The coming weeks mark the year’s peak season for group dining, as holiday get-togethers kick into high gear and old friends swarm back into town. While it’s meant to be a period of good cheer and merrymaking, those big, blithe Yuletide and New Year’s feasts seem to have a way of disturbing the peace. For hosts, the troubles start as early as the invitation itself: The New York Times recently noted the death of the RSVP. And when people actually show up, there’s a mineﬁeld of faux pas to consider. We’ve all groaned as some miserly table-mate insisted on itemizing the check rather than splitting it evenly. And we’ve also given the stink-eye to some libertine wine drinker who expected us to defray the cost of her hangover.
With this in mind, we asked a few hospitality pros to weigh in on how to be a decent host and guest this holiday season: Sarah Simmons, whose City Grit supper club started life as a dinner party inside her apartment; NoMad GM Jeffrey Tascarella; and Andrew Carmellini, who designed parts of the menu at his forthcoming Lafayette speciﬁcally for groups. Read on for their thoughts—and a few of our own.
If you’re organizing, take charge.
Be clear, if not gruff, about your terms as a host. Let your guests know when dinner will be served and whether spouses and other plus-ones are welcome. Once you know whom to expect, make sure you’re in communication with the restaurant about any dietary restrictions and special requests. If you’re a particularly boisterous crew, consider a private dining room instead of a table in the main dining room. On the big night, a good toast is never unwelcome—we’ve always been partial to this one.
Commit and show up.
We blame Facebook events for the dissolution of the formal invite and dutiful reply. But even if your presence was requested via text message, a response is expected and appropriate. Keep your word: Arrive on time if you’ve agreed to come, and don’t crash the party if you’ve declined. “Restaurants usually have a lot of tables for two and four people but a very limited amount available for groups larger than that,” says Tascarella. “Hosts should deﬁnitely contact a restaurant beforehand if their party is swelling outside of that safe zone; conversely, if your party size is dropping out of large-party territory, letting us know will help us ﬁll those big tables while we still have a chance.”
Consider the server.
If the venue allows party hosts to arrange set menus in advance, take advantage of that option to ease the burden back in the kitchen (and help streamline things when the check comes). Otherwise, be gentle on the staff. “Taking orders for a large party takes a lot of time,” says Tascarella. “If your seven friends are ordering another cocktail, take a look at yours, and jump on board if you’re going to need one in the near future. Don’t wait for the server to return and tack yours on.” And although gratuity is often included for large parties, it’s always a good idea to give a little extra, especially in December. “Around the holidays it’s nice to tip the service staff a bit more,” says Simmons. “They are working longer hours and don’t get a lot of time off during the Christmas season.”
Next page: Boozing etiquette and the dangers of “bro-fiving” at the table…
Spread the love.
Family-style restaurant service is common for big groups, but don’t forget to share with your neighbor. “When the food is served on big platters, people often get wrapped up in conversation and forget to pass the food on down the table,” says Simmons. “If you are in a situation where you don’t know everyone, it can be intimidating to ask for it. Pay attention and make sure everyone gets a piece of the action.”
Drink (but don’t get weird).
Booze is often a big point of contention when settling a bill, with the thrifty (and the teetotally) folks in the group feeling indignant about funding the holiday cheer. This is a thorny issue, but for posterity: If there is a dramatic divide between the indulgent and the abstinent it isn’t appropriate to split the check evenly. But with a big group it can be tough to make that call. Better to take some personal responsibility. “Your best bet is to land somewhere in the middle,” says Simmons. “Don’t be the girl who complains about only having one glass of wine, and don’t be the girl who has ten.” If you’re ordering wine for the table, take the range of budgets and tastes into account. “When you’re all splitting the check, this is not the time to introduce your companions to purposely oxidized whites, nor is it time to take down that trophy Burgundy you’ve been hunting.” says Tascarella. “Go for wines that everyone’s palate and wallet can handle.”
Split the goddamn check.
Barring the booze clause above, when dining with a large group—around the holidays and throughout the year—an equitable divide of the bill is the standard. You’re paying for the meal and the company, so any scrooge-like scrutiny of the check is bad form. Bring cash and be prepared to make it rain. If, conversely, you’re the sort to haggle over who gets to pick up the tab, don’t pull your waiter into the rumpus. “The ‘I’m Paying the Bill! / No, I’m Paying the Bill!’ ﬁght can get embarrassing for a server caught in the middle,” says Tascarella. “If you deﬁnitely want to pick up the tab without getting into a ﬁght, ﬂag your server on the way back from a trip to the bathroom or grab one of the other suits circling the room. They should always be able to help coordinate your payment without the rest of the table knowing. You win.”
Be respectful of the other guests.
With those Methuselahs half-drained and all that good, rich food settling happily into your gut, it’s easy to forget your big party isn’t the only table in the house. “You don’t want to be on a date seated next to a party thats getting completely crazy,” says Carmellini. “I’d never want to see my restaurant full of people just staring at each other, but I also never want the good time to get out of hand. Big parties can get disruptive, so as a host and a guest you should always be conscious of the rest of the room.” And to that end, says Carmellini…
That’s the number one rule for group dinners,” Carmellini says. “Bro- ﬁving is usually accompanied by grunts or roars. It’s just not something you should do in a restaurant. When the bro-ﬁves come out, usually things deteriorate soon after.” Noted.
Jordana Rothman is a New York City-based food writer and former editor of the Food & Drink section at Time Out New York. Find her complaining on Twitter @jordanarothman.