21 February 2010

Do's & Don't's for Dining Out

Dining out is often overlooked as a good alternative for entertaining.  Hosting a gathering of friends or business colleagues at a restaurant should be much easier - no DISHES...no cooking...no CLEANUP!

But for many this option is still a little intimidating.  The situation just isn't as simple as making a reservation!  Selecting wine, finding the right location, deciding how or simply what to order - all in front of guests - often seems risky and too challenging.

Fear not! These few simple suggestions just might change your mind enough to host your next dinner party out on the town.
  • Start with Your Budget ~ understand what you want to spend or can afford first.  Subtract out local sales tax and up to 20% tip (many restaurants will add this if you have a group, so it's best to plan for it at the start).  Divide the result by how many guests you are hosting - this is approximately how much you have per person to spend, including wine and/or cocktails.  This is a useful reference as you start targeting restaurant locations.
  • Picking a Location ~ Consider the group you are hosting - are they business colleagues you don't know very well? are they close friends?  is the occasion festive or are you impressing the boss or an important client?  The ambiance is critical - too noisy won't allow the business discussion to happen. Too uppity and your gregarious group of college friends may annoy those around you.  Zagat offers an excellent web resource for major metro areas - start by selecting the type of cuisine, or the neighborhood, or any of almost 50 other "features"...then you can tailor by your cost, food, decor or service ratings.  We also like OpenTable not only for making reservations and confirming availability, but also for the user-supported ratings and comments.  Savvy Bonus - you accumulate points for each reservation you make online (the service is free), which can lead to a $25 or greater gift certificate to use at your favorite restaurant. 
  • Reservations & Details ~ when you make the reservation, it's helpful to let the maitre d' or hostess know that you need a quieter table, or that you are celebrating a special occasion.  Take the time to ask about parking arrangements as well, so that you can share this with your guests.
  • Seating ~ just as important as when you entertain at home.  Think ahead about how you are going to seat your guests (yes - there should be a method to your madness - try "Dinner Party Seating Strategies" posted at Real Simple, for some ideas ) and guide them when you get to the restaurant table.  In terms of seating arrangements, we tend to like a round table if we're a group of 6 to 8.  And for 12 or more, we would suggest inquiring about a private room (many restaurants have special spaces they use for parties of this size...often there's no additional fee).  Check these details out when you make your reservation.
  • Cocktails & Bar Bills ~ if your guests arrive early, they will likely head to the bar to wait, unless you have other specific arrangements made.  As the host, don't worry about picking up the tab for cocktails - it is perfectly acceptable to leave your guests to their own devices.  Alternatively, you can ask for the bar tab to be transferred to your table (be sure to tip the bartender however!) or you can settle up directly at the bar when your table is ready.  Once at the table, you can steer the group towards wine, if that's your preference, or if there are a few latecomers, certainly offer a cocktail to the group while looking at the menu.  This is your choice - so feel free to consider & exercise your options.
  • What & How to Order..As the host, you have full control about how the meal plays out.  You could arrange to order in advance (if the restaurant allows which most do) the entire meal as a fixed menu.  In advance or at the table, you can order "appetizers for the table".  This also works very well for dessert by the way.  Take advantage of most restaurants posting their menus online to get some creative ideas and to pull your plan together.  If you have a group of 10 or more, it helps the restaurant, and your enjoyment, to move towards more of a fixed menu.  This is also an important option to consider if you're working with a tight budget and don't want any last-minute bill surprises.  Whatever your plan, gracious guests will follow your lead...
  • Wine Choices ~ fear strikes the heart of many savvy hosts when looking at a restaurant's wine list.  The cost - the unfamiliar choices - pairing & matching - challenging choices at best. First, be prepared to get over the sticker shock for any of your favorites wines.  Restaurants are in business to make money, and markups are a normal practice - definitely NOT worth arguing with the waitstaff (yes, we've seen this happen too many times to count).  So what can you do? If you prefer, many restaurants will allow you to bring in a special wine for a corkage fee ($15-$25).  Or, you can review the wine list in advance and have a few selections in mind.  For planning purposes, assume each guest will have at least 2 glasses of wine, and that there should be a good 4-5 glasses per bottle (depending on how the waitstaff pours).  The sommelier or wine steward can work with you to identify wines in your price range, and to pair with your meal.  If you pre-select your menu, these decisions can be made in advance.  At table, simply point out to the wine steward to the types of wines you like on the list, both in terms of value and taste, and ask for some recommendations in line with those selections.
  • Check please! ~  call us old-fashioned, but we prefer taking the money matters off the table.  Consider arranging with the maitre d' or waitstaff to have your check presented anywhere else but at the table. Towards the end of the meal, step away briefly to the bar or host desk to review and make payment arrangements.  You can carefully review the charges, question any items, and close out this part of the evening away from the guests as they finish their coffee.  A few reminders - double check if service has been included by the restaurant, consider a special tip for the wine steward if he/she was uniquely helpful, and don't underestimate the value of great service!
  • Managing the Mishaps ~ no matter what planning goes into your evening out, know that the evening can always wander slightly or greatly off course.  Often your guests will be completely unaware that anything is out of place.  So, should the service seem very slow - should the food not be as expected - should there be any problem whatsoever,  step away from the table to handle it and avoid calling attention to anything in front of your guests.  Take the matter up with the manager if necessary, but do so discreetly.  You have already invested in creating a special evening for your guests - enlist the restaurant's help in whatever special attention is needed to get back on track.
We hope these ideas encourage you to take a chance at entertaining out for your next gathering...please share your experiences or other helpful hints! 

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