Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Dinner For Eight

Restaurant meals with more than 4 people can be problematic.

A reader writes, in response to my previous posting, that he dreads going out to large group dinners. And it's something that I wholeheartedly agree with.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy going out for meal with another couple - maybe as many as six people in a group.  But beyond that, it just becomes cumbersome and difficult.  Of course, it is even better to have dinner at someone's house or have someone over for dinner at your house then to eat out in a restaurant.  Not only is it a lot more intimate and fun, it is a lot less expensive.

But here on retirement island, we have a number of friends who say things like "let's all go out for dinner together!" - wanting to get together a group as many as 8 or 10 or even 12 people to eat at a restaurant.  The problem with this is multi-fold.  First of all, when you come into the restaurant and ask for a table for 10, the waitress is going to give you the evil eye, and for good reason.

Look around any restaurant the next time you go on into one.  There are tables for two - the so-called "two-top" - as well as a number of four-tops and maybe even a six-top.   But there are not very many 8, 10 or 12 seat tables in most restaurants.  Moreover, most restaurants don't really like to see large parties for a number of reasons.  And there was a reason why they usually tack on a mandatory gratuity of 18% or more for parties of 6 or more.

Simply stated, from the restaurant's point of view, as well as that of the server, big tables are a big pain in the ass.   It's very hard to cook a large number of entrees and have them all come out at once - and have them all come out well.  If you're cooking for a party of 2 or 4 or even 6, this isn't too difficult.  But with much larger tables, it's very hard to make each entree come out so it is served at the perfect temperature and perfect doneness for each person in the party.  And oftentimes, one set of entrees comes out at one time, and another set ten minutes later.  As a result, either half the party has to start eating, or face dishes of cold food.

And large tables are often at disruption to the restaurant.  The servers have to scramble to assemble smaller tables into one larger one.  And if the party doesn't show, they've tied up an awful lot of their tables which could have been given to other diners - which is why a lot of restaurants refuse to seat people until the entire party has arrived, particularly large parties.  Not only that, but large parties tend to be loud and boisterous which is often disturbing to the other patrons.

But aside from the difficulties the restaurateur has, dining in large parties is often not very fun for the diner either.  In a large group, you can hope to maybe talk with the person on either side of you or perhaps somebody across the table.  But it is impossible to carry on a conversation with everybody else at the table, particularly in a noisy restaurant.  Thus, instead of being a party of 8, 10, or 12, you're really just a group of two or four tops dining together at adjoining tables.  Why bother?

I've been to some of these nightmares and it is very interesting.  Even though I am dining with people for an hour or two, if they are at the other end of the table I never get a chance to have more than a word or two with them.  It is almost as if we were not dining together at all, in fact we were not.  And if that is the case, then why bother going out to eat together in an unwieldy group?

This is less of a problem when dining at home, as it is quieter and is possible to have conversations across the table or down the table.  But in the noisy restaurant, you have to shout to hear yourself heard, which is probably one reason why large groups are often so loud and noisy.

And there is the issue of the check. As I noted before, restaurants routinely add on an 18% gratuity for large groups, apparently because some groups don't tip very well.  How to divide up the check becomes problematic.  Some people insist on separate checks, which some waitresses are very adept at handling.  Here in the South, asking for separate checks is quite common, but in other areas of the country, it is not only uncommon, but restaurants will refuse to do it.

When I worked at my first law firm, I used to go out to lunch with a number of other associates, which was a really bad idea career-wise.  We would spend an hour and a half at some Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, and come back to work bloated with food and sleepy.  However we always brought along one of the associates whose name was Bruce, as he could mentally divide a check in his head, accounting for what each person at the table ate, and how much it cost.  He had a genius knack for this, that made it worthwhile to take him along on these outings of 8 to 10 people.

But like I said that was a bad idea from a career perspective.  Partners seeing you come back to the office late from lunch are not very impressed with your work attitude.  And usually the conversation at such luncheons turns to how awful work is and what a rotten place the law firm is - things that are not necessarily good for your psyche.   But I digress.

Worse than these group dinner outings, here on retirement island we have a number of supper club type organizations which get together on a monthly basis to have group dinners.  These are taking the group dinner nightmare to the next level.  Rather than just a group of 10 or 12 people, they get together with five or six tables of 10 to 12 people each.

One of the supper clubs actually expects members to invite as many as 10 people to a table and pay for their dinner, which is a rather expensive proposition.  I'm sure it started out as an interesting social experiment, but it is sort of kept going with a life of its own.

