The Fine Art of Dining Out in a Large Group

Sure, restaurants want your business, but you have to plan ahead, make it easy on the staff, and not make one gigantic mistake.

A group dines out together
Photo: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

There are two kinds of people in this world: the kind who look forward to and enjoy going to a restaurant as part of a large group and those who want to shrivel up and die at the very thought of it. As someone who has been on the other side of the menu for far longer than the average server, I am decidedly part of the latter group. Asking for separate checks makes me think the server will hate me, but trying to divvy up the check fifteen ways makes me hate myself. I never want to be a burden to my server or the restaurant, but that's just my PTSD from being a waiter for so long.

Let the restaurant know you are coming with a large group.

If you're going out with a lot of people, have a plan beforehand. The bare minimum is to make a reservation before you go because not every restaurant can handle a walk-in party of 15 people. Showing up unannounced is a good way to annoy the staff and no customer needs an extra reason to be annoying. If you didn't make a reservation, don't just rearrange the dining room to accommodate your large party. Restaurants are divided into carefully decided sections so that each server has the precise amount of seating available in order to give the best service. In order to seat 15 people, the tables need to be maneuvered as skillfully as the cubes in a game of Tetris. Moving a table from one server to another can send the whole seating rotation of the restaurant down a dark, slimy path. Besides, you do not want to be responsible for the wrath of a veteran waitress who thinks she's being short-changed during her shift. Leave the dragging of heavy tables and chairs to the professionals: a busser and the 16-year-old hostess.

You do not want to be responsible for the wrath of a veteran waitress who thinks she's being short-changed during her shift.

Think ahead about how you're going to pay.

Now that you have a table, don't wait until the end of the meal when the server sets the check down to start considering how this will play out. Handing the server a cornucopia of credit cards is not going to work out the way you want it to, because if you haven't thought about who's paying for what, you can be sure that the server hasn't either. Paying the check is the most anxiety-inducing part of going out with a large group so here are some options.

Make it easy on your server if you intend to split the check.

Ask for separate checks at the beginning of the meal. Most restaurants have the ability to do this, but be reasonable and if they say they can't do it, accept it. Their restaurant, their rules. If you are able to procure as many different checks as your heart desires, help out the server. After you order, pretend there's Gorilla Glue on your seat and don't trade places with anyone no matter how badly you want to. This isn't a game of musical chairs and your server doesn't see you as a person, they see you as a seat number. Sit next to the people you are sharing a check with. Telling your server that Jack is also on your check doesn't help your server because your server doesn't know Jack. You can point at Jack at the other end of the table, but your server might think you're pointing at Diane and maybe she wants to pay for her own chili dog.

If separate checks is not an option and everything's going onto one, big, fat glorious, check, at least know your server is not miserable anymore. And also know you have some choices on how to proceed.

Pick who in your party will do the check math.

Designate someone to handle the check. Maybe there's someone in your party who worships at the altar of Isaac Newton and Pythagoras who can take charge of the bill. If that rarity exists in your group, let them slap on a green visor, pull out their adding machine and get to work. That mathematical statistician asks each and every person what they ordered and then totals it up on a spreadsheet, graph paper or bev nap to tell everyone what they owe. It's the only way to make sure it's fair. When people throw cash into a pile saying "That ought to cover mine," it never covers it. Someone always ends up putting in extra money to make up for their cheap friends. Make sure you add 8.875% for tax, plus another 20% for gratuity. Yes, it's math, but it's easy as Pi.

Someone always ends up putting in extra money to make up for their cheap friends.

Limit the number of credit cards.

Let one person pay the bill and then everyone pays them back. Once your resident mathematician has told you how much you owe, you can then pay your portion via Venmo, cash, or trinkets and beads. Giving the server 15 credit cards with different amounts for each one is a recipe for disaster and that's not a recipe any restaurant wants in their wheelhouse. It makes it extremely difficult for the server to keep things straight and even more challenging is finding 15 different credit card holders and pens for everyone to use. Even if the server has a device that swipes credit cards right at the table, it's too many. Some restaurants have a policy that limits the number of credit cards that can be used on one check. Again, they get to make the rules.

The absolute worst thing a large group can do when going to a restaurant is...

Don't automatically split the bill evenly with everyone.

If we can learn anything from Season 2 Episode 5 of the beloved sitcom Friends other than Chandler having three nipples, let it be this. Splitting the bill six ways when one person has a side salad and a glass of water while someone else has a ribeye and a glass of wine is not okay. Splitting it evenly only works if everyone is eating the exact same thing. In that situation, the side-salad-eater gets the short end of the steak. If they speak up about it, they look cheap. If they don't say anything and pay more than their fair share, they will resent your ribeye for all of eternity.

Leave the confetti at home. (No, seriously.)

Going out to eat with a group of people should be fun, not stressful. Or at least that's what my husband and friends keep telling me. I'm trying to get better about it, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that I don't do the one thing that is the absolute worst thing a large group can do when going to a restaurant. I don't take confetti. Whether it's a birthday, a wedding, a retirement, or a celebration of opening night for your community theater production of Into the Woods, don't take confetti. Ever.

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