There is a German restaurant in Springfield, Massachusetts called The Student Prince & The Fort. For forty years, my grandfather must have eaten a meal there three or four times a week. I didn't even realize it had a front entrance and host stand until I was in my teens, because I'd only ever walked in through the back door past the waiter lockers to take our seats at the long back table to the right of the bar.
Though I've likely had 300 meals there, hands down the best was while I was in college, when I attended my grandfather's holiday dinner party. There were maybe 8 to 12 of us, and each person was expected, at some point, to get up and give a toast. It could be in any form -- I heard people sing and tell limericks -- but you had to reference at least three other people at the dinner in said toast. That was the only rule.
What progressed over the course of that night was magical. The range of ages at the dinner varied widely -- my grandfather always had random friends -- so though I was the youngest, there were some folks in their 30s all the way through 80s, and every single person came to play. Over German beers and platters of schnitzel, brats, and fried cheese with spicy honey mustard, they were hilarious, and teasing, and mean, and poignant, and very competitive. It was clear you didn't want to give the worst speech. That, I realized halfway through with horror, was about to be my job. Determined to change that, I locked myself into a bathroom stall for an awkwardly long time and penned a brief toast, with an opening salvo I still remember to this day:
"Grandpa thank you for inviting me here, to hang with your friends in this place. I haven't seen this many people so happy and cheerful since you lost the mayoral race."
The explosion of cheers and laughs (my grandfather really did lose the Springfield mayoral race, though it was well before my time) and the surprise and delight on my grandfather's face that I, an 18-year-old silly person of relative little use up to that point in my life, actually came to play still fills me up. But more to the point, it has made me appreciate the art of throwing a damn good restaurant holiday party.