And unlike a cocktail party, these dinner meetings are not necessarily a means of socialization and mingling.  At a cocktail party you can walk around and talk to different people and introduce yourself and have brief conversations with a number of folks.  At a sit-down dinner party, you can only talk to the person on either side of you, particularly at a circular table of 12.

And rather than mix up people so that each attendee sits next to somebody they haven't met before - something a good hostess knows to do - they instead tend to stay within their particular groupings so that each person at a table already knows everybody else at the table.  As a result, newcomers are often shunted off to the "newcomers table" which is akin to the rickety card table that children are forced to sit at at Thanksgiving.

I recounted in earlier posting how we were invited to a party on nearby rich people's island. The hostess made an attempt to mix up the table seating as there were probably 30 people in attendance - far too many for a reasonable dinner party.  Nevertheless, she tried to make it fun and came up with table ornaments and name cards using a beach theme.  She intentionally mixed up the seating arrangements so that each person would be seated next to at least one person they had not met before and thus generate conversation and socialization.

Unfortunately a boorish group came in and saw the table settings and swept them all aside and said "we're all going to sit here" and just disrupted the hostesses plan.  This is an astonishing breach of etiquette on their part.  As a result, everybody ended up grouping into the same cliques that they were in before the party and no one really interacted with anybody else other than their existing friends.

We ended up sitting in a table in the kitchen with some friends we had come with, and decided quickly to leave.  There was really no point in going to a party where you don't meet anybody other than the people you already know.

Some friends of mine were invited to one of these supper clubs here on the island.  They reported that they when they went there, all of the tables were filled and they didn't have a chance to meet anyone else at the dinner.  Then end up sitting at a half-filled table with a number of other newcomers.  The people who had invited them did not even sit with them.

A friend of mine tried to invite us to one of these supper club nightmares but we politely declined. When she asked me why I didn't want to go, I replied "I already lived through high school once, I don't need to go through that again."

I think perhaps that some people believe in the old adage, "the more the merrier," and feel uncomfortable in small groups, as small groups are very intimate and in-your-face.  When you're sitting down in a group of two or three or four people, it is a much more intimate experience than being in a table of 6, 8, 10, or 12.  And many people are uncomfortable with intimacy.

In fact, I guess most people prefer to be superficial.  They want to put on a "face" to society - an image of who they believe themselves to be.  People do not like to discuss the more intimate aspects and details of their lives with others.  And I guess this ties into this obsession people have today with so-called privacy - this idea that they have this private life that is so, so top-secret, while at the same time spilling their guts out on Facebook.

So they prefer the group gathering to the intimate dinner, because it is less threatening to them.  In these group dinners, the conversation is superficial and there's a lot of guffawing and laughing going on, but not a lot of serious or deep conversation, the latter of which makes most people uncomfortable.  Again, the large group in the restaurant tends to be the loudest, and not merely because of their numbers.

Smaller groups are more interesting, I think, because people tend to say more interesting things.  It is hard to be glib and superficial when you are sitting face-to-face with another person in a more quieter environment.  More interesting and profound things get said.

I guess, in a way, this is why some people like to go to noisy and crowded bars - something I never really understood.  When I was younger, I used to go out with my friends to the bars and discos but was never really happy going there.  My friends all wanted to go and they said it was a lot of fun, and I guess I went along with the crowd because everyone said this is what you're supposed to do.

But at the end of the night, I find myself an awful lot poorer having paid for a cover charge and expensive watered-down drinks.  And of course I'd be half deaf with my ears ringing from the loud music and even louder conversation.  People had to nearly scream at each other to be heard over the sound of the music in the crowd.  And of course, back then, they allowed smoking in bars, so basically had to set fire to your clothes when you got home because they stank so badly of cigarettes. Going clubbing - what's not to like?

This is not to say I always had a bad time. I remember we went to see the Squirrel Nut Zippers at Club 9:30 in Washington DC back in the late 1990's, and it was an awful lot of fun with a group of friends.  Back then they have a cigar bar in a martini bar and we had a great seat on the balcony overlooking the stage. Of course, they weren't really a overly loud band and the crowd was pretty laid-back.

We were turned with a different group of friends a few months later to see a Hootie and the Blowfish (remember them?), and the audience was mostly middle-aged drunken white people.  It was not nearly as enjoyable experience as the place was packed shoulder-to-shoulder and the music was deafeningly loud.  The contrast between the two experiences was interesting.

Maybe this is another aspect of the madness of crowds.  That group-think is really not thinking at all, but merely cheerleading for each other.  And that can be fun perhaps once in a while.  But I think overall I prefer more contemplative and intimate experiences.