuse to throw a party, invite some friends over for a DIY chili bar night. Why chili? It’s a cold-weather classic, stretches to feed a large crowd, and can be tailored to most dietary considerations.

Setting up the chili spread in a bar format, rather then simply dolling it out to guests, is the best option for both the host and guests. It not only makes the party easier on you, but it’s also a hundred percent more fun! Here’s everything you need to know to set one up. Then just find a free night and start making the calls.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

What to Consider

Like all dinner parties and get-togethers, there are a few things to think about before hosting a chili bar. It’s a casual, fun affair, so none of this planning is extreme, but a little foresight can really help set you up for success.

1. Think about who you’re serving.

The first thing to consider is who’s coming over. Are all your guests meat eaters or are there vegetarians among them? Do you have a friend or two who just went keto? Try to tailor the pot of chili to everyone, if possible. Then the add-ins can help take the base to another level, depending on diet and preference.

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2. Take inventory of your bowls.

A successful chili bar requires a lot of bowls, so make sure you’ve got enough on hand. It’s smart to have a few more than the number of guests you’re expecting, in case of drop-ins or last-minute head-count changes. If you’re worried you don’t have enough bowls, don’t hesitate to ask if your friends can donate some of their supply.

3. Ensure you have enough toppings to keep things interesting.

I’ll argue that the best part of a chili bar isn’t the chili itself, but the add-ins. Piling on toppings is really what makes this DIY dinner so fun, so try not to skimp. Shredded cheese, chopped scallions, sour cream, and crushed tortilla chips are some classic choices, but definitely think about expanding the selection with things like diced avocados, Fritos, and a mix of hot sauces.

4. Let guests bring things!

Don’t be afraid to let your friends contribute to the party. Assign someone to bring dessert (hand-held treats like brownies and cookies work well here), an appetizer to munch on before the chili is ready, or their favorite beer, wine, or other beverage. This will take a lot of pressure off you.

5. Think about your timeline and plan ahead.

The best chili is one that’s simmered for as many hours as you can give it, so that the flavors have time to mix and mingle. If you don’t think you have enough time for this on party day, consider making the chili the day before — it’s one of those glorious foods that actually gets better with a rest in the fridge anyway, and then all you’ll have to do is reheat it.

How to Make It Happen

Once you’ve considered the logistics, it’s really just all about setting out a spread that will feed the crowd and then some. Organize the chili bar based on your individual party needs and you’ll win.

1. Use your slow cooker to keep your chili warm.

While you could keep your chili in a pot on the stove, that breaks up the flow above, so we like to utilize the slow cooker. You could either make the chili right in the slow cooker or make it in your Dutch oven and then transfer it to the slow cooker and keep the appliance on LOW so it will stay warm throughout the party.

2. Organize an assembly line for the easiest flow.

Think about the way your guests will assemble their bowls and organize the chili bar to flow with that. Start with bowls on the left, followed by the chili and all of the toppings, and then leave the spoons and napkins at the end for everyone to grab before they sit down.

3. Keep the sour cream on ice.

Since you’ll be leaving everything out for a bit, it’s wise to take a couple of food safety precautions. Any toppings that need to stay cold, like sour cream or Greek yogurt, should be put on ice — just place the bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice.

4. Set out ground meat or beans if needed.

If you’ve determined that your party has a few dietary concerns that won’t jive with classic ground beef and bean chili, make a version that does work, whether that’s a vegetarian chili or one without beans, and set bowls of cooked crumbled ground meat or beans in addition to the toppings. That way guests can stir in what they like.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

5. Make just one easy side to go along with everything.

Let your guests worry about the dessert and drinks, but do make just one side to go with your chili that’s easy and crowd-pleasing. We like to go with a big basket of jalapeño cheddar cornbread muffins because they don’t require any extra plates or utensils and sop up the chili exceptionally well.

What are some of your chili bar strategies?