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Secrets to a Successful Group Restaurant Experience

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Photo by Rachael White

As wonderful as entertaining at home can be, sometimes going out to a restaurant is just more appealing, especially with a large group. Among the upsides: professionally prepared dishes cooked to order, and hours saved washing dishes, shopping, cooking and cleaning. But pleasing a big group can be challenging. What kind of restaurant should you chose? How will the bill be paid? Will everyone like the menu selection? What if there aren’t any options for the vegetarian in the group? Inevitably, the bigger the group, the more logistical challenges you may encounter—like the awkward post-dinner moment when the check comes out and you have to do the math. 

Group dining at a restaurant requires a bit of work and planning—certainly more than an impromptu dinner with your neighbors or your best friends from way back when. But done right, there’s nothing better than having fun and enjoying a meal with people you care about. For events that are planned and purposeful, here are some easy tips that will help make your next group restaurant experience a successful one.

Decide on the Details First

Before you choose the restaurant, plan the rest of the details—it’ll help you narrow down your restaurant choices. Decide how many people you want to invite and how much you are willing to spend. Depending on the size of the group and the nature of the occasion, you may wish to cover all or part of the cost yourself. If that’s the case, make your decision clear when you invite your guests so they know roughly how much money they’ll be responsible for shelling out.

As the host, you’ve got many options for enhancing the dining experience for your guests and/or shouldering an extra portion of the cost. You could, for example, bring a couple bottles of wine for the dinner and cover the corkage rather then footing the entire bill yourself. Or you could cover the cost of the gratuity (more on that below) so your guests don’t need to. Whatever you decide, set a limit for yourself so you know exactly how much you are willing to spend on the event.

Chose the Restaurant Wisely

Choosing the restaurant for a successful group dining experience usually involves more than simply going to your favorite neighborhood café. Here are a few considerations to weigh in order to ensure your guests will be comfortable.

Accessibility. Choose a restaurant that is easily accessible for your guests. Is there ample parking? Are the directions easy to follow?

Ambience. If you haven’t been to the restaurant already, take a few minutes to check out the space. Is the lighting welcoming? Does the restaurant have adequate space for accommodating your party?

Noise Level. No matter where you’re entertaining, it’s important to create an atmosphere that allows guests to converse comfortably. If the group would need to be seated near an open kitchen, for example, you may want to rethink the restaurant choice. Yelling over the din of clanging pots and pans isn’t ideal. Is it too noisy to foster good conversation?

Seating. For large parties, it’s smart to ask about the types of table that are available. Large round tables tend to work best for allowing the entire group to converse, but the space may be limited to a small number of guests. If that’s the case, ask whether it would be possible to rearrange the tables to seat your party more comfortably.

Find a Point of Contact

Once you’ve decided on the restaurant, speak with a reliable member of the restaurant staff, such as a head host or restaurant manager, who can help you work out details involving the menu, reservation time and number of servers required for your party. Confirm your contact’s information so you can connect easily if you have other questions before the event. Coordinating with a single point of contact is always easier than juggling multiple conversations and having to keep track of who’s responsible for what. A few considerations to keep in mind:

Special Requests. If you have guests with special dietary needs, communicate any special requests in advance to make sure the restaurant is able to accommodate them. There’s nothing worse than realizing at the last second that you need a special meal prepared for your guest, especially if the kitchen staff isn’t very flexible.

Reserve Your Table. Nail down a reservation time as soon as you can and specify which table(s) you prefer. This is easiest to do inside the restaurant rather than over the phone.

Additional Costs. If you’ll have a large number of guests, ask the restaurant manager to weigh in on an appropriate number of servers and whether that will impact the overall cost of the event.

Plan for Costs in Advance

With a large party, it’s possible that you’ll need to pay a deposit up front. If so, take care of this when you make the initial reservation so you don’t have to worry about it later. Also about any other additional fees the restaurant may include. This will vary depending on the number of guests and you may not need to pay anything on top of the final bill at the end of the evening.

Finally, remember that a built-in gratuity usually protects the server(s) from being stiffed on a large bill. However, for excellent service, it is always appropriate to pad the tip, since included gratuity is often less than 20 percent. As the host, you should know beforehand whether gratuity will be included in the total or whether it needs to be added at the end so that all guests are aware and pay appropriately.

Make the Rounds

Even if you’re hosting an event outside your home, the basic rules of hosting still apply. For example, you should take every opportunity to speak with each of your guests throughout the evening. Make sure everyone feels included and comfortable—and don’t forget to enjoy yourself!

If one of your guests is unhappy, remember that you are the restaurant staff’s main point of contact. Take charge but remain pleasant when explaining the situation and asking for help in resolving the problem. Do your best to help and avoid unpleasant encounters, which can turn off the servers and your guests and ruin the fun. Roll with the punches and let the restaurant do what they do best.

Entertaining at home is a lot of fun, but even veteran hosts and hostesses sometimes need a break from the stress and all-consuming work that goes into hosting. Restaurant dining can be the perfect solution for group entertaining if you remember these simple secrets.

Editor’s Note: Have you ever hosted a large group at a restaurant? What are your no-fail hosting secrets?

Rachael White is the author of the blogs Set the Table and Tokyo Terrace. After four years of living, eating, and entertaining in Tokyo, Japan, she and her family have relocated to Denver, Colorado. Rachael is constantly searching for new ways to make entertaining easier and more interesting for guests in a variety of environments and situations. In addition to food blogging, her recipes have been published in cookbooks including Foodista Best of Food Blogs and Peko Peko: A Charity Cookbook for Japan and in Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Originally from Minnesota, Rachael strives to recreate recipes and settings that reflect Midwestern comfort with a modern twist.