You need more than just a reservation.
Whether you and your seven closest friends are celebrating the fact that it's Taco Tuesday or you're meeting all your immediate relatives to honor your brother's birthday, dining out as a large party isn't as simple as simply making a reservation.
Here, according to restaurant insiders, are the dos and don'ts of gathering a group at any eating establishment, from when to make a reservation to how to stay on your server's good side. (Because we all know a happy server makes for a happy table.)
DO: Call ahead—far ahead. As soon as your large-party outing is scheduled, call the restaurant and ask for a reservation. Depending on how many diners you'll be, you may need to call far in advance—as far as three weeks ahead for anywhere popular. Then, let the restaurant "know upfront if you're looking for a particular seating arrangement to see if that's something it can accommodate," says Jennifer Wooddy, event sales coordinator for OMG Hospitality Group in San Diego. "For example, some restaurants aren't able to seat a group of 20 at one long table and may need to split your group into smaller tables right by each other. And if that is be a deal breaker, it's better to know when you're making the reservation."
During this call, you should also mention whether your group is celebrating a special occasion, such as a birthday or anniversary, or if anyone has special needs—which could be anything from wheelchair access to a gluten or peanut allergy.
DO: Keep the restaurant updated. You made a reservation for eight, but now you know 10 people are coming. Don't assume the restaurant can add two seats to the table—because sometimes two seats are two seats too many for their dining room's capacity. Whether you're adding guests or you have a last-minute couple drop out, call the restaurant to let the hostess know your number has changed. "That is a huge help for the hostess, because if she knows your exact number, she can accommodate other tables that evening," says Jacqueline Pirolo, director of operations at Macchialina in Miami Beach. "It also helps as we always try to have your table ready and set upon your arrival—and knowing your exact number means we can avoid rearrange furniture or unsetting tabletops while you wait, unseated."
DON'T: All show up at different times. Gathering a gaggle of friends, family members, or even coworkers isn't always easy, we know. But, believe it or not, the one person who doesn't show up at exactly 7 pm can "have a significant impact on the flow of a restaurant," says Rachel Titcomb, general manager of Loco Taqueria & Oyster Bar in Boston. As she explains, "on busy nights it becomes tough for a staff to predict wait times and anticipate large orders when a party is partially sat."
If you must lie to your habitually late friend to get him or there on time, then do it—after all, it's what restaurant insiders do. "When I plan group dinners at restaurants, I am not always truthful with my guests about what time our reservation is," admits Pirolo. Instead, "I tell them our reservation is 20 minutes earlier than the actual time because I know my friends often run late." And don't feel bad for your on-time guests. "If you have a few people arrive early, you can usually grab a beverage at the bar," Pirolo suggests.
DO: Appoint a point-person. Ask the people-person in your group to take the lead at your next group lunch—or assume the duty yourself. Why? Because taking charge at the table can ensure a smoother dining experience when more than a few people are seated, explains Titcomb. "Having a ring leader at the table—one who can keep things moving, call out other members of the group by name, and be the point-of-contact for the server—really helps with communication," Titcomb says.
DO: Order at the same time. Nothing will annoy—or exhaust—your server more quickly than if you run him or her to the kitchen 17 times to get someone at your table a refill on water one at a time. "Be ready to order at the same time—your food, your refills, your requests," advises Johan Engman, founder and owner of Rise & Shine Restaurant Group. (This is another time a table point-person can help too.)
DON'T: Take all of your server's time. The more people seated at your table, the more attention your table will need. But that doesn't mean every minute of your server's shift can be dedicated to your party; he or she still has other tables. "Large parties often want servers to take pictures," points out Engman, "which is always fine—if you are mindful of the server's time. If there are six cameras and everyone wants a picture, have all your cameras ready to go." Don't scramble to turn them on or set them to a certain portrait mode—your server doesn't really have time to wait.
DO: Be patient. "While most restaurants work as a team, it can still take a longer to get items when in a large group," says Wooddy. That's sometimes because food from a large table is split over two or more kitchen tickets, which can lead to a delay that means you're able to cut into your filet mignon before the guest beside you even has his dinner plate. Or your server may simply not be able to balance every cocktail on a single tray and—with other servers are unavailable to lend her a hand—you may have to wait for her second trip from the bar to raise all your glasses. "A little understanding when takes a few minutes extra for all of your [drinks and] dishes to come out of the kitchen is much appreciated," says Engman.
DON'T: Request separate checks. "Please, please, please do not ask for separate checks," begs Engman. While splitting a check in half may not be a big deal, dividing it 12 ways—in 12 totally different amounts—could cause your server frustration.
If you must divvy up the bill amongst all or most of your guests, "tell your server at the beginning of the meal, and let him or her know who will be paying together," Wooddy advises. "This way, he or she can keep track of exactly who is having what and make the process of splitting checks much easier—and faster—for everyone."
And once you're seated, stay that way. No, we're not talking about denying yourself a necessary bathroom break. But playing musical chairs at your table could confuse your server and all those separate checks could end up in front of the wrong people. "Many restaurants use seat numbers, so moving around and ordering from all over the table can make separating checks a headache for your server," Wooddy explains.