How to Plan a Birthday Banquet

'Banquet of the Gods,' by Frans Floris
'Banquet of the Gods,' by Frans Floris

Rona D. asks: I'm often asked to plan large birthday banquets for friends, since I'm known as something of a party person. Unfortunately, many of these turn out badly when it comes to splitting the check at the end of the meal, and someone often feels put-upon. Do you have any advice to give me?

Dear Rona: Yes, I do. The objective of a birthday party dinner is a fun and worry-free time for all guests, and this may be achieved only if you follow certain rules in planning birthday banquets. I'm assuming we're talking about gatherings of 10 or more, but many of the rules apply to smaller groups as well.

1. Especially for larger parties, it's better to do the ordering in advance for the entire group. If everyone studies the menu, asks multiple questions, and orders different dishes with all sorts of special requests, many restaurants are simply incapable of handling all the details. Food quality will suffer, nobody will get their food at the same time, the meal often stretches to an unpleasant length, and anarchy reigns.

2. Choose a cuisine in which everyone shares food communally. This usually means some sort of Asian cuisine -- be it Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, or Indian. Not only does this establish a logic for splitting the check evenly -- which can be done immediately with the calculator on your phone, minimizing the drag of a complex financial transaction at the end of a party -- but it also creates conviviality among the guests.

3. If the birthday person prefers non-Asian food, pick an appropriate venue and call in advance to arrange a family-style meal. Assuming they have the capacity to serve a group of your size, most restaurants will make this easy for you.

4. Don't allow peevish individuals or those with dietary preferences to "break off from the herd" and order their own individual portions, except in extreme cases. Vegetarians, for example, should always be fully accommodated, which means ordering one-third or more vegetarian dishes. Remember: The carnivores can eat everything, while the vegetarians are restricted to only those dishes so designated.

5. As a corollary to No. 4, always ask the guests when they're invited if they have dietary restrictions or preferences and plan accordingly. You'll find that nearly everyone does. Common ones are no pork, fish but no meat, and no carbs. When you ask them your preferences, let them know they will be getting a meal served family-style with lots of choices, and that everyone will be splitting the check at the end of the meal.


6. Also ask the guests to bring cash sufficient to cover the estimated final cost of the meal. There's nothing worse than making a waiter juggle a half-dozen credit cards along with a pile of cash. Sometimes, if you offer to pay for a banquet in cash beforehand, you can negotiate a discount. (You can figure out for yourself why many places prefer cash.)

7. One of the biggest problems at a banquet is alcohol. Some guests don't drink at all, while others expect to consume huge amounts of it. When the bill is split, the teetotalers get stuck with paying for more than they have consumed, and I've actually seen misanthropic drinkers order an extra cocktail or two, knowing that the other guests will get stuck paying for it. The solution is to ask that all alcohol be put on a separate tab, and let the drinkers sort it out for themselves.

8. If you intend to bring a birthday cake, let the restaurant know about it ahead of time. This can forestall an unpleasant scene at the end of the meal, and the restaurant will tell you if they intend to charge a cake-plating fee.

9. When you send out the invites, ask the guests to arrive at a precise time, and then start the banquet 15 minutes later. While you may want everyone to arrive and start eating at the same time, this virtually never happens, and you will find guests arriving as late as the dessert course, whatever pleas you've made for prompt arrival. Chalk it up to our flexi-time age.

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