Food & Drink

How to Throw a Dinner Party at a Restaurant

dinner party at restaurant
Lily Padula/Thrillist

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.

"Creating a certain fun atmosphere is up to you, the host."

Because I am personally invested in your party needs and just told you a personal anecdote, I will guide you on a quick joy ride through the intricacies of throwing a good holiday party at a restaurant. 

Pick a Restaurant With the Right Atmosphere

The first factor to consider, of course, is the restaurant itself. Normally, as a person whose job involves finding and evaluating glorious new restaurants, I would point your compass towards a hip spot serving Detroit-style pizza and natural wines. But holiday parties are not about the future. They are about nostalgia, ballyhoo, and fond remembrances surrounding a fictional bearded gentleman who evaluates children's moral fiber under ambiguous guidelines. I strongly recommend places in your city that have a little bit of history and the atmosphere to suit it.

You want the food to be good enough, and the drinks to be strong enough, but neither need be the focus as long as the place evokes a feeling. Make sure it has sufficient nooks and/or private areas to accommodate the various needs of your group. If there’s a wheelchair-user in your group, make sure there are accessible entryways from door to table, and no evil stairs lurking along the way. The most cost-effective version of this is to find a restaurant that has different areas that don't require private booking costs, and to ask specifically for those tables. Do some scouting. Go sit at the bar at a place and walk around the restaurant a bit. When you find a table that might fit the bill, ask a server what table number it is, and scrawl said number on your hand for future use when you call the restaurant.

There Is a Correct Guest List Size

As for party size, I believe the ideal size for a restaurant holiday dinner party is 8 to 12. All other numbers are incorrect. The general rule is that if you have more than six people, you can't have one conversation and the talk will break into two or three conversations, which can cause ConvoFOMO, especially if everyone else is talking about what the popular kids from their high school are currently doing while you're in the "lessons the Dems could learn from Brexit" discussion. Plus keeping it to no more than double six allows a semblance of control and intimacy, and makes people feel like they are part of a special event, rather than third-tier Paperless Post invitation recipients. 

Keep the Menu Simple

Now for a word on the food. This is something you need to control. With a smaller group, there is a tendency towards the idea of granting people the autonomy to make their own decisions, but that is dumb. People actually don't want to make their own decisions at a holiday dinner party. They want you to figure out the best three or four things on the menu, order them family-style (ideally), and do the same with appetizers -- all ahead of time. Just like the restaurant itself, this isn't the time to get experimental and show off the fact that you have read long magazine stories about the changing whims of Nordic cooking. Think of the food ordering version of one of those bands from the '90s back out on a nostalgia tour: Just play the goddamn hits and take the applause, okay Food Liz Phair?!?

Naturally, you’ll want to find out if anyone has food allergies or restrictions and arrange options for them because that’s what a gracious host does.

But Make It Fun

My final piece of advice surrounds the tenor of the entire restaurant holiday experience. Like my grandfather's rules around toasting, creating a certain fun atmosphere is in many ways up to you, the host. So figure out what makes sense for your group. It doesn't need to be some sort of Toast Masters competitive series. Maybe you ask that everyone bring an awkward picture of themselves from holidays past, and tell a brief story around it. Or maybe you just get up at some point and speak a few well thought out (Pre-rehearsed! Don't wing it after a few drinks! You will be bad!) lines about the folks there, and what they and this whole experience means to you.

The point here, more than anything else, is that you show some effort. People appreciate when you give a shit. And giving a shit about your own excellent holiday dinner party seems like a relatively easy lift. Just remember: if halfway through, you realize you're about to be the worst speaker at the party, head to your nearest bathroom stall.

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End is out now from Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